The irony of this being the first Sunday in Lent after the week we have had is not lost on me. By now our parish should have received a letter from me explaining how I have accepted a call to a new position in Williamsburg, Virginia. The letter has been met with a variety of reactions, from surprise to disappointment, from understanding to hurt, from confusion to anger. But no matter what the initial reactions have been, the primary question from all has been, “What does that mean for St. Margaret’s now?” That question and the news of coming change alone would have been enough for the week. But then on Friday we lost one of the patriarchs of St. Margaret’s. Though any death is hard, as a founding member and a perpetual evangelist, Chet will be deeply missed. Given the week we have had, I cannot think of a better Sunday to talk about the wilderness.
In Luke’s gospel today, Jesus goes from the high of his baptism, where God proclaims Jesus’ identity as God’s son, out to the wilderness where he will be tempted for forty days by Satan. The people of God are no strangers to the wilderness. Before the people of Israel entered the land of promise in our Old Testament reading today, first they wandered for forty years in the wilderness. Those years typify what a wilderness experience is all about: confusion, fear, wariness, hunger, dissatisfaction, mourning, regret, anger, jealousy, and impatience. In the wilderness, the people of Israel wondered why they had ever left Egypt, even though Egypt had been a place of slavery. At least in Egypt they knew from where their next meal would come. In the wilderness, the people of Israel whined about everything – a lack of food, a lack of water, a lack of direction. They lost hope in God to provide for them so, in a moment of weakness, they had their priest construct a golden calf for them to worship. They behaved so badly that a whole generation did not get the chance to see the promised land. For Jesus, the wilderness is no different. The wilderness is marked by scarcity and temptation. Voices try to sway Jesus away from God. And when Jesus was at his weakest, Satan himself came to tempt Jesus to take matters into his own hands instead of trusting God to stand with Jesus.
Of course, St. Margaret’s is no stranger to wilderness times. Before we had parish status we went through several vicars, experiencing one transition after another. When the twenty-year tenure of our first rector ended, many wondered how we would survive. Clergy transitions can feel much like those wilderness moments for the Israelites. On the one hand, transitions are full of promise as we imagine what new life a different clergy person might breathe into our community. On the other hand, there are days when we glorify Egypt, when although our time in Egypt was not perfect and maybe had even become stale, at least we knew what to expect or had the stability of Father so-and-so. Likewise, we have been through many parish deaths. Each one hits us in a unique way, and each one makes us wonder what we will do without the person we have lost. Who will be our warden, our treasurer, our coordinator of ushers, or our major donor? How will we sing in the choir, laugh at coffee hour, or balance the budget without them?
That is the scary thing about the wilderness. The wilderness tempts us into thinking and doing all sorts of things. Although the three specific temptations of Jesus that Luke describes are certainly challenging, what is more unsettling is the underlying nature of temptation itself. As one scholar argues, “…temptation is not so often temptation toward something – usually portrayed as doing something you shouldn’t – but rather is usually the temptation away from something – namely, our relationship with God and the identity we receive in and through that relationship.”[i] What the wilderness has the chance to do is undermine our confidence in ourselves and in the community God made us to be. That is what Satan is trying to do to Jesus: erode Jesus’ confidence in his identity, in his security, and in his worthiness before God. Satan did the same thing to the people of Israel for forty years, and Satan will do the same thing to St. Margaret’s if we let him. Satan will try to erode our confidence that God is still acting and moving in this place and will continue to make this community a place of sacred encounter and experiences with God and God’s people.
As I was thinking about the wilderness of Lent, transition, and death, I kept coming back to the Holy Spirit. You see, when Jesus goes into the wilderness, he does not go alone. The text tells us that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness. The Spirit does not just drop Jesus off to fend for himself. “…the Spirit continues to abide with him, enabling him to grow stronger through this season.”[ii] Being filled with and accompanied by the Holy Spirit is the only way one gets through the wilderness.[iii] The Spirit stays with Jesus in the wilderness because being chosen and anointed for one’s mission is not enough. Jesus must be tested, being led to places of hunger and despair. Only then does he learn dependence on God, who graciously provides for all our needs in all of life’s seasons.[iv] The Holy Spirit enables Jesus to journey through the wilderness so that Jesus can learn that lesson about dependence upon the Lord our God. The Holy Spirit’s company allows Jesus to see the powerful presence and abundance of God in his deepest need.
Thinking about the Holy Spirit this week has shifted my energy. Instead of thinking about the wilderness with a sense of dread and familiarity, instead of bracing myself for impact, and instead of erecting soaring walls of protection to keep pain out, I found myself asking a different set of questions. Where have I experienced God’s faithfulness in the wilderness? How has my relationship with God been transformed? How strong are the temptations of returning to old ways – to ways of relying on myself?[v] Somehow, shifting the questions from where has God been absent in the wilderness to where has God or the Holy Spirit been present in the wilderness gave me a sense of hope. Instead of looking for the bad – the dreariness of Lent, the burden of transition, the grief of death – I found myself wanting to look for the good – the blessing of time set apart with God, the opportunity for new life and growth, the reminder of resurrection promised for us all.
I will not tell you that the next forty days or even forty weeks will be easy. In fact, I know that many of those days and weeks will be very hard. But having been through Lents, transitions, and deaths before, and having watched Jesus held up by the Spirit, I can tell you that we have all experienced God’s faithfulness in the wilderness. Though none of us likes the wilderness, the wilderness is a necessary part of our formation in Christ – like the necessity of wildfires to restore health and wholeness to ecosystems. Just like those fires can contribute to overall forest health, the wilderness can contribute to our overall spiritual health. In these next forty days, I invite you to not turn inward toward fear, protection, and isolation. I invite you to turn to one another for strength and companionship. I invite you to come to me as we all process what this change means for St. Margaret’s. But mostly, I invite you to remember the Holy Spirit who is keeping vigil with each one of us. The wilderness of Lent this year may be more palpable than in years past. But I invite you to hold on to the hope of God’s promise to be with you in the midst of the wilderness. Amen.
[i] David Lose, “Lent 1 C: Identity Theft,” February 9, 2016, as found at http://www.davidlose.net/2016/02/lent-1-c-identity-theft/ on February 11, 2016.
[ii] Jeffery L. Tribble, Sr., “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 44.
[iii] Karoline Lewis, “Filled With the Holy Spirit,” February 7, 2016 as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4291 on February 11, 2016.
[iv] Tribble, 44.
[v] Kimberly M. Van Driel, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 47.