This sermon was preached by me on August 20, 2012 at Not So Churchy.
…So when we find ourselves in wilderness times in our lives, starving, tired, alone, confused, perhaps our reading is letting us know today that they are really rich times where you have the opportunity to claim who you and whose you are. They are opportunities for you to take what is most challenging and transform it. They are opportunities for you to reflect on the core gifts you were given and then make choices based on those to systematically work your way out of the wilderness with a deeper foundation…
Matthew 4:1-11: Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,’ so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
There is one sermon in particular that I am not interested in preaching tonight about this text. For those of you who have spent too much time in church when you were a child you might have heard this sermon before. It goes something like this: We are all tempted by things. Choose what tempts you most. It could be chocolate or it could be beer or it could be having an affair with your neighbor. We are sinful, fallen people that continue to want to do bad things and we just need to be more like Jesus and say no to the temptations that God puts in our way. The good news? Jesus battles the temptations on our behalf, because he is human he feels temptation but because he is fully divine he resists them far better than we could. And in the end it is ok because he saved us and has battled temptation on our behalf. The take away here: imitate Jesus, he resisted temptation and you should to. But he can do it far better than you ever could. So. Work harder.
That is one way of looking at it, which doesn’t really do much for me to be perfectly honest.
In talking about this reading with a friend he asked me this question: why does the Spirit take Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted? I didn’t have the answer to the question—because it does seem a little cruel really. I can see why the Spirit might take Jesus to the wilderness, to the desert, to the place with no internet service or people or books to distract him. Because Jesus needed chill out time as much as we do. But with the sole purpose to be tempted? One might be able to say that this story was written in the order it was, right after we hear about Jesus’ life from the very beginning being a threat, right after Jesus was claimed as God’s child, God’s beloved, which was super radical at the time. It’s about to go down from the beginning and so the author might want to prove how powerful Jesus is by sending him to be tempted—and tempted by big things—food, power, kingdoms, and then successfully resist them.
But my friend had a realization that he gave me permission to share with you this evening, and it is this. He was at an AA 7th step meeting the other day. The 7th step is, in kind of old school language:
My Creator, I am now willing that you should have all of me, good and bad. I pray that you now remove from me every single defect of character which stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows.
Now I kind of struggle with the idea of character defects, because I do believe that all of were created good and that what we consider the best parts of us are also the most challenging. But this was written a few generations ago and so let’s run with it.
The person who was speaking about this step at his meeting talked about how in admitting his character defects, which for this person was patience, or lack thereof, every time he found himself in situations that annoyed him and challenged his patience, God might be giving him an opportunity to practice working on this issue he had. Because, you know, life isn’t always smooth sailing, not if you walk into the pizza joint and there are 7 people ahead of you and you just wish the cashier would go faster or in your most challenging and toughest character-forming days when you have no patience for the process that seems to have no point and no end.
But if you follow this train of thought, maybe the Spirit wasn’t being so cruel but was giving Jesus an opportunity to work on the things that challenge him—believing that food is all one needs, needing power, wanting the kingdoms of the world—so that he could be a more effective leader and healer and teacher.
These are pretty huge things that Jesus was tempted with in the wilderness. Pretty universal things that, while they sound huge called out like this make their way insidiously into our lives.
I think this is kind of a radical interpretation of the text. To think about Jesus just as challenged as I am by the temptation to believe that I don’t need anyone or anything else besides myself to survive. To think about Jesus who wants the guise of stability and richness just as much as I do—I kind of love it. And to think about this as simply an opportunity to practice. An opportunity to practice saying no to that which holds me back from making decisions based on trust and forgiveness and grace and love. Because the more we practice working with our “character defects,” or what challenges us most about ourselves, the easier they become in maintaining and the less they hold us back, the more we are able to live into our fullness.
I chose this text, or it chose me because I was interested in exploring those wilderness times. Partially because August is often the time when we just can’t wait for the heat to be over and it never ever seems like it is going to end. But we got lucky today and it already feels like fall is upon us. Regardless of the temperature outside there are always those times that don’t feel like they are ever going to end, no matter how many people tell you that it won’t be like this forever. We find Jesus in the wilderness, which is also where biblical characters have found themselves long before Jesus was even a glimmer in his mother’s eye.
The wilderness is a liminal place, it is a place, biblically speaking, where there is a bit of danger. One doesn’t know what is going to happen to them or how. One doesn’t know how long they are going to be there or how to get out. One is left alone to their own devices and here they find their greatest and deepest challenges.
And so when we are confronted with wilderness times in our lives we are really stripped to our core.
The wilderness is also a place where our identities are often defined. When we have nothing to distract us from the center of who we are which feels so exposed. And then that center is expressed by the choices we make in our wilderness times, our identity is defined as our choices reflect how God has knit us so beautifully together inside. And our identity can shift and change, we can try on new ways of being, ways that give life to ourselves and those we love.
And so going back to the text, what choices did Jesus make, who did he express he is? He resisted, probably against great odds, the opportunity for food when he was starving, the thought that just a bit of food would save him, the opportunity for power when a bit more of that could have come in very useful, and the opportunity of kingdoms when that would have been nice for a day or two but would have completely destroyed the point of his existence. He chose God over immediate ease and comfort. And by this I mean that he chose humility and justice and forgiveness and compassion.
So when we find ourselves in wilderness times in our lives, starving, tired, alone, confused, perhaps our reading is letting us know today that they are really rich times where you have the opportunity to claim who you and whose you are. They are opportunities for you to take what is most challenging and transform it. They are opportunities for you to reflect on the core gifts you were given and then make choices based on those to systematically work your way out of the wilderness with a deeper foundation.
I work with many LGTBQ people who are interested in becoming pastors. They are actually fighting to become pastors, many of them, and their idea of being one is far from traditional, Not So Churchy even I would say. Many have been in a holding pattern for a long time, waiting for things to shift and alter, for doors to open. They aren’t unlike many other people I know who are unhappy with their current job but just can’t figure out how to get anywhere else. Many of us are certainly all in the wilderness together. I began gathering a small group of these folks together a few months ago to answer these questions: what are my gifts, what are my dreams, where am I most aware of meeting the Sacred, even in the wilderness. As we have gone around this group people have begun to dare to answer these questions in community. I believe that by answering these questions together we are praying with each other. Prayer, giving voice to our dreams and our pain and our hope is a daring thing to do. It is daring because what we want doesn’t always come true, not like snapping our fingers at least—and that is temptation in its own right. If I say this God then you can make it come true? Nope, not how it works. It is daring because we are afraid sometimes of what comes out. But there is something about taking the moments we are in and putting words to them—and seeing what might come from there. Something prayerful.
And so this little group I have been convening. We have been asking: what are my gifts, what are my dreams, where am I most aware of meeting the Sacred—and seeing what emerges. We have had the opportunity to take those challenging sides of ourselves and practice with them, transforming them into usefulness for God. And what we have noticed is that there has been opportunity after opportunity to define who we are as we make choices, focus ourselves and live into the rejection of temptation that we don’t need each other and that the world laid at our feet without any of the struggle and challenge of the wilderness would be a good thing. We take advantage of this our wilderness times, those dangerous, scary in between times that you don’t know how they will turn out and live in the richness of what this has to offer.
Is this a comfortable thing? An easy thing? Not at all. But a good thing it is—because here we are refined, here we are defined, here we gain practice, and here we live into the promise of what is to come.