Sunday, March 1, 2020 – Lent I
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
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.
On Ash Wednesday, we began our shadowy journey called Lent. It’s 40 days long, not counting Sundays, which are feast days because every Sunday we celebrate the Resurrection. But even on Lenten Sundays, there is a certain ominous undertone present. We feast under the looming shadow of the cross.
During Lent, we symbolically reenact the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, fasting, praying, and steeling himself for the greatest challenge he would ever face. Some of us fast and pray during Lent too, but if we really want to imitate Jesus on his Lenten journey, let me suggest that the best discipline might be something I’m calling today, “The Journey In.”
The idea of an inward journey does not come naturally to us Americans. We are an exceedingly pragmatic people who expect quick results with minimal and targeted effort. We are suspicious of too much introspection, which we derisively call “navel gazing.” We mostly think it’s a waste of time.
I think that sometimes too. This Journey In does not come naturally to me either. I am too lost in and too addicted to my administrative and practical tasks. I think I should be more introspective, but there never seems to be the time. And I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that because I imagine that you imagine me in my study, pouring over the pages of Scripture, praying constantly for the needs of the church and the world, and walking down the sidewalks of Cheshire dispensing blessings. And I imagine that you imagine me to have made peace with myself, having confronted my own demons in my own wilderness and coming to a place of tranquility and self-awareness. I imagine that you imagine all of those things. But, in the words of George and Ira Gershwin, “it ain’t necessarily so.”
I have often wondered why the cultivation of the inner life is such a challenge for me. Why must I always be so busy? What is it, really, that I am afraid of? Because I am afraid, you know. If I’m not reading or cleaning or reorganizing or surfing the web, then I’m lost YouTube or Netflix hole. God forbid I should just be still in the silence. But in the Wilderness, all you have is the silence – a silence so profound it seems to have a weight of its own. And it frightens me. I wonder if it frightened Jesus too.
There are lots of curious elements in the story of the Temptation. First of all, there is the daunting physical challenge of spending forty days and nights without food in what is one of the world’s most hostile environments. I saw this wilderness once. It was 117 degrees that day. The wind-blown sand pummeled my body and forced my eyes shut. It was a desolate and terrifying landscape. And when I saw it, I wondered how on earth anyone could stay in such a place for forty days and nights?
So the setting is curious. But so is the other main character in the story. Satan is not portrayed here or anywhere else in Scripture as our comfortable caricature of a little red man with horns and a pitchfork. Instead, Satan is portrayed as a real force in the world and one to be reckoned with. The uncomfortable implication of his character in this tale is that evil is organized and crafty and brilliant.
But perhaps the most curious element of all is the set-up for this story – how it is that Jesus got to such a place. The Evangelist Matthew tells us. He writes: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Come again? The Spirit of God, the Spirit of life and love and goodness and truth, that spirit led Jesus to that awful place? And if that is true, then it implies a rather strange partnership between light and darkness. Matthew seems to imply that darkness has its function in the spiritual life. And The Journey In will often take us to dark places before we ever get to the light. Maybe that’s why we avoid it.
Well, why wouldn’t we? Who wants to poke around in the shadows if you don’t have to? And so we run from them, and thus, sometimes quite inadvertently, we run from the truth that could set us free. The famous Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung wrote: “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” So St. Matthew and Dr. Jung seem to agree that the shadows of our lives, so often encountered on inward journeys, should be engaged because the shadows have something to teach us.
So there was Jesus, all alone, with his shadows. He was hungry and tired when suddenly the devil appeared with three distinct temptations, and all of them meant to distract him from his shadows. The first was the temptation to satiate his very real hunger. “If you are God’s Son,” the devil said, “then turn these stones to bread. You won’t feel so alone if your belly is full.” And isn’t that the truth? Food is a great distraction from shadows. Second, there was the temptation to test God by throwing himself off the pinnacle of the Temple. “If you’re God’s own dearly loved Son, then throw yourself down so that angels can come and rescue you. Then you’ll be the center of everyone’s attention.” Adoration also distracts us from our shadows. And finally, there was the temptation for power and prestige. “Do you see all the glittering kingdoms of the world?” asked Satan. “Just bow down and worship me and all of these shall be yours. Bling and money and toys distract us all from our shadows. And we even think they will dissipate if we just have more.
But that wasn’t true for Jesus and it isn’t true for us. And so Jesus, our teacher and guide and friend, showed us by example that there is power in staying in an uncomfortable and dark place until the Journey In has done its perfect work. Jesus would not, he could not have been ready for the betrayal and trial and cross had he not first gone as deep as he did.
Now, there is one more very curious element to this story. It’s easy to miss it, coming as it does after the drama of the Temptation of Jesus. At the very end of this passage, Matthew rather undramatically states that angels came and ministered to Jesus. The Greek word for angel is diakoneo, from which we get our word deacon, which actually means “one who waits on tables or serves food.” And what a powerful idea that is – bright winged angels with baskets of the bread of heaven, to comfort and sustain after such an inward journey.
In 2005, in the middle of one night, the phone rang. That’s almost never good. Marcos’ mother had died, and so suddenly we were up and packing and calling the airlines and trying to get ourselves to Brazil that same day. It was all so overwhelming and dark and full of the shadowy unknown. We worked until morning, when suddenly there was a knock at our door. I opened it to find a rather new friend named Jeff that we had met at church. Somehow, he had heard our news and had come over to say how sorry he was. He only stayed for a minute. But before he left he pressed some bills into my hand. It wasn’t a great deal of money, but it might as well have been a million dollars. Jeff knew how expensive those last-minute tickets were. And he wanted to help in whatever way he could. I will never forget that because in that moment I understood in a new way, that in the darkness, God sends angels. And they never come empty handed. They bring baskets of bread and wads of bills and warm embraces and whatever else we might need to remind us that we never, ever take these inward journeys alone.