IN THE WILDERNESS OF THE WORLD
First Sunday in Lent, March 6, 2022
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
During Lent, we clergy types try to create an atmosphere; a mood. It is purposefully barren and stark. During Lent, we do not sing a Gloria because we are not rejoicing. We are repenting. And so we sing something called a Trisagion (“Tri-sai-yon”) – which means three times holy, in which we ask Almighty God to have mercy upon us.
The usual ornamentations of the Sanctuary are removed. After Communion today, there will be no brass cross or Bible stand or candlesticks returning to this table. Instead, there will simply be the Lenten Watch Candle. No banners will hang on the wall. Even the simple cross that hangs on the wall above the pulpit has been temporarily removed.
Most years the barrenness of Lent feels rather counter-cultural - because Spring is coming, after a long winter. And we feel hopeful. And Easter is already on our minds. And summer vacations cannot be that far behind! But not this year. This year, this stripped-down sanctuary seems perfectly appropriate for a stripped-down and barren world.
After two plus years of a world-wide pandemic, we are emerging from that cocoon looking for hope, but instead finding a horrifying war in Europe; wanting our lives back, but discovering a country so divided that the basic workings of our democracy are threatened; longing for spring, but seeing a planet so abused by humans that the normal cycles and planetary functions now abuse and threaten us.
I struggled all week long with whether or not I could say any of this to you, for fear of depressing you all so much that you’d never come back. But I am not telling you anything you don’t already know. And my charge is not to keep you entertained or placated, but to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ against the backdrop of the world he came to save. My charge is, as the great 20th century Swiss theologian Karl Barth once famously said, to read the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.
And I have come to believe, now more than ever, that unless the Gospel of Jesus Christ speaks in transformative way to a world in crisis, then it is not Good News and it has no power to save us. If our faith has nothing to say in the face of 6 million COVID deaths - 1 million of them in this country - then what good is it? And if the Gospel of Jesus cannot offer hope to people battered by war, then what good is it? And if it cannot speak a word of reconciliation to a divided country, then what good is it? And if the Good News is not Good News to the planet that God so loved that God sent the Only Begotten Son, then what good is it?
We don’t need a stripped-down sanctuary to remind us of the barrenness of our lives in this moment. This is the most Lenten Lent I can ever remember. And the whole world is our Wilderness.
In the verses that precede the passage read for us today, Luke reports that Jesus had just been baptized. And Luke says that he was full of the Holy Spirit. Everything was coming up roses! His ministry stretched out before him like a beautiful field. But then the Holy Spirit led him into the Wilderness. And everything changed.
The Wilderness where Jesus was driven by God’s Spirit is a harsh and barren place in southern Israel between the fertile lands near the Mediterranean and the sands of the Sahara. And there, Luke says, Jesus was tempted by the devil for 40 days. In Scripture, 40 is often a symbolic number simply meant to indicate a long time. And during this long time of testing, Jesus ate nothing. And when it was over, Luke tells us that he was famished.
It was then, in his moment of human weakness and vulnerability, that the devil came to him with the three temptations. The first was to turn a stone into a loaf of freshly baked bread. But Jesus replied: “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’ Then the devil took Jesus up to a high place and showed him all the glittering kingdoms of the world and promised to give them to him if only Jesus would worship him. But Jesus answered, ‘It is written, Worship the Lord your God, and serve only God.’ Then the devil took him to the Holy City of Jerusalem, to the top of the glorious Temple, and taunted Jesus to throw himself off to see if the angels of God would catch him, as had been promised. But Jesus replied, ‘It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell this story with slightly different details. Matthew adds the lovely note that when the temptations were over, angels came and waited on Jesus. Mark mentions that there were wild beasts in the Wilderness, adding an additional layer of danger. But Luke concludes this dramatic tale in a most undramatic way. He simply writes: “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” The end.
“That’s it?” I thought, when I first read this passage on Monday last. With the state of the world and the hope that needs to be proclaimed, that’s it? With a world that seems more Wilderness than Paradise, that’s it? Why couldn’t this year’s lesson be drawn from Matthew with its mention of angels? Because if we have ever needed ministering angels after a long time of testing, it is now.
But as is so often the case with Scripture, the longer I stayed with the text, the more of its light it revealed. It’s easy to miss. It’s even easier to ignore. And it’s simply this: Luke is the only Gospel writer to add this detail: that before he ever went to the Wilderness, Jesus was FULL OF THE HOLY SPIRIT.
Remember that just before being led into the Wilderness, Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan. He had been drenched with the waters of grace. He had heard the very voice of God saying “You are my beloved.” The Spirit had descended upon him like a dove. And he was full of light and love and grace… and the Spirit. And that is what he took with him into the Wilderness.
And that is what we can so easily ignore. And that it what we can so easily treat as an afterthought, instead of what it is: an essential provision for the Wilderness of the World.
And so dear friends, on this first Sunday in Lent, I remind you to pack what you need for this journey in the Wilderness of the World. I call you to prayer and fasting and charity and good deeds. I call you to love and service and deeds of kindness. I call you to remember the poor and those who suffer. I charge you to go outside and bless the earth and let the sun kiss your face. As an act of Lenten devotion: get off your devices and turn off the endless voices of doom and give up your appetite for despair and tend to your souls - not as an afterthought, but as a first thought. Be full of the Holy Spirit.
I don’t know how long we will be in this particular Wilderness. It may get worse before it gets better. But it will get better, because Lent doesn’t last forever. And the promises of God are true. And Resurrection is as unstoppable as the sunrise. And goodness is stronger than evil. Love is stronger than hate. Light is stronger than darkness. Life is stronger than death. Victory is ours through Christ who loves us and who loves this beautiful world.