We’re going down from the Mountaintop & into the Wilds We are going from the Transfiguration, which we honored last week, and into the the 40 days and 40 nights of Lent which leads into leading to Holy Week, Good Friday, and Easter – this sacred cycle of transfiguration & crucifixion & resurrection that is at the heart of our Christian faith. For these 40 days and 40 nights we’re going to explore the theme of wilderness in our spiritual lives. Wilderness can mean: these times of seeking, these times of being urged to leave behind hearth & home to venture into the unknown, from a domesticated world into a wider wilder world, with all its tests, challenges, opportunities, struggles, clarity, insights. So, I’m looking for whatever stories or testimonials you may have from your lives, or other poems or pieces of music that you could imagine contributing to worship for these six Sundays. Let me know: Have you ever ventured into the wilderness or been forced into the wilderness to search for God? to escape oppressive circumstances? to seek adventure? to find yourself? To find someone, something? To be found? What was the mana from heaven that sustained you? What wisdom did you rely on to guide you? What was the call you heard? What did you learn about yourself, about others, about God, about the world, that you wouldn’t have if you’d stayed at home?
Last month our theme was mountaintop experiences, stories where people receive some kind of divine revelation on a mountaintop. It’s interesting to notice that all of the mountaintop stories in scripture are closely tied with wilderness experiences. Moses went up Mt. Sinai in the midst of leading his people through the wilderness after they had been freed from slavery in Egypt. Elijah many generations later was called up Mt. Sinai to encounter the humming stillness of the Holy One, after he had been fleeing and fasting through the wilderness, for 40 days and 40 nights. Time in the wilderness can prepare us to receive what it is God offers us. Or it may be what’s waiting for us after our heightened holy experience. Wilderness is part of the process of transformation. The wilderness story from scripture we’ll be hearing this morning is actually immediately after a revelation experience, which was not a mountaintop experience, but a middle-of-the-river experience. When John baptized Jesus in the River Jordan, the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus, named him beloved, anointed him for his sacred purpose, and immediately drove him out into the wilderness. (Not exactly warm and fuzzy all the time, this Holy Spirit.) One thing I’ll note before we hear the reading: The way it’s usually translated, Jesus in the wilderness after the baptism is tempted by “the Devil.” I’ve used here a much more literal translation of “ho diabolos” – which is “The Slanderer.” “Slanderer” – someone who lies about people, falsely accusing them. “The Slanderer” the “Lying One” – I think this helps us with the meaning of this wilderness experience more than just imagining Jesus out in the desert sparring with a wicked imp with a pointy tail. Slander, the force of slander in the world and in our lives. It’s important to note that in scripture, slander and flattery are twins. The Slanderer has a forked tongue which in one breath flatters, and in the next breath spits venom. The point is falsehoods – good or bad – that we are led to believe about ourselves and about other people, falsehoods that derail us from our sacred purpose and redirect us toward a sinister purpose.
Reading Luke 4:1-13 Now Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. For forty days and nights he was tested by the Slanderer. He ate nothing during those days, and when the time was up he was hungry. The Slanderer, playing on his hunger, gave the first test: “Since you’re God’s Son, command this stone to turn into a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered by quoting Deuteronomy: “It takes more than bread to really live.” For the second test he led him up and spread out all the kingdoms of the earth on display at once. Then the Slanderer said, “They’re yours in all their splendor to serve your pleasure. I’m in charge of them all and can turn them over to whomever I wish. Worship me and they’re yours, the whole works.” Jesus refused, again backing his refusal with Deuteronomy: “Worship the Lord your God and only the Lord your God. Serve God with absolute single-heartedness.” For the third test the Slanderer took him to Jerusalem and put him on top of the Temple. He said, “If you are God’s Son, jump. It’s written, isn’t it, that ‘he has placed you in the care of angels to protect you; they will catch you; you won’t so much as stub your toe on a stone’?” “Yes,” said Jesus, “and it’s also written, ‘Don’t you dare tempt the Lord your God.’” That completed the testing. The Slanderer retreated temporarily, lying in wait for another opportunity.
Sermon Reflection II Lent is a period when we are encouraged to really reflect and to be honest with ourselves and before God about the ways that we are out of joint with God, with each other, with ourselves, with what is true and good and just and holy. And then to practice turning away from those falsehoods and returning, by grace, to our true home. Wilderness times can force that kind of self-awareness, and that kind of demanding possibility of repentance, forgiveness, transformation. We can’t run away from ourselves when we are alone in the wilderness, we can’t run away from our demons, or from our God. In Jesus’ time in the wilderness, he had the demand to face three kinds of temptations that would pull him out of joint with God and with Jesus’ holy purpose. The first temptation is about how our bodily appetites can become obsessions that pull us away from God. Now this isn’t to say don’t be healthy and happy, for God’s sakes. But Lent can be a time when people choose to take a brake from some habit we’ve become dependent on that doesn’t actually serve us or other people. The second temptation is about power. Having power over people, needing to control them, and to be big and important. Are there ways we’re doing this? Or ways we worship someone who does? What would it be like to let go of that and to keep our focus on the humble and strong way of Jesus? The third temptation is to try to use God for our own ends. To make ourselves out to be righteous or holier than thou. Or to be in it with God for what we think we can get out of it, rather than just love. If we notice that we’re pulling into any of these kinds of temptations, when we’re honest with ourselves and before God this Lent, I can think of two questions that may be helpful to ask. One is, where is the Slanderer or Flatterer here? Meaning, what is the falsehood about ourselves or about other people that is feeding into this way of being disjointed from God? And then the second question can be, what practice will replace that falsehood with the truth? Rewrite the script about who we are and what we’re doing and why? Instead of, “you’re miserable and don’t deserve good things” to “you are God’s beloved.” Or instead of, “you’re god’s gift to the world but all these idiots don’t get it” to “well, you are God’s beloved, but so is everyone else, so you ain’t that big of a deal, buddy.” But the point is the practice that rewrites this script: Maybe that practice is humble service. Maybe that practice is praying a certain prayer or piece of scripture, like the sermon on the mount, or a practice like doing prostrations or sitting in silence, or journaling, or doing art, or inviting people over every week, or apologizing to someone you’ve wronged, or reaching out to someone different from you, or whatever it is. The period of Lent begins with the practice of Ash Wednesday, which was this past week, which delivers a very pointed message about ourselves and each other, which is something that time in the wilderness can really drive home. It’s a message that undercuts the Slanderer/Flatterer. We are marked on our forehead with ashes in the sign of the cross. And we are told, “Beloved child of God, you are from dust, and to dust you shall return.” I’m of the school of thought where we say “Beloved child of God, you are from dust and stardust, and to that you shall return.” But either way the message is, “You are brief. And you are beloved.” We are brief and we are beloved. We are beloved and we are brief. Thanks be to God.