First Sunday in Lent – February 14, 2016
The Rev. Devon Anderson, Rector, Trinity Episcopal Church, Excelsior, MN
The season always begins with the story of Jesus in the wilderness being tempted by the devil. The Gospel tells us that no sooner is Jesus baptized in the River Jordan than he is led away into the desert. Led away from the crowds, with his hair still damp, with the words of God still ringing in his ears, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Jesus’ forty days in the desert is a time unlike any other in his life. It is a time in between his anointing by God and the start of his ministry. Before he could start the work he had been given to do, a few things needed to be sorted out. In the words of Frederick Buechner “Jesus went off alone into the wilderness where he spent forty days asking himself the question what it meant to be Jesus.”
It is only after the forty days are up, only after Jesus is good and parched, good and exhausted, good and depleted that the devil shows up. The devil wasn’t stupid. He allowed Jesus some time wear down, time to exhaust his own resources. Maybe then, the devil thought, Jesus might be open to accepting a little help.
Years ago I spent some time in a desert like the one Jesus struggled in for 40 days. It was during a summer study course at St. George’s Anglican College in Jerusalem. Part of that program included a week in the Sinai desert exploring sacred sites and camping. As we crossed the border into Egypt, our Bedouin guides met us. Strapped to the top of each of their jeeps were the week “supplies” – a few dusty sleeping bags, some kerosene burners, gallon containers of water, and a small cage of live chickens, one that would be, each night for dinner, killed, plucked, gutted, and roasted. We loaded the jeeps and were off. In no time at all we were deep in the Sinai desert driving over sand and more sand, having left the one-lane highway and all civilization almost immediately.
After several days exploring and camping, we came to a mountainside, and our guides told us that the time had come when we would go our separate ways for awhile. We were to walk no more than 5-10 minutes in any direction by ourselves and spend an hour and a half in silence. At this point, the strident introvert in me leapt for joy – this was going to be awesome. Finally, what I had come for – some uninterrupted, focused, time to breathe and be with God.
I walked out into the craggy desert, found myself a shady rock to sit on and began to pray. I noticed at once was how silent it was. Obviously there were no planes overhead, or cars driving by with their stereo bass level turned up. My classmates had all but disappeared. There was also no wind, or birds or voices. It was so deafening quiet that I thought I could even hear the blood rushing through my body like a hum.
The second thing I noticed was the flies. How could I not? Here I was trying to commune with Jesus, all the while this annoying insect insisted on circling my head,
buzzing my ears, and trying with all its might to fly up my nose. The Gospel narratives never mention flies, but after my experience I am convinced they were Jesus’ fourth temptation. “You think you’re so holy? You think you’re the Son of Man? Try this little bugger on for size!”
The third and most important thing I noticed was how quickly I became lonely. Once I found a comfortable place to sit, I cleared my mind, sang all the songs I knew, drank water, fixed my hat, prayed all the prayers I could remember, I listened, I said more prayers, I listened. And after awhile the time was up. I stood up, stretched, and began to make my descent from the craggy rock upon which I had had quite a nice meditation.
But on the way down, I happened to glance at my watch and, good God, only 25 minutes had gone by. What was I going to do now??? How would I fill the next 65 minutes? I began to feel nervous.
Those of you who have spent time in a desert know: there is something about them that have the power to suck out your self-confidence. They are so big, so quiet and empty that one in comparison feels inconsequential and perishable. I was shocked and ashamed by how I had so quickly come to the end of what I could do myself to fill the space and quiet. I had run out of things to say and think and do, and all that remained was kind of an empty, low-grade panic. I did slog it out, and gratefully returned to our camp, live chickens and my annoying classmates never looking so good.
In hindsight, that experience was a bit of an epiphany. For I realized for the first time how I had, up to that point, done my best to avoid coming in contact with that empty, carved out space inside me. I had confused quiet and silence. I had avoided, at all costs, an awareness of where what I can do for myself ends and where my dependence upon God’s grace begins.
There Jesus was, in a desert not that far from the Sinai peninsula. He had just come from his glorious baptism, surrounded by crowds, affirmed and crowned by God – only to be led into a long, lonely time in the desert. During that time, God makes no appearance – there are no voices, descending doves, no reassurance. Only silence and that carved out empty space inside. Over forty days, Jesus gets to the bottom of his own reserves. It is precisely into this empty, hollowed-out place that the devil makes his appearance.
What is important about the devil’s temptations is the theme that ties them together. How the devil tempts Jesus, in three different ways, is with the provocation that Jesus deserves better than what God is giving him. That he, Jesus, has the power to provide for himself what he needs. That he doesn’t, ultimately, need God. Listen to the devil’s taunts: “Command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Feed yourself. “See the kingdoms of the world. If you worship me, it will all be yours.” Make your own power, authority. Fashion your own worth. “Throw yourself down from the temple.” Protect yourself. With each taunt the devil dares Jesus to prove who he is by acting with the ultimate power of a god instead of a man. And with each taunt, Jesus resists, replies with an emphatic “no.” “I will not assume to provide what only God can give.”
Lent is a time unlike any other set aside for us to wrestle with the very same temptations set before Jesus. We are all vulnerable to the viral illusion that we can, ultimately, provide for ourselves. We are vulnerable to the idea that if we make enough money and invest wisely, we will be able to feed ourselves – provide all the sustenance and nourishment we will ever need. That we can, through our sheer determination, obtain what we need to fill ourselves in every way, buy what we need to make ourselves whole. We are vulnerable to the temptation that if we advance and distinguish ourselves in our professions, speak articulately, exhibit learnedness and intellectual capacity that we can win for ourselves authority and respect. That it is entirely up to us to create our own value and worthiness. We are vulnerable to the idea that if we buy the right car or car seat, install a home security system, live in the nice neighborhoods, put our kids in the right schools, if we keep our cholesterol down and choose the best health plan and doctors that we have the power to inoculate ourselves from the sadness and pain that are part of being human.
In her book, Things Seen and Unseen: A Year Lived in Faith, Nora Gallagher equates these temptations to fantasies, illusions that suck out our vitality, that keep us from discovering God’s rich reality. “To come to terms with illusion,” she writes, “is one of the great jobs of our lives: to discern what is fantasy and what is reality, what is dead and what is alive, what is a narcotic and what is food. It is dangerous, wrenching, and unavoidable. The seductive call of the Sirens was so compelling Odysseus lashed himself to his mast. In the desert, Jesus fought for his life. What is asked of Jesus is what is asked of us: that we give up illusion – its false promises and its addicting inertia – and come to our senses. That we, as Vaclav Havel would say, ‘live within the truth.’”
The devil’s agenda is to convince us that we can go it alone, that God is to us a pleasurable elective – something interesting and provocative to ponder, a presence that offers solicit in time of need. But Lent challenges us, right off the bat, to question ourselves. It is, after all, the season that derives its name from the old English word, lenten, meaning “spring.” It is not only a reference to the season before Easter, but also an invitation to a springtime of the soul. Forty days to cleanse our system of the illusion that we are in control, that what we ultimately need – to nourish our souls, prove our inherent worth, guard our lives — we can provide for ourselves. Forty days to open our eyes to the one holy and gracious God, by whose mercy alone we live and move and have our being. AMEN.