Turning to the Wilderness (A Sermon on Luke 4:1-10)

A sermon given at Colonial Church on February 28, 2021. You can listen to the sermon below or you can watch the Alternative or Traditional service on YouTube. You can also watch the Kids’ Sermon HERE.

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.’”

Luke 4:1-12


As we continue in worship, will you pray with me? God, this Lenten season, might you meet each of us and turn our faces towards yours and remind us anew of your call and your love, that we might be your church. For it’s in Christ’s name we gather.

Amen.


Photo by Kun Fotografi on Pexels.com

Now I have to admit (in spite of all my bravado in the children’s sermon) that I’m quite rather a curious outdoor enthusiast. You see, for as much as I love the outdoors, as much as I have dreams of through hiking trails, such as the Superior Hiking Trail, the Appalachian, the Pacific Coast Trail, and the North Country Trail, I am terrified of animals. All kinds of animals. I’m afraid of cats, yes, as in the felines some of you keep in your houses. I’ve even been terrified of dogs most of my life and it was only through employing behavioral techniques that I learned in therapy that I’ve been able to work through my unsubstantiated fear that dogs barking at me from behind their fences are conspiring to eat me.

Sara, the great outdoor enthusiast…terrified of the wild!

And yet, this is just how it is. This fear took root a long time ago. When I was little, my parents divorced and I would visit my dad in Colorado. Some of my favorite memories of time spent with my dad are of camping in the mountains. In particular, I remember a time when we were in the Rocky Mountain National Park, camping with one of my dad’s friends and his kids. The dads decided it would be fun to try and tease us kids. So my dad told me that the mountains were teeming with cougars… who liked to eat little girls who talk too much. 

And I was just such a little girl. 

I was quite sure I was going to get eaten and I didn’t know what to do. I mean, to this day, in some inner recess of my mind I am quite sure that I’m at risk of being eaten by mountain lions…in St. Louis Park. It’s true. 

Photo by Josh Hild on Pexels.com

Fast forward to me in high school, I am going to be a sophomore in high school and am going to the Boundary Waters for my very first time. On the way north we stop at the ranger station where they show us a video designed to ensure that we practice bear safety. Guess who promptly became terrified of bears and refused to go to the bathroom at night, lest she would be eaten by one? Me. 

This is my lived tension: I want to solo hike trails and yet I slings not one but two pans from my backpack, speaks inordinately loudly while hiking, entreating, “Please, mother bear, pleases don’t think I’m here to get between you and your cubs.” Of course, I’m overstating my terror a bit…but not really.

I love the wild, but it also terrifies me. It terrifies me because when I’m in it I am reminded of the grandeur of God and that I am not larger than any mountain. I am not larger than any mountain. And is precisely this that terrifies me. I’ve spent a lifetime ensuring my psychological and bodily safety, I seek control and mastery so as to not feel vulnerable. But there’s nothing like the wild to expose how foolish a notion it is that we have control over most things. 

I love the wild and it terrifies me. 

And so this Lent we wanted to explore our invitation to turn toward the wild and the wilderness.

Not just because the wilderness, is something that we value in our community as is evidenced by the work done by those who labor in our gardens, caring for the watershed, and tending to the bees. Yes, we believe we are called to be stewards and participants in the wonder of God’s creation, and we do this work because God is the God of the wild and the wilderness features prominently throughout the Bible. But we are also turning to the wild this Lent because the majority of Protestant faith traditions begin Lent with today’s scripture — the tale of how Jesus goes into the wilderness and for 40 days and 40 nights is tempted right before he begins his public ministry. It is to this scene and the invitation to turn our faces toward not only Jerusalem, but also toward the wilderness that we will be exploring today.

The wilderness is present at the beginning: In the beginning God’s Spirit hovers over the chaos/the wild. And it is into this space that the breath of God speaks, forming life out of chaos, making possible new things. It is a wilderness to which God invites Abram, as Abram becomes the father of a new people; it is only on account of his willingness to leave behind the comforts he had known that he finds a new place. It is to the wilderness that Hagar flees and discovers the God who sees her (El Roi), the God who indeed makes her and her people a great nation. It is to the wilderness that the people of Israel go after they emerge from slavery…and for 40 years they journey through this wilderness until they reach the promised land.

It is to the wilderness that in Luke, as he accounts right before our passage for today, we discover John the Baptist, who has called the people to come out from the cities to be baptized…as Jesus is. The wilderness is indeed a place where God shows up and meets people. It is a place where the things that we had relied on before are stripped away and where new life is possible.

Blue (my Double Doodle)

In a recent study of the book of Exodus that I did with Stephanie Spencer of 40 Orchards, she suggested that part of the reason that the people of Israel didn’t go directly from Egypt to the Promised Land (because that journey shouldn’t have taken them 40 years) was because they needed time to unlearn the 400 years of formation they’d endured as slaves…they needed time to imagine new possibilities for who God was calling them to be. Inside of neurological science and psychology we’ve discovered that our brains develop neurological pathways, well-trod roads of normative behavior and responses we have learned through our lives. Though our brains have profound capacity for neuroplasticity (the changing of our minds and making new pathways), it takes time to change the patterns and the pathways that we have grown accustomed to. Indeed, for me, the kid who was afraid of dogs, it took some time and deep breathing to not think little poodles were going to eat me… but now I know better. In fact, I’m now the proud parent of a Double Doodle.

It takes time to help our brains and our bodies believe in other worlds and possibilities than those we have known. So imagine if you will, that for generations, your people have been enslaved in Egypt. The next day, you’re supposed to just wake up and magically be like, “Nah, I’m going to go build a pyramid anymore, I guess might as well go worship YHWH and see what might happen.” No, it’s going to take some time to unlearn the ways that you had been formed and to become a new self. Thus, it is in the wilderness where God shows up and reminds them that God is the one who feeds them. God is the one who makes new life possible. And likewise, God changes us, if only we will go to the wilderness.

I know that in my own life, some of my most sacred and transformative experiences have been in the wild and in the wilderness, places where I have reached the edges of myself and of the places that I couldn’t control. Here I discovered that there was more life and more possibility and more wonder to be had than that which I knew in the safety of my home.

Maybe there’s a reason that there’s so much wilderness in the Bible. Maybe God knows something about the wilderness and what it births in us.

This passage from Luke is repeated in all of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).  Here in the book of Luke, it follows Jesus’s baptism and is placed right before Jesus will begin his public ministry (paying attention to the placement and content of a passage as it differs between the books can be instructive about the authorial intent in each of the gospels). There are so many things that are significant about this passage: here Jesus is the new Israel, Jesus is the new Moses, the one who will lead the people into the promised land. Jesus, the one who was baptized into the new covenant, is made clear through the Lukan retelling to be the fulfillment of the Deuteronomistic history: he is the man who will lead the people into the new land. This Emmanuel, God-with-us, has come to bring liberation to a people who were enslaved as he fulfills the calling that YHWH had long had for the people of Israel. And so in these 40 days in the desert, symbolizing those 40 years that the people of Israel were formed and reformed, Jesus himself is formed and reformed, being tested again and again and shows himself faithful.

Satan presses him, “Hey, can’t you make your bread from the stones?” And Jesus quotes Deuteronomy as he replies, “No, we know where bread comes from. We know where life comes from. It’s from YHWH.” Satan prods again, “Well, how about we’ll get the nations to worship you.” Again, Jesus references Deuteronomy, quoting the passage following the Shema, the reminder to love God with all you are and serve God only, as he responds, “No, this isn’t about a power that you can give me where I will rule over the nations, for indeed we are called to be a people who worship and bend to God alone.”

Satan tries again, “Well, why don’t you throw yourself down from this temple so God can save you?” And Jesus responds with Deuteronomy 6:16, telling him, “No, I won’t do this.” And by so doing, Jesus not only is formed for his ministry that he will live and embody, but he shows himself to be a person who understands what it means to follow YHWH, what it means to embody and live as the faithful one. Who else should be the one to invite us into the promised land? Who else should we follow into the wildernesses of our own lives and turn our faces towards that wilderness so that we might reemerge ready to live in this land to which God is calling us?

That Jesus is tested three times might call to mind for some of you how Peter three times is asked who he believes Jesus is in the hours of Jesus’ death. And three times Peter denies Jesus. Maybe that was because Peter hadn’t yet been to the wilderness. For it is only once Jesus has died, through Peter’s own journey into the night of hopelessness as his rabbi has been killed that Peter reemerges as a person who gives his life to follow Jesus faithfully and he becomes the rock upon which the church is built. Likewise, it is to the wilderness that Paul is called after he is converted. His eyes are opened, but he doesn’t immediately begin his new ministry. No, he’s formed and reformed. It’s to the wilderness that God calls us in order for us to live out God’s call to our lives, for it is in the wilderness that we are transformed by new possibilities and discover new ways of being.

It is maybe for this reason that the early church mothers and fathers went to the wilderness. We call them the “desert mothers and fathers” –these spiritual people who said with their lives, “We need to get away from the city because sometimes when you’ve been there for so long, you forget that you’re not supposed to be afraid of mountain lions, but afraid of the shadows in the night that you think will keep you safe.” It’s a call that they knew to the wilderness, to then be encountered and transformed and to find a new way forward.

This may be in part why one of the central themes that I’m writing on in my dissertation, as I’m talking about some of my work being a part of leading in this community, is seeking to help us become the type of people who move into the wilderness. That the good life (the teleological vision for our individual formation) is discovered by our willingness to be people who go into the wild places, the places of our own stories and our own lives that are rife with terror. For it is my belief that as we go into those spaces that we find the resurrection life to which Jesus calls us. But you don’t get Easter Sunday if you don’t journey the way of the cross. You can’t know resurrection life if we don’t have Maunday Thursday, and Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. You can’t get to the promised land if you don’t go to the desert. And so, it’s to the wilderness that we are called to turn our faces.

Now, even though I know all of this, the wild still scares me. I much prefer to live in the power of the ministry that Jesus knows later on in chapter four. I don’t want to go to the wilderness. I’m afraid of starvation, let alone mountain lions. And yet we’re called there.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

And isn’t that in part what preaching is, a reminder even to myself of the things that I know to be true, even when I don’t want to acknowledge them? This Tuesday during staff meeting, Cathy Kolwey, our new spiritual formation associate, shared a poem about butterflies. And, of course it was Organic Bob, Mr. Nature himself, who reminded us that when a caterpillar gets into the cocoon and then becomes a butterfly, their entire DNA gets redone. My response to this information? I was like: “No. I don’t want that. I want to be a caterpillar who the next day gets to be a butterfly.” It’s painful to have your DNA reoriented. It’s dark and fraught.

Indeed, in the Exodus narrative, the journey out of Egypt into the promised land, the imagery there is of a birthing canal. And what is more fraught with vulnerability than the possibility of gestational promise? There is nothing more miraculous than the moment that sperm and egg unite and then become a human. How does that even happen? I don’t understand such a mystery. But this is the journey that we, as a people, are called to go into: to move into the spaces of vulnerability, to go into the wilderness so that we might be a people who can live in the land to which God is calling us.

And when we forget, because we always will forget, we’re invited again to the wild, into the wilderness. And every year in Lent, we have that same invitation because we’re going to forget. So let’s go back to the wild. Let’s go back to the wilderness. And in that space, might we discover and recover and remember that we were meant to live in this land. 

We were meant to live without fear…in spite of the monsters that we know inhabit it.

We are meant to be a people who walk in faithfulness with YHWH. 

We are meant to be a people who know in our bones that we have been blessed, so we might be a blessing. 

We are meant to care for the poor and the widow and the foreigners who are in our midst, but we will forget. 

And so, we go back to the wilderness. 

The cry of the Spirit is the one who calls us to hike those continental divides and watch the vistas that go on forever and remind ourselves that, yes, we are small, but we are not insignificant — for we are loved. We are part of the wonder of this creation. And so, let us go back to the wilderness. 

As some of you know, it was just over two years ago now, that my spouse, Andy and I had our first miscarriage. On the way to the hospital to get an ultrasound that day, I was listening to an album from one of my favorite bands, Mumford and Sons. It had just been released and a song came on called “The Wild.” It starts, “We saw birth and death | Can’t we be still | What makes you kind | From where comes your sparkling mind?”

As it continues they sing, “Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. What’s that I see? I think it’s the wild. It puts the fear of God in me.” And in many ways, what is the wild, if not the place to reorder our fears?

For in this journey, as fraught and as painful as it has been, God has been doing healing work in my own life. The things I feared of parenthood, of “Would I be someone other than I wanted to be?” all of the different things that have swirled in and about my own story…have all become invitations to deeper reordering, to live my life in awe and in the wonder of the wild of God’s invitation to healing in my own life. Yes, going to the wilderness, turning our faces towards it is, can be, and indeed will be terrifying. But we go there together. We are invited to turn from the places that we think will keep us safe and to emerge as a resurrection people who have gone into the wilderness and discovered that we do not live on bread alone, but by the love of God.

God is, and God will continue to invite us to new things until the day that we die. And we can either live our lives constructing edifices to keep us safe, making us think that the wild will never get us…or we can take up the risk and the invitation to turn towards the wild, to journey into the wilderness a little bit more. For in so doing, we will discover life, discover freedom, discover the power of the rushing wind through the trees, the whisper of promise on the morn, the way that the birds sparkle and sing, the way that the waves of Lake Superior beckon and call, the way of life. 

Let us turn to the wilderness. Let us turn to Jesus. 

Where are you afraid of mountain lions and feline pets? Where are we afraid of giants in the land? May we remember that Jesus has gone into the wild and then enter in. 

And even more so, may we remember that the wild is where God resides. 

So let us meet this tempest together and let us turn to life, for God is doing a new thing. God is calling us to live in the promised land.

Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. 

Amen.

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