Albuquerque, New Mexico
1st Sunday of Lent - Year C February 21, 2010
Text: Luke 4:1-13
Title: Pop-quiz or Wilderness Exam?
Preacher: Christopher McLaren
In Mark’s Gospel Jesus’ time in the wilderness sounds more like a pop-quiz. The whole test is contained in a few brief verses. “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and angels waited on him.” That’s it just these two pithy little sentences about Jesus’ wilderness exam.
John doesn’t even include the story in his gospel, but Matthew and Luke both give us the longer version with Jesus going toe to toe with the enemy in a battle of wits and scripture quoting that makes a lot of Episcopalians uneasy. Jesus’ battle of wits with Satan points out some very important things. Most importantly is that the answer “No” is one of the most significant spiritual practices you can ever cultivate in the face of temptation.
So when Satan offers Jesus more of the things we are all tempted to run after more food, more stuff, more status, more power, more safety Jesus says no each time. How is Jesus able to resist temptation? One might say he is a “Bible quoting fool” which I’m sure gives some of you the heebie geebies or at least makes you wonder about your own biblical literacy. More importantly the scriptures Jesus quotes tells us that Jesus knew much more that just what the Bible said. Rather Jesus’ life shaped by the biblical stories taught him who he was in relationship to God. To know who you are and to whom you belong to is the most powerful defense against temptation. He is able to say, “No” to food that will not satisfy his true hunger, “No” to self-worship instead of worship directed toward the living God, “No” to playing games with God instead of being in a relationship.
Knowing who you are and whose you are is no small matter and in a real way it is the purpose of this Lenten season. Lent is wilderness time, the Israelites spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness toward the promised land preparing for freedom by unlearning slavery and Jesus was tested in the wilderness directly after hearing that beautiful voice from heaven saying, “You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
Wilderness is important, no because we live in New Mexico and are surrounded by so much of it, but because in one way or another each of us has already been there. Maybe it was the wilderness of the Emergency Room after the accident or the look of the doctor as he delivered your test results, it may have been the empty feeling as you left the lawyers office in separate cars, the despair as you cleaned our your desk at work, or the sinking feeling when you saw the lights of the police car in your rear-view mirror. Wilderness comes in all shapes and sizes, and it is always personal. We all know what wilderness feels like, you look around for help, for comfort, for power, for food and water, for protection and all you see is the distant horizon broken up by scrub-brush and sand with the faint sound of the devil’s laughter in the air.
Yes, I know most of us are not looking for a wilderness exam. Wilderness is not generally something you seek out, rather it is something that finds you, just like it found Jesus. But what we can say is that wilderness is the God-breathed opportunity to discover who and whose you are. Wilderness strips away the non-essentials offering the opportunity to see our life with a clarity of purpose that is difficult to experience any other way.
Remember, Jesus was driven into the wilderness by the Spirit. It was in that wilderness with nothing to eat and no trustworthy friends to turn toward while being offered cheap ways out, that Jesus discovered who he was. In the end, Jesus knew what it meant to be filled with the Spirit, he knew how to master his appetites, how to take responsibility for his own choices, he knew his purpose and how to make sure that he was not distracted by the myriad of easy and attractive escapes. “In the end, Jesus discovered that the very Spirit that led him into the wilderness could be trusted to bring him through the wilderness (Barbara B.Taylor).”
So what does all this wilderness talk have to do with us? As one preacher put it, “The wisdom about the value of the wilderness is just about lost, …..lost to popular American culture for sure and lost even to the Christian tradition that is charged with preserving it. Churches that still observe Lent may get a dose of it every year around this time, even if it is reduced to cutting down on how much you drink or putting a dollar in a box for every dessert you skip. The kernel of the wisdom is still there: that anyone who wants to follow Jesus all the way to the cross needs the kind of clarity and grit that is found only in the wilderness (Barbara B.Taylor).”
Every year the wisdom of our sacred calendar offers us a period of wilderness from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. It is a time when many people “give-up” things that they often enjoy, in order to put a little wilderness in their lives. At times that wilderness can seem awfully lush, like giving up red meat on Fridays in New Orleans when a shrimp Po-boy will substitute nicely. At other times the things people “give-up” really do seem to be life-altering, like a member who gave up email last Lent and really did it. Wow! Now that is a wilderness that would really change my life and irritate a lot of people. I’m tempted, yes tempted to walk into that wilderness not to see what it would do to me but what it might do for me. I can almost feel the desert sand between my wanna-be luddite toes.
Now I realize that giving up email may sound rather extreme, I mean we don’t want to take this wilderness exam too seriously. But really perhaps you’ve spent a lot of time and money trying to acquire a spiritual life that really matters and lately you are not so sure that growth is really happening inside you. Well that is where this invitation to a wilderness exam comes in. Why not decide to embrace the season of Lent, do a little spring-cleaning of your soul for the next 6 weeks. Do something counter-cultural and dare to do with less, practice simplicity rather than complexity, divest instead of acquire, slow-down instead of speed-up. These are sure pathways into wilderness.
Lent’s invitation to a wilderness exam is not trying to tell you that your life is worthless now or that you are a spiritual imposter. No, it is an invitation to strip away the non-essentials so that you can discover if the life you are living is the one you are really longing to live, the one that God is calling you into in that ridiculously hard to hear still small voice.
So what will you give up for Lent that might actually lead you into a kind of voluntary wilderness? Only you know what kind of devil lurks in your life and what bag of tricks he uses on you over and over again.
I’ve heard of people giving up their cars for Lent and using public transportation. I read of a family last year that decided not to buy any more groceries during Lent and lived on what they already had at their house for 40 days rather nicely. What about giving up your cell phone or texting for Lent? The truth is you used to do without them. Can you imagine what that would do for some people? They might actually have to deal with the present, the now, the person right in front of them. What would it mean to cut up your credit cards for Lent?
Maybe you think some of these ideas are crazy but the truth is that they are really not all that impressive if you were to think of them from the perspective of someone who is not sure where their next meal is coming from or who lacks adequate shelter and clothing.
The truth is that most of us know that we insulate ourselves from life all the time. We all have our drugs of choice, our anesthesia. And whenever someone decides to give up the, habits, substances, or things that keep us from really feeling the way our lives truly are, it is quite remarkable!
So, what are you using, what is your life-numbing drug of choice? Is it surfing the web when you are lonely, crime shows on television, Facebooking, a nice sipping tequila to smooth out the evening, a mystery novel, the REI catalogue? Perhaps it is the fact that you stay late at work almost every single night. No, I’m not saying that any of these things are bad or the devil themselves but I wonder if they might not be the distractions you turn to over and over again when the Spirit is trying to lead you into the wilderness? It is just so easy isn’t when you are too tired, or too lonely or too sad to enter one of these temporary oases and miss out on the wilderness of God.
What I’m proposing of course is not easy. It is what spiritual masters have called the via negativa, the way of negation for many centuries. And the fruit of this labor does not come quickly or easily. It takes time for this kind of spiritual discipline to bear fruit. That of course is why we have 40 days of Lent, to practice, and practice, and practice. Without the Internet or texting or television the night could seem rather long. You will be tempted to feel that things are not going well with all this wilderness adventure stuff that pesky meddlesome priest talked about. You may think you liked the forests of distraction quite a lot better as they offered so much more cover and protection from actually feeling your life. You may even wonder, “Where the devil is God in all this quiet?”
First, remember to breath, breath deep and easy and often. Sense the Spirit at work in you. Let your breath form prayers for your journey. In all likelihood you will make it through the first night without Law and Order or that cocktail or your Facebook page you are so comfortable with. It may take a while to settle in, to get quiet enough to hear your own breathing and to recognize the chatter of temptation behind it all. But in the midst of it you will discover that your life is speaking to you and you are alive in a new way to God’s Spirit.
There will be fearful voices in you mind telling you that all this sacrifice is a waste of time. The devil’s of your life are sure to tell you that all this wilderness is going to kill you but the truth is it rarely does. In fact quite the opposite is true, it is only when we have stripped away the protective habits, lived in the quietness for a while and taken in the clean desert air that we begin to rediscover the scent of new life around and within us.
But of course I cannot tell you what your wilderness exam should look like. Only you know where to start your studies. I can only tell you that the pop-quiz is nothing compared to the real exam. Giving up of chocolate is nothing like listening to your life. I do know that the Lenten invitation to wilderness is worth the trip, for it is the way to discover that only God can satisfy our real appetites. The wilderness is a difficult place but just as it was for Jesus, the Spirit who leads us into the wilderness is also able to lead you out again, toward the hope and joy and trust that come from Worshiping and serving God with all your heart and soul and strength, in your real life. So please clear off your desks and take out the No.2 pencil of your life for the invitation to your wilderness exam is here.
I am deeply indebted and thankful for the sermon of Barbara Brown Taylor on this passage entitled The Wilderness Exam that served as the inspiration for this sermon. I’ve worked hard to make it my own and more importantly I hope to make the wilderness exam my own as well in this season of Lent.