Deuteronomy 26: 1-11; Psalm 91: 1-2, 9-16; Romans 10: 8b - 13; Luke 4: 1 - 13
THE REV. JAMES M.L. GRACE
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
I want to talk today about the wilderness. Not the wilderness that come to our mind when we think of our national parks – snow-capped mountain peaks, clear lakes and streams, pine trees. I want to speak about the wilderness in the Bible, the place Jesus finds himself for forty days and forty nights. This is a very different kind of wilderness, it is a wilderness the book of Deuteronomy describes as a “a desert land, in a howling wilderness waste.” It’s not a pleasant place to visit, there are no snow-capped peaks, no pine trees, no clear mountain streams. It is a place of devils, dust, and death. I’m doing a good job selling its appeal aren’t I?
This is where Jesus is today, and you have been there, too. Maybe it just looked like a drab hospital waiting room where the doctor confirmed the tumor was malignant and inoperable. Or maybe your wilderness appeared like the cheap sheets of a hotel bed after you got kicked out of your house. Maybe your wilderness looked more like the parking lot where you couldn’t find your car the day you were fired from your job.
For 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians on Febraury 15, 2015, one year ago, their wilderness was a beach in northern Libya, where all of them were executed by the Islamic State for no other reason than their faith in Jesus Christ. Their execution was seen worldwide in a video released by ISIS entitled “A Message signed with Blood to the Nations of the Cross.” All of them were native Egyptians except one – a young African man described as coming from Chad or Ghana. This man was not a Christian when he was captured, but when challenged by terrorists to declare his faith, he reportedly replied, referring to the Christian faith of the Coptic Christians captured alongside him, “Their God is my God.”
Twelve years ago my wife and I unknowingly stepped into a wilderness during a twenty-week ultrasound on our oldest son, who was yet to be born. We were anticipating a joyful experience, learning the gender, counting fingers and toes. Instead our initial joyfulness was met with silence from the technician who kept looking at the image of the brain of our child on the screen, measuring it quietly, saying nothing to us. It turns out a portion of his brain was not developing correctly, it wasn’t large enough. Later doctors expressed concern that our oldest son might not walk, could be blind or deaf, and may never be able to communicate. I remember one awful day when a doctor told us to consider abortion. Today James is ten years old. He talks, a lot. He is my greatest teacher, teaching me more about the heart-wrenching beauty of the wilderness, than any bishop, priest, or professor.
See, the wilderness comes in so many shapes and sizes that the only way you can really tell if you are in one is if you look around for what you normally count on to sustain you and you come up empty. No power. No autonomy. No special protection. Jesus had nothing in his wilderness except a Bible- quoting devil and a whole lot of sand.
None of us seek this place. We go to great length, spending time and money to avoid it, but it is always there. We cannot hide from it.
Maybe this is bad news. That is for you to judge. What I can say about the wilderness, though, is that the wilderness is the most reality-based, spirit filled, life-changing places that a person can be.
Jesus ends up in the wilderness after his baptism because the Holy Spirit literally drives him into it, living on nothing for weeks, and what does all that time, all that sand, all that temptation get him in the end?
It gets him the thing all of us so desperately hunger for: freedom. The wilderness freed Jesus from all devilish attempts to distract him from his true purpose. The wilderness freed Jesus from any craving for things with no power to give him life. The wilderness freed Jesus from any illusion he might have had that God would make choices for him or make his life easy.
After his time in the wilderness, Jesus learned to trust that the Spirit of God that led him into the wilderness would also lead him out, returning to the world with a kind of clarity and true grit he would not have been able to find anywhere else.
We also learn something about temptation in the wilderness. In Jesus’ encounters with the devil, the astute observer realizes that the things the devil uses to tempt Jesus are things that Jesus already possesses. The temptation is not the stuff the devil offers. Rather the temptation for Jesus is the improper use of the power, and the improper use of ambition.
The value of the wilderness is mostly lost to our culture, and ironically, also largely lost to the church that is charged with preserving it. Author and theologian Henri Nouwen writes that “The long painful history of the church is the history of a people ever and again tempted to choose power over love, and control over the cross.” Our journey through the wilderness is what enables us to choose love over power, to choose the cross over control. It is the Libyan beach, it is the lonely hotel room, it is the doctor’s office, it is here. And once again, the Spirit calls us to be courageous and faithful.
This is our time, our moment, our wilderness. Will you step into it? AMEN.