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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The famous Irish playwright Oscar Wilde, humorously said, “I can resist everything except temptation.” It’s true for all of us. Temptations greet us every day. For eleven years, I worked in Scandinavia as a tour escort. As I would begin each tour, I would read to the group a favorite writing known as the Tourist’s Prayer. It invited the group to be patient and accommodating on the journey, and then ended with the following two, specifically focused petitions. To the men, “Protect our wives from sales they do not need and cannot afford. And forgive us when we miss an historic site in our guidebook to take a nap in the afternoon. The spirit is willing but flesh is weak.” Then to the women, ‘And protect our husbands from speaking too loudly, making fools of themselves in restaurants, and staring at foreign women and comparing them to us. And do not forgive them their trespasses, for they know exactly what they do.” Yes, temptations greet us every day.
Although this morning’s gospel is often referred to as the Temptation of Jesus in the Wilderness, I think that the story could be more aptly titled the Testing of Jesus in the Wilderness. After all, Satan is barely mentioned in St. Mark’s passage. The devil receives no more mention than the wild beasts and the angels. With that said, I do think it is important that we learn to differentiate between the temptation and testing in our own lives. That is the purpose of Lent. It is not a season intended to test you, and celebrate your failure when you stumble along the way. The discipline of Lent is to help you grow stronger in your faith, and more confident in your ability to say no when temptation does come your way.
The story of Jesus’ testing begins with the work the Holy Spirit that led Jesus out into wilderness for 40 days. Jesus was not the first character in the Bible to led out in the wilderness. Abraham and Sarah, Moses and the prophets, King David and countless others were led there by the Spirit, to help them find their true mettle. The testing of faith occurs whenever and wherever God brings events and challenges into someone’s life in order to reveal that person’s own true character. It’s like an academic exam intended to make you more aware and confident of what you know. Satan, however, decided that Jesus’ 40 days of testing would be an opportune time for temptation. The nature of temptation, you see, is to entice a person into breaking away from God’s laws and commandments, precisely at one breaking point in the time of testing.
Of course, the testing of faith didn’t with Jesus. I have a feeling that every one of us has already been tested at least once, and it probably wasn’t in the desert. Maybe for you it was the hospital waiting room after you heard the doctor’s less than optimistic diagnosis, or perhaps it was waking in the sheets on a bed in the county jail after you were arrested for a DWI, or perhaps it was the day when you couldn’t find your car in the company parking lot after your supervisor had closed the door in your office and spoke of the need for downsizing. It may have been a kind of lonely desert in the middle of the night, when you begged for a word from God and heard nothing but the sound of your sleeping spouse. Wilderness experiences come in many shapes and sizes.
Needless to say, this is not a situation many of us seek. In fact, if you’re like me, you spend a lot of time and energy trying to stay out of the wilderness, and indeed, keeping your loved ones from being lured out into the wilderness as well. But truthfully, I don’t know anyone who ever truly succeeds in avoiding the wilderness. Sooner or later the star high school athlete, the college graduate summa cum laude, and the student voted most likely to succeed, and yes, every one of us will get to take our own wilderness testing exam. We all find ourselves making a trip to the desert to explore who we really are and what we believe.
I know that doesn’t necessarily sound like good news. It is certainly not something we would choose to do. Still, even if no one ever wants to go there, and once they are there, they don’t want to stay there, the wilderness can be a life changing place. Consider Jesus’ journey. St. Mark writes that Jesus was led there by the Holy Spirit and he was filled by the Spirit. His companions were the angels and wild beasts. Yes, he was there for weeks, and when he was done, he was famished. During those 40 days, Jesus relied on the gift of prayer. He was in communion with his heavenly Father. Jesus was being strengthened by the words of scripture echoing in his thoughts and memories. Finally, he was being nurtured by the guiding presence of the Holy Spirit. And what did these 40 days of solitude in the wilderness accomplish? The wilderness freed him. The wilderness freed him from all of Satan’s attempts to distract him from his true purpose and mission. After forty days out in the wilderness, Jesus had learned to trust himself and the Spirit that had led him there.
From Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, you and I as Christians are invited to experience that same wilderness in little ways. We are invited to do without some things. Things we choose to give up for Lent. This we call self-discipline and sacrificial giving. St. Augustine called it sacrificing the body in order to strengthen the soul. And we are invited to take on some things like prayer and reading scripture that draw us closer to God. We hope that through these means and choices, that like Jesus in the wilderness, we might discover something about ourselves and who we are. Lent, you see, isn’t simply about denying and punishing yourself in the wilderness in order to experience a bit of Jesus suffering and pain, but rather Lent is about placing yourself into the wilderness like Jesus so that you may be opened to the work of the Holy Spirit.
For each one of us, the wilderness testing will be different. But no matter what we call it, something often prevents us from being drawn away the earthly comforts and leisure of this world to the holy call and purpose of God. It may be work, classes with the Cooks of Crocus Hill, Netflix, Better Homes and Gardens, the new Peloton bike, a run around the lake, Bombay Sapphire gin martinis. We all have habits and vices that keep us from exploring God’s invitation for our life. Giving in to temptations spare us from testing. As the saying goes, “Opportunity knocks only once, but temptation bangs on your door for years.” Yes, temptation is the nagging voice that comes from within. It is that voice that encourages you to cast aside God’s chief purpose and dream for your life and forego the wilderness.
My friends, as Oscar Wilde once said, “I can resist everything except temptation.” We can all give in too easily to temptation. It is why we need to work to strengthen our faith by accepting the Holy Spirit’s invitation these 40 days. So, do not be afraid of the wilderness- if that is where the Spirit is leading you. It is there in the wilderness, where like our savior Jesus, you too will be set free. It is there that the in the wilderness, that the holy scripture will become your refreshing spring. It is there in the wilderness that prayer, will become your holy communion with God. Yes, let the Holy Spirit be your guide and companion, and in the process of testing, your faith will become stronger and more confident. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.