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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.
Temptations greet us every day. For eleven years, I worked in Scandinavia as a tour escort. As I began each tour, I would read to the group a favorite writing known as the Tourist’s Prayer. The husbands in the tour were encouraged to pray the following petition, “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.” To which the women would respond in prayer, “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, for they know exactly what they do.” Temptations greet us every day, and as we begin the season of Lent we are reminded that Jesus himself knew such human testing and temptation.
St. Luke’s gospel tells the simple, and profound story of Jesus being led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested- and there the devil appeared to him. Ever since then, good and faithful religious followers have tried to embrace Jesus’ spiritual discipline by giving up something for Lent, or abstaining from certain foods and alcohol, and in some way trying to experience a bit of Jesus’ struggle. But this morning, I would like to turn from the temptation to focus instead on the place where Jesus’ testing took place- out in the wilderness.
No doubt, every one of us has been to that wilderness before, though it probably wasn’t in the desert. Maybe for you it was the hospital waiting room after you heard the doctor’s less then 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 wheezing sound of your sleeping spouse. Certainly, one can experience that wilderness when we wake up in the middle of the night or early in the morning to see the latest images of bombed out buildings in Ukraine. It feels like a hopeless wilderness with no relief in sight.
This is certainly not the wilderness where you would willing wander. In fact, if you’re like me, you spend a lot of time and energy trying to stay out of the wilderness, and keeping your loved ones from being lured there as well. Unfortunately, I don’t know anyone who ever truly succeeds in completely 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 takes our turn at the wilderness testing exam.
That’s why the story of Jesus’s temptation is so puzzling to us. St. Luke writes that Jesus was led out into the wilderness freely by the Holy Spirit. His companions were the angels and wild beasts. Yes, he was there for weeks, and when he was done, he was cruised or beaten. Instead, we read that the wilderness freed him. The wilderness liberated him from all the devil’s attempts to distract him from his true purpose and mission.
From Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, you and I are invited to experience that same sort of wilderness in little ways. We are invited to do without some things that we are perfectly capable of having and enjoying. This we call self-discipline and sacrificial giving. And we are invited to take on some things that we are just as capable of avoiding. This we call self-examination and repentance. We hope that like Jesus we can discover something about ourselves and who we are.
For each one of us, that wilderness wandering will be different. I read recently of a woman who gave up her cell phone for Lent. I had an intern who gave up Facebook. Giving something up which consumes our time and energy is a good start. The problem, however, is that most of us can’t go straight from setting down the cell phone and social media to hearing the still, small voice of God. We need that constant source of strength that Jesus had at his command. We need the gift of scripture.
As Christians we boldly state that the Bible is at the core of our faith. Unfortunately, many of us have never memorized any scripture to drawn upon in those wilderness moments. In life’s painful times when the devil is tempting you to doubt, let me suggest three portions of scripture for you to read, to reread and embrace.
My friends, when you are feeling empty and the devil challenges your self-worth, tempting you to abandon God’s dream for your life, commit these words to memory, 1 John 3:1, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” Martin Luther liked to say, “God loves you more than your love yourself.” Indeed, God is more concerned with you and your welfare than you are. The more you wish to be blessed, the more he chooses to bless you. And when you give up on yourself, you may be assured that in Jesus Christ, God still cares and works to bless you. When the devil is testing your self-worth tempting you to abandon God’s purpose in your life, say to him, 1 John 3, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God, and so we are.”
And when the Devil tests your self-confidence causing you to doubt your call, say to him, Philippians 4: 13, “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.” A social worker battling frustration and failure with hardcore addicts was asked, “How do you keep going?” She replied, “I guess it’s because I am under higher orders. I don’t have to succeed, but I have to keep trying.” Such is your duty as one called by Christ. Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.”
And finally, when the Devil tests your integrity and self-control encouraging you to be compromised, remind yourself that you are never alone in your values, and boldly answer Hebrew 12: 1 and 2. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witness, let us lay aside every weight, and sin which clings closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” The devil wants you to believe that you are alone. But my friends, you are never alone. That is what Jesus discovered in the wilderness. Even there the angels and wild beasts were ministering to him. And now, together with all the saints, they are filling the bleachers of heaven and are shouting to you to keep the faith.
My friends, do not be afraid of the wilderness- if that is where you have found yourself. It is there, where like our savior Jesus, you too will be set free. Let holy scripture become your refreshing spring in the wilderness. Rest in silence, doing nothing but drinking deeply and breathing gently and letting down your cares upon God’s shoulder. Then let the words of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer become your own,
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time, Enjoying one moment at a time, Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace, Taking, as Jesus did, This sinful world as it is, Not as I would have it, Trusting that You will make all things right, If I surrender to Your will, So that I may be reasonably happy in this life, And supremely happy with You forever in the next. Amen.”
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.