Wilderness Jesus: Sermon for Lent 1, 2016

Have you ever been lost?

I don’t mean in the existential sense; I mean literally lost.

I usually don’t mind being lost. I like exploring things. But once, when I first moved to New England eight years ago, I had a really important meeting in downtown Boston. I didn’t know my way around, but I had my GPS so I figured I’d be fine.

But GPS devices back then weren’t that great. And as I drove on those narrow streets between high metal skyscrapers, I couldn’t get a reliable signal. It kept bouncing off the buildings and getting confused. I kept driving in circles, with the electronic voice telling me to turn left, and then turn right, and then turn around.

In the end, even with this cutting edge help, I still didn’t know how to get where I was going.

Today’s the first Sunday of Lent. On Wednesday night, we held our Ash Wednesday service here. We received the ashes that symbolize the start of Lent, and just as I do every year, and just as many other clergy do, I talked about Lent as a journey that we take with God for the forty days before Easter.

Those forty days aren’t arbitrary. Scripture tells us that Jesus went out into the wilderness for forty days, and it was out in the wilderness that he fasted and he wrestled with faith and doubt. In fact, Scripture says he wrestled with evil personified, and with temptation far beyond anything we will ever face.

As the story goes, Jesus was put to a test. First he was asked, “if you’re so hungry, why don’t you turn this stone into some bread?” But Jesus resists and says, “you don’t live by bread alone.”

Then, Jesus is taken up to a high place and looks down on all the world and is told, “You know, if you worship me, I’ll give you all of this.” But Jesus says, “Worship God alone…and serve God alone.”

Finally, he is taken up to the top of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the adversary says to him, “If you’re really the son of God…throw yourself off the roof. God will save you.” But Jesus says, “don’t put God to the test”. And after that, the adversary, the devil, left him alone.

Forty days of wrestling in the wilderness. Forty days of fasting and refocusing. Forty days of being tested and tempted and being offered an easier way. And at the end of it, Jesus emerges, and it doesn’t even get any easier. In fact, he faces even greater challenges.

You and I know how the story goes from here. We know we are journeying towards Easter. But to get to Easter you have to go through the cross and the tomb. Theologians debate whether or not Jesus knew that at the time. I don’t know if he knew exactly how it would all go down, but I think he knew something big was about to happen. Something that would test his will and resolve and faithfulness. And so, I think it’s telling that before that time came, he took forty days and he got lost.

For Jesus the wilderness was literal. He literally went to a physical place where few went. But he was out there spiritually too, and that was perhaps even scarier. Spiritual wilderness is a place where few people ever dare to go.

After all, who wants to go into the wilderness? I’m not talking about camping and hiking; I’m talking about real wilderness here, where we wrestle with ourselves, and our spirit, and our relationship with God.

What good is it, after all? You can’t put it on a resume. It doesn’t earn you any money. It doesn’t really make your life easier. It may even make it harder. So why would you do it?

But that’s exactly what Lent asks of us. It asks us for forty days to go into a wilderness place, and to prepare ourselves for the journey of discipleship. It asks us to wrestle with the hard stuff. To pray. To fast. To do something new. To face temptation and to choose to follow Christ anyway.

It’s not popular. Easter morning the church will be full of people, some of whom we’ve never seen before but who go to church twice a year, and I don’t begrudge that. But Ash Wednesday, and Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday? Not so much. Everyone likes a party; but not everyone likes setting up for it.

And that’s okay. It’s a personal choice. But for those of us who choose to make this forty day wilderness journey, we discover something meaningful along the way: we’ve often been in the wilderness, but now we’ve found Christ there too.

That’s good news because the reality of our lives is that we spend a lot of time lost. Not just literally, but in a deeper sense. We spend a lot of time facing temptation. We spend a lot of time wrestling with God. And, spiritually, we spend a lot of time being alone with our demons. And Jesus knows what that was like. And so in Lent we have the opportunity to spend forty days not alone, but with one who has been here before.

Have you ever had a hard time with faith? Jesus knew what that was like. Are you struggling to make a hard choice? Jesus knew what that was like. Are you grieving? Jesus knew what that was like. Are you wrestling with demons? Jesus knew what that was like. Are you preparing yourself for something new, something you don’t know how you are going to survive? Jesus knew what that was like too.

I’m convinced that when we go through these wilderness times God looks at us with nothing but compassion and nothing but love. After all, God watched God’s own child go through these days too.

There’s more good news, too. Because sometimes our wilderness places can do more than challenge us. They can change us.

Green Mountain National Forest near nightfall.

When I lived in Vermont we were right next door to the Green Mountain National Forest. My GPS didn’t work out there either, by the way. But that’s okay. Because much like the buildings in Boston were distractions for my GPS, sometimes this world can be full of distractions for me, misdirecting the otherwise clear signals God is sending.

And so I’d go out into the wilderness, where even my cell phone wouldn’t work, and I’d drive these dirt paths looking for a fly fishing spot. I’d literally get lost. And every time I did, I always thought “okay, you’ve gone too far this time.” But that was when I always saw something of beauty. I always saw a hidden piece of God’s creation that few ever did. And I always caught just a glimpse of God’s greatness.

Sometimes we have to get lost before we find the beauty that surrounds us. Sometimes it takes going to the hard places, the desolate places, the painful places, before we can find joy. Sometimes we have to hit rock bottom before we can find the solid ground of our being.

I think Lent is a season for discoveries like that. I also think church is the place to do it. It’s one of the only places in our culture, and the best time in our church year, where we can say to one another “we are traveling up a wilderness path right now…let’s do it together…and even if it’s further into this wilderness, even if we feel more lost than ever, let’s follow the one who has been here before.” Because, in the end, he might not lead us down easy paths, but he will never lead us astray. Amen?

3 thoughts on “Wilderness Jesus: Sermon for Lent 1, 2016

  1. Really great thoughts on getting lost with God. I believe the most difficult thing we will ever do on this earth is discipleship. And you’re right…it doesn’t go on the resume, but it is highly valued in God’s eyes. We are better off lost in the wilderness with God than we are, metaphorically, in the city of the world. It is something we should embrace, because God leaves many traces of his beauty in the wilderness. Thanks for sharing!

  2. We really miss being there to hear your sermons, but very happy I can still read them. We’ve been going to a UCC church in Pawtucket and Pastor Bill says he’s met you. I told him how much we like you and miss you. It’s a wonderful, friendly church, but a little difficult for us because there are so few people attending. So far, we’ve never seen more than 8- 10 people on a Sunday. 😦 And Pastor Wayne and Pastor Bill are great preachers, have good sermons – you can tell they put a lot of time and effort into giving a meaningful one. The choir has as many members as the people who attend, but such beautiful strong voices. Both pastors have beautiful voices, too. So the music enspires us and we hope when the warmer weather comes, attendance improves.

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