Sunday, February 25, 2007

Lent 1C

Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:9-15; Romans 10:5-13; Luke 4:1-13

The summer after 7th grade, my family went to stay at Kanuga, an Episcopal retreat center near Ashville, NC, for a week. Our cabin was nestled with others at the foot of a steep hill, along a pathway of pine needles and pebbles and the twisted roots of trees whose green branches unfurled overhead. Late every afternoon, about an hour before the dinner bell sounded, it would rain. No, not rain – it would pour. My family would sit tucked in on the screened porch, talking and telling stories, shivering slightly in the damp breeze, counting the long seconds it took for thunder to rumble across the mountaintops.

One afternoon, as it poured, we heard the sound of heavy footsteps crunching through wet pine needles and twisted roots. Moments later, a line of young people appeared, trudging along the path in front of our cabin, each carrying a large backpack with a sleeping bag tied above or below, each wearing what looked like a clear garbage bag over their heads and packs, with dripping holes for their faces and arms, each singing a song loud enough to rival the pounding of rain on the leaves above.

We watched this strange, this wild and unexpected procession round a corner that continued uphill and out of sight, and we figured that they must have been from Camp Kanuga, just a mile down the road. As the sound of their singing faded, I remember very clearly saying to my mom and dad, “They will be wet forever. That will never, ever be me.”

I didn’t think about that day again until one afternoon several years later. It rained – no, it poured, the afternoon I led my first campout as a Camp Kanuga counselor, trudging along the very same path, catching the eye of a little girl dry on the front porch of her cabin. We were indeed wet forever, or at least all summer.

It didn’t seem at first that I was going to be very good at wilderness living. I had never been on a campout before – the knots and the tarps and the trail-following (straight uphill with your backpack and three of your crying campers’ backpacks because there might have been a bee back there) and the fire-starting (in the rain) and the stew-cooking…it was all new to me. I was pretty miserable those first few campouts, out there in the wilderness, wet.

I wonder how miserable Noah was, forty days and nights of nothing but wet. We know how miserable the Israelites were, forty years of wandering through the desert wilderness. I wonder if Jesus was ever miserable, even once, forty days in the wilderness, led by the Spirit, tempted by the devil, eating nothing at all. Maybe Jesus couldn’t light a fire in the rain, either. Maybe he didn’t like stew.

Over and over again in our scriptures, the wilderness is a place of testing and temptation, of wild beasts and wrong turns, of too much water or not enough. The wilderness is unfamiliar, unfriendly, and uncomfortable. And forty days or forty years – no matter, the number forty was simply used to signify a long time, with wilderness stretching as far as the eye could see.

If you looked back, you might see as a tiny speck on the horizon the place where you stood when God called you into the wilderness. Neither the Israelites nor Jesus simply stumbled off a pathway of pine straw and pebbles – God called them there. Sent them there. In Luke’s gospel, the Spirit led Jesus there, he was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.

I wonder if Jesus looked back, back to the moment not so long before when he was still dripping with Jordan River water, when God had said, You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. It had quite possibly been a moment of revelation, and certainly deep affirmation, for Jesus. In those waters, God confessed Jesus’ identity, who Jesus was. You are my Son, the Beloved. In the wilderness, the devil would try to dry Jesus out, try to drain him of who he was and fill him instead with the devil told him he could be if he would step off the path just a little…

Just think how much good you could do, Jesus, if you turned these stones to bread. Just think how many would hear you if you had authority over all the kingdoms of the world. Just think how many would notice if you pulled that stunt from the pinnacle from the temple – the whole world would see and know who you are.

That was just the thing, though, wasn’t it. The world wouldn’t have known who Jesus was at all. Instead they would have known a man who, like so many others before and after him, had believed those words whispered his ear. Real temptation beckons us, entices us, to do that about which much good can be said – no self-respecting devil entices us by suggesting we fall into ruin (another preacher suggested, “ruin is in the small print at the bottom of the temptation”).

Wiping out hunger, overturning oppressive governments, letting all the world see the power of God…Luke makes it sound as though Jesus had his answers at the ready, but I wonder if Jesus struggled. He hadn’t yet preached a sermon or called a disciple or healed anyone…it was all new to him. He didn’t exactly have an instruction manual. He knew the Jewish people had high expectations of a messiah, one whose political and religious power would sweep in and restore God’s rule. Stones to bread…He must have struggled. We are only tempted by what is within our power – temptation appeals to our strength, to what we are capable of, not our weakness. Jesus must have struggled mightily. But as the sweat began to drip down his brow, the Spirit stirred in him and he remembered and looked back to that moment dripping in the river and heard again God’s confession, You are my Son, the Beloved.

The words were then very near indeed to Jesus’ lips, as he responded with his own confession. Two of the verses he quotes in this passage are part of the great confession of the Jewish faith, shema yisrael, adonai eloheinu, adonai ehad. Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. And so Jesus faithfully resisted the temptation to be less or other than he was called to be. God was all that Jesus needed. We don’t get to hear in this reading what happens next, which is that filled with the same Holy Spirit, Jesus goes to Galilee and begins his ministry of telling the world that all they need is God, too.

The thing is, I don’t think Jesus so much left the wilderness as he just exchanged one wilderness for another. The cities of Galilee and beyond would, in the end, be no safer than the sands of the desert. They were filled, as our communities today are filled, with people who believed cleverly whispered words that power, authority, and wealth made you who you were. That gender, skin color, age, sexual orientation and able-bodiedness were measures of worth. That a little violence and deception and betrayal were justifiable means to an end. In the wildnerness of the world there were wild beasts on the prowl in the form of religious and political leaders, skeptics, and even, sometimes, friends. Jesus would face temptation again, in the beautiful garden of Gethsemane that was for one anxious night a wilderness. Jesus would pass that test, too, even though nailed to a cross it would look for all the world like he had failed.

The wilderness tested the faith of Jesus, as it had tested the Israelites, as it continues to test our faith. In the wilderness, we are stripped down to the very essentials. And the essentials are these: God made us, God loves us, and God keeps us. That is enough for us as we go about the work we were called to back when we came dripping out of the baptismal waters and our identity was confessed: You are sealed by the power of the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. That, sisters and brothers, is who we are. God is all that we need.

It’s a jungle out there, as the saying goes. We live all the time in the wilderness, full of temptations and tests, wild beasts and wrong turns, too much water or not enough. Both scripture and experience bear testimony to a power which opposes love, health, peace, and wholeness. Because we fear we won’t survive, we pack on as much gear as we possibly can – not just the backpack, the sleeping bag, and the clear garbage bag for when it rains, but the tent, and the grill, and the cooler, and the air mattress, and the LED headlamps and the titanium stove, and the GPS…after all, haven’t we stepped a little off the path, couldn’t we be getting a little lost…?

In the season of Lent, we have the opportunity to be stripped down to the essentials. We don’t need all that gear. The messiah didn’t turn stones to bread, he wasn’t a magician, or a conquering hero, or a one-man show. You are my Son, the Beloved. God was well-pleased for the messiah to walk the paths around the Jordan River valley, teaching and preaching and healing and laughing and eating and loving the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his strength.

We are more able than we think we are to live out who we are called to be. I certainly learned that in the wilderness of the mountains of North Carolina. I may never win on Survivor, but I can light a fire in the rain. I may never win a Nobel Peace Prize, but I can comfort a homesick camper and carry her backpack for her.

So are we all more able than we think we are to live out who we are called to be in our baptism. It’s a jungle out there, but the Spirit leads us in the wilderness, ready to meet us in wild and strange and unexpected ways as we go, ready to be our strength, ready to help us to remember who we are. Out there in the wilderness, Jesus himself is the food and drink that nourishes us. And while we may not be wet forever out there in the wilderness, the word is always very near us, the confession that we are Christ’s own forever – we carry it here, where once water ran across our brow. That is all we need. Nothing else. Everything else is temptation. Amen.

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