The Rev. Canon Rosemarie Logan Duncan: God IS in the Wilderness
Let us pray – Holy God: Open our eyes to your presence. Open our ears to your call. Open our hearts to your love. Amen.
On this first Sunday in Lent, we begin the observance of the season, as we always do, with the theme of temptation. The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell of a wilderness period where Jesus, immediately following his baptism, is led by the Spirit (or in the case of Mark’s gospel, “driven” by the Spirit) into a lengthy sojourn of prayer, fasting, and temptation.
The realities of temptation and sin are very apparent in our readings from Genesis, Matthew’s gospel and in our collect today. In Genesis, we witness how temptation toward evil led Adam and Eve to an act of faithlessness and sin. This act distorted humankind’s relationship with God and with all creation. In contrast, our gospel reading shows how Jesus relied on faith in God’s Word and authority. And as we prayed: “Almighty God,…come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save.” We ask God to be our strength and guide when we’re faced with temptation and sin.
In the passage immediately preceding our Gospel text for today, God affirmed Jesus, at his baptism, as God’s own son, and in that passage, we are told that God was “well pleased” with Jesus (Matthew 3:17). But immediately following this scene, Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. It is in the wilderness that Jesus must face powerful assaults on these truths. In the wilderness Jesus is tempted to please someone other than God.
We follow Jesus into the wilderness and watch as the Son of God confronts the fullness of his humanity. As our gospel text notes, Jesus is “famished” after forty days of fasting. Physically, he’s at the end of his strength. Socially, he is alone and without human companionship. Spiritually, he is struggling to hang onto his identity as the glow of his baptism recedes into pre-wilderness memory. And it’s in this state of vulnerability that the tempter comes, ready to pull Jesus away from his beloved status, and his future ministry.
One of the most interesting things about our gospel story of Jesus in the wilderness is that there were no witnesses noted in the unfolding drama. Jesus must have told the disciples because he hoped that they would remember and share this moment of his life as a model for his followers present and future, on how to confront temptation. The Gospel tells us that Jesus didn’t choose to enter the wilderness. The Spirit led him there. Jesus didn’t aimlessly wander into the wilderness on his own. But the amazing thing is that Jesus chose to stay until the work of the wilderness was over. We don’t always choose to enter wildernesses, either. We don’t volunteer for pain, loss, danger, or terror. But the wilderness happens.
We may ask in our context, – What does it mean to be tempted? It is to be pulled away from the purpose for which we were created: to live in God, to be one with God, to delight in God, to love God with all that we are – heart, soul, and mind. Temptation is part and parcel of the human condition, and we do ourselves a disservice when we minimize it and its impact on our lives. Temptation has been described as a wedge. In the world of physics, in the mechanical world, there is no more powerful application than the wedge. Once you get its thin edge into a small opening, it’s only a matter of time and force how far the wedge can split things apart. The hardest stone, the toughest wood – no matter what it is – nothing is able to resist the power of the wedge to drive it apart. Jesus knew the power of temptation to destroy our relationship with God even as he is tested by the three great impulses of human history – the love of power, wealth, and prestige. Jesus confronted each reflecting that he stood with his love of God.
Today we must ask ourselves, where do we stand, with God or the world? Concerning power,- do we use it for personal gain or for the betterment of all, especially the vulnerable in our society and in our midst? With wealth, does the desire for profit and comfort come at the expense of those locked in poverty, economic hardship, often relegated to live in environmental disaster areas? Do we use our prestige and position to dominate others, only concerned with what others may think of us rather than using our influence to challenge and change inequities?
We’re tempted to choose the easy way when we realize how hard it is to forgive the guilty, listen to the lonely, and share what we have with the poor. It’s much easier to settle for a tepid faith that fails to confront the systems that support injustice and oppression. We get so used to choosing what’s easiest that we seldom consider the hard way of sacrifice. But sacrifice is the lesson before us today as we pay attention to the choices Jesus makes in the wilderness: he chooses hunger and deprivation over fullness and satisfaction; danger and uncertainty over angelic rescue and safety. Humility over honor and distinction. Jesus will not take the easy way out–
Jesus knew temptation’s alure for the human heart, and he knew the solution was not simply willpower. Overcoming the devil is more than to “just say no.” It would be so simple if that were so. No, it is not our willpower, but God’s power. It is not our resolve, but God’s Spirit. The apostle Paul knew this truth reflected in his words, “15 I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate (Romans 7:15).” The key to dealing with temptation is not found within us. The key to overcoming temptation is found only in God.
Immediately after Jesus came out of the wilderness, he began his ministry. Whenever we emerge from our wilderness experience, we are called to do the same. And sometimes that will mean choosing to step into the wilderness to help someone find their way.
Today is the last Sunday in Black History Month a time when we remember and celebrate the stories of generations of Black Americans who struggled with a history of oppression and injustice to achieve full citizenship in this country. This is important because Black History IS American history and for so long the stories of Black women and men have been overlooked, under-told, ignored all together, or stolen for the comfort of majority culture. The impact of systemic racism continues to leave communities trapped and caught in perpetual wildernesses, where life is difficult, and death is dominant. That is why the work of this Cathedral to include, expand, and represent those stories and their images in this sacred space is so important as it stands in contrast to the efforts of states across this country to erase the narratives and culture of my people – people who look like me who have the legacy of enslavement in our family lineage. But racism isn’t the only wilderness journey we’ve experienced as a society. There is the devastating wilderness of violence within our city and our nation. There are the wildernesses of homelessness, food insecurity, lack of healthcare, unemployment, and underemployment, failing educational systems, and an unjust criminal justice system.
But there is still good news today. The wilderness is not a place abandoned by God. The wilderness is not a place devoid of Jesus. There is hope for there is one who made it through the wilderness, faced temptation, and overcame it. There is one who promises to strengthen us to make it through our wilderness times and come out on the other side. There is one who stands ready to come to our aid – yes one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. The wilderness does not seem so relentless, so crushing, so devastating, so final when we know that Jesus has entered it with us. And Jesus points us to God- a God of love – a God who knows our weaknesses and our failings and loves us anyway. Trust that God will see you through the wilderness and any temptations that may come your way as you journey through th