a sermon for the First Sunday in Lent on Matthew 4:1-11
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on March 13, 2011
Jesus didn’t set out seeking the wilderness, but that’s where he ended up. John the Baptist, his cousin, was known for dragging people out into the wilderness, where he called them to repent and be baptized, and Jesus too began his ministry as the Spirit led him too out into the wilderness. This wasn’t just any old Boy Scout weekend camping trip – this was an intense forty-day journey filled with fasting and prayer as the final preparation for his ministry. It had to be a pretty intense experience for Jesus out in the wilderness, with daily worries about finding water to sustain his life, nightly fears of attacks by wild animals, and the constant perils of the extremes of rain and heat and cold.
After those forty days and forty nights, though, Matthew tells us that Jesus’ journey in the wilderness had actually only just begun. The temptations of the wilderness for Jesus came to a head at the end of these forty days, just when Jesus’ hunger was at its greatest and his resolve was at its lowest. The tempter came at him three times, each time seeking to break Jesus’ resolve and faith from a different angle. First the devil suggested that he turn stones to bread and ease his hunger pains, but Jesus would have nothing of it, remembering that he needed no bread to live but rather could be sustained by the faithful word of God. Then the devil took Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple, encouraging him to jump down and test the psalmist’s promise of God’s salvation, but Jesus instead chose to follow another scripture: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Finally the tempter showed Jesus all the splendor of the nations from the top of a mountain, promising that all this would be his if he only chose to worship the devil, but Jesus insisted that he would worship only God the Lord. After all this, Jesus’ wilderness way came to an end as angels came to care for him and meet his needs after his long sojourn in the wilderness.
The wilderness way that Jesus himself faced is the inspiration for our season of Lent. The length of these days, the penitential focus of these days, and even the long-standing practice of fasting or giving up something for Lent is rooted in Jesus’ own time in the wilderness. Our journey of Lent too is rooted in a season and attitude of self-examination and self-discovery that were certainly a central part of Jesus’ own journey in the wilderness. And just as the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness and stayed with him through those forty days, the Spirit also guides us into these days and goes with us along the way so that we do not walk this road alone. But as important as this season is, the wilderness is not somehow magically over for us on Easter morning. The journey of Lent does not bring us immediately out of wilderness and may even leave us in a darker and more uncertain place than we were before. The resurrection dawn on Easter morning does not bring us automatic and immediate relief from all our pain and struggle even though it is the decisive victory over the power of sin and death. And the self-examination and self-discovery we undertake in these days invariably will force us to confront issues in our lives well beyond the things we can sort in these forty days.
Even so, Jesus’ wilderness way that we walk for ourselves in these Lenten days gives us some deeper insights into our own journey through the wilderness that we walk each and every day. The wilderness of our changing world is before us constantly, and the wildernesses of each of our lives confound and confuse us. Things in our world are startlingly different from what we have known in the past, and we face the challenge and difficulty of sorting out how to live in a seemingly new and different time. Obstacles and uncertainties appear in the road before us, and we are forced to sort out how to live amidst these difficulties. Options and possibilities for us abound in this wilderness, and it so often becomes difficult to sort out the temptations from the opportunities.
And so as we wander in the wilderness, we see that Jesus’ journey is the model for our own. Jesus persevered through the uncertainty and difficulty to emerge to a new day, and he came forth from the wilderness strengthened to live very differently than he had ever done before. Jesus looked at the various options that the wilderness offered him and sought a faithful response to temptation, and he emerged from the twists and turns with confidence and hope not in his own ability but in God’s transforming presence. And just as the Spirit had guided him into the wilderness, Jesus trusted the Spirit’s presence throughout his journey there and so was able to walk in new paths of life.
The wilderness of Lent is before us. Turns and twists and curves will inevitably come on our road. Uncertainty will seem to reign, and we will be confused and turned around time and time again. Yet the Spirit still goes with us, standing by our side as we walk the road of penitence and passion, journeying with us no matter what our struggle or joy, facing our sorrow and pain with us, and always embodying the presence of God each and every day. And most of all, even amidst all the twists and turns of our pain and suffering, even in a dark and uncertain path through sorrow and sighing, we know where this road ends – with the deep suffering of Jesus transformed into the glory of the resurrection, with even death no longer having the final word for Jesus and for us. The wilderness way has been conquered already, and we simply must seek his signposts to guide us as we seek to follow his path.
Because Jesus walks this road before us, we can approach this wilderness way without fear, walking whatever road we face in these days with faithfulness and hope, accompanied by that same Spirit who led Jesus into the wilderness and led him out with confidence and hope. So as we journey through these forty days together, may we know the presence of the Spirit in this wilderness and prepare anew for the passion and resurrection of our Lord so that our faith might be strengthened and our life renewed. Amen.