There’s a degree to which this can be something of an awkward text for a preacher to encounter.
Of course it makes perfect sense in the setting of the liturgical year. Just as we are in the early days of our 40-day period of preparing for Easter, our period of self-examination and penitence, it makes sense that we would hear about and study Jesus’ own 40-day period of preparation for his ministry among us. During that time he fasted and prayed and was tempted by the devil to consider taking an easier way out.
But while the timing makes sense, the subject matter remains a little… awkward.
One of the things that I believe about the church and its work is that we are not just called to remember and study these major events and teachings of the past. The work of the church is not just about us, being separated from the work of God by millennia, looking back with fondness at the “good old days” when God was walking with us. If that were so, I would be the first to admit that the church would be entirely irrelevant. We certainly should remember and study these ancient stories, but our relationship with them and with the truths that they hold is much more intimate than just that.
We are also called to participate in the ongoing drama of the life, death, and resurrection of the Christ as it continues in our own time. Through the work of community we are called to recognize the times in our lives when we see Christ alive. Through worship, prayer, and introspection we are called to respond when we sense Christ’s death in the people and events around us and in ourselves. And after it all we are called to revel in the resurrection. Like the cliché says, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Resurrection is always the end of the story.
Because I believe so deeply in the truth of the Christ-story – not just as something long ago, but also as something happening right now, even in this room – it can be a little strange talking about the temptation story.
The thing is, our culture teaches us that the devil is a Halloween character or a villain in films. Even in the church, we tend to not talk very much about the devil. We’d much rather focus on things like love and forgiveness and shepherds and lambs. Those are all very real parts of the Christian story – maybe even the most important parts – but they’re not the whole story.
It gets awkward, because I have to tell you, I think the devil is very real.
Certainly not in any “the-devil-made-me-do-it” kind of way. That’s just an excuse, if you ask me.
And maybe not even in any kind of “individual being lurking in the shadows” kind of way. I just don’t know.
But evil, as it is often represented as the devil, most certainly is real. Demons are very real.
Just as Jesus was tempted in the wilderness with an easy way out, so, too, are we all tempted by our own demons.
We tend to think of temptation as a mostly physical reality – in the sense of appetites that are either sustained or suppressed – but that is often to the neglect of the spiritual side of temptation. Like Jesus, we are tempted every day to look for easy ways out of the challenges of God’s calls for us. It might seem easier and more attractive, at least in the short term, to live our lives only for ourselves or for the protection of our loved ones. It can be very tempting to “look out for number one”.
But we aren’t just “islands in the stream”. We are not lone bodies resisting the eroding waves of life without help. We are the people of the God who lifts up the lowly and fills the hungry with good things. The real erosion that we fear happens when people do just “look out for number one”. That erodes relationships. And relationships are always God’s chosen vehicle for action.
During the season of Lent many of us will turn our physical temptations into a spiritual exercise by giving up some pleasure or taking on some discipline. But it’s important to remember that these Lenten disciplines are not just a kind of Christian equivalent to a “New Year’s Resolution”. It’s not about the desserts or the caffeine or the wine. It’s not even about the self-improvement that can result from our disciplines. The point of our Lenten disciplines is to be intentional about practicing and perfecting our responses to temptation. If we are in practice, there’s a better chance that we’ll be more prepared to face the more serious spiritual temptations that are very real and lurking in the dim corners of our lives.
We need the practice, because, like Jesus, sooner or later we will all be in our own wildernesses facing our demons.
Every year at about this time I begin hearing people talk about how they don’t really like this time in the church year. Certainly that’s not true for all of us, but for many people, Lent can feel like something of a “downer”. But the truth is, Lent doesn’t take us into the wilderness. It merely helps us open our eyes to the wilderness in which we already find ourselves. We spend so much time “faking it ‘til we make it” that we can fool even ourselves. We forget that wilderness is already our reality. None of us “has it all together”. To greater or lesser degrees all of us are already lost.
But we’re only truly lost if we fail to follow the Holy Spirit. Just as Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit at his baptism, so are we. We have been sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. The only question, really, is whether we are dragging her along or following where she leads.
It’s true. It takes a pretty stunning act of faith to follow the Holy Spirit. We may, like Jesus, be led into the wilderness. Following the Holy Spirit isn’t a “get out of jail free card” or a promise for some other easy path. In fact, it’s more likely the promise of a sometimes-difficult path. But more significantly, it’s a promise that on that path, we won’t be alone.
Like many of you, for the past week I’ve been occasionally watching the Winter Olympics. In general I’m not much of a sports fan, and quite frankly don’t care about the outcome; but, I have been intrigued by the spectacle of it all.
If you’ve watched much at all, you’ve probably seen that great Proctor & Gamble commercial. They scroll between scenes of mothers supporting their children in everyday life while singing that song from the old Rogers & Hammerstein musical, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. The climax is a mother singing from the stands at the Olympics.
I’m just enough of a sap to be brought almost to tears by such a commercial.
I’m not so sure about the connecting line between mothers supporting their children and Tide detergent, but the message to me is clear: none of us – whether Olympian or priest, Wall Street banker or Starbuck’s barista – none of us is an island. We exist in relationship and we all stand on others’ shoulders one way or another. We never walk alone.
That’s the message of the Gospel.
It’s the message of the Holy Spirit.
It’s the message of Lent and it points to the message of Easter.
Even in the wilderness – even in the face of temptations and demons and devils of every sort – even then, we are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. Even then, we’ll never walk alone.
Even in your own wilderness, follow the Holy Spirit. Walk on.