Where is Your Wilderness? A Sermon on Matthew 4:1-11

The sermon from Sunday, March 5, 2017 on Matthew 4:1-11. 

Let’s start with some context because the lectionary has done one of its confusing things. We’ve talked about the lectionary. It’s the weekly set of readings from scripture that we along with countless other churches around the world follow. Most of the time it’s pretty useful. Sometimes it’s pretty confusing.

Back in January we observed the baptism of Jesus. Then the lectionary skipped us forward in Matthew’s text to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and the Sermon on the Mount.

This Sunday we take a step back. There’s a reason for that, which I will get to in a second, but for the sake of clarity, let’s locate this episode. We commonly refer to it as the Temptation of Jesus.

The temptation story takes place in Matthew immediately after Jesus’ baptism. So we lead in with this, the 16th and 17th verses of Matthew chapter 3 – “And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” Then we go into the temptation story.

Then after the temptation story – when the devil has left him – Jesus hears that John has been arrested, then he withdraws to Galilee and heads to Capernaum, he proclaims the need for repentance, calls his first disciples, and begins ministries of teaching and healing. Then we move into the Beatitudes.

There’s our context. This story fits in the middle – and I think it’s really important to understand that, which is why we are taking the time to discuss it.

This is my Son the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased . . . then Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. He fasts for 40 days and 40 nights.

That’s why this story is placed here. The season of Lent began on Wednesday. We had a lovely contemplative intimate gathering here for Ash Wednesday, preparing our hearts and remembering our impermanence.

Now we have begun this journey in the wilderness of our faith, in the desert, in the high places above the city. We are tasked with wandering for these 40 days and nights, sent to stare at our temptations and our tempters, granting first two verses. After all, the bulk of the chapter describes the encounter with embodied temptation, with the lure of sin, the sweet deceptive siren call of evil incarnate.

But let’s not miss the importance of verses 1 and 2. That’s where I want to focus this evening – Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.

I have mentioned that I am  inviting us to consider the geography of grace during this Lenten season, to pay attention to where we encounter God on a daily basis.

And we start that journey here in the desert wilderness, famished.

Where are your deserts? Where is your wilderness?

As many of you know, I love the wilderness. I love to hike and camp and kayak and stop and stare at beauty of the earth. It is a place that nourishes my soul and energizes me for the work of my life.

But it’s not a safe space – for all its beauty, there are always dangers.

A couple of summers ago I was camping solo with a couple of the dogs in a provincial park in northern Ontario. I was hiking down a steep side of a mountain. I had let my mind wander to some odd trouble of my world. And then some gravel gave away under my foot. I pitched forward, head first and falling. Fortunately, my reflexes kicked in – and I was lucky – and I reached out and grabbed a slender, sturdy tree.

I stayed there for a minute, catching my breath. My sure-footed canine companions, whose leashes I had dropped, were looking at me like “Did you mean to do that?” as I dangled upside down clutching that life-saving sapling. You can bet I paid attention the rest of the way down that mountain.

There are dangers in the wilderness.

Last summer my family and I pulled into a remote Forest Service campground in southern Montana. We’ve camped in areas with black bears before but this was the first time the campground information had noted “Be aware that grizzly bears frequent this campground.” I thought ‘Yeah. Fine.’

Don’t worry – there is no close encounter with a grizzly in this story. But as we set up in our designated campsite, I looked at the trees ringing the areas and noticed the deep gouges that could only have come from a good-sized bear.  A few minutes later, the ranger pulled in to make sure that we had bear spray and knew how to use it. As we lay in the tent that night, you can bet I was paying attention to every snap of a twig or rustle in the leaves.

There are dangers in the wilderness.

Where is your wilderness? And what are its dangers? What strength of spirit and heart and body do you need to develop in this Lenten season? What do you need to pay attention to?

Jesus doesn’t face the temptations of evil incarnate on the first day. He spends a season preparing himself for the task. He wanders in the wilderness, in the presence of the Spirit, and faces the daily risks of life around him.

What preparation do you need to do this Lenten season? What are the temptations?

That’s a question each of you has to answer for yourself. There is no shortage of them in our culture: the risk of defining ourselves and others by the standard of material acquisition, by how much stuff we own and what brand it is;  the risk of cynicism that guides us to dwell solely in negativity and hopelessness, that robs us of our capacity for human connection and action; the risk of buying into society’s narrative about people who are different from us because of where they come from or what language they speak or what gender identity they are or what religion they practice; for those of us who are white, the risk of resting unchallenged in the sinful cultural norm of white supremacy; the risk of isolating ourselves; the risk of not loving others; the risk of not loving ourselves, of buying into the dominant culture’s narrative about us because we are not thin enough or not young enough or not old enough or not rich enough or not white enough or not conventional enough in our minds or our bodies; the risk of thinking we can live by bread alone.

Where is your wilderness? What do you need to stare at and make peace with and grow into while you are there?

The dangers are real, but that’s also where the grace is. I would argue that’s how we might read this story. Jesus is baptized and soon to begin his ministry, but before he does that, he goes out into the wilderness. He faces dangers, yet I believe in this also where he finds his grounding in grace. That’s not spelled out for us in this story, but I think if we listen closely, we can hear it.

Because otherwise what’s the point? We have this big deal – Jesus is baptized – and we have this extraordinary act of discipline and courage and commitment – staring into the most carefully orchestrated temptations of evil incarnate – for carnal, earthly power, for the immediate satisfaction of human greed and manipulation.

What is the point of his 40 day exile and preparation if he doesn’t face his fears, face his demons, and find the grace and courage he needs to launch into his ministry?

I believe that’s the preparation that Jesus undertook in his time in the wilderness and that’s the task given to us now.

There is no shortage of evil incarnate around us. There is no shortage of men who worship the idols of power and privilege inflicting harm on vulnerable people and on the precious body of the planet. They fill our vision with images of rich fare and idolatrous splendor. They tempt us to throw our souls from the lofty pinnacle of God’s love for us and for all into the sinful embrace of worldly prejudices and systemic oppression.

But we have this time when the Christian calendar calls us to pay attention – to sit in our own wilderness and listen and learn and grow – where we are called to pay attention to the temptations and to the grace that saves us from them; where we are called to develop our courage and strengthen our spirits. This is a moment of opportunity, but only if we allow ourselves to see it and only if we choose to use this time wisely.

Where is your wilderness? What risks and what temptations does it put in front of you? And what grace do you find there that sustains your soul and invites you to grow in spirit and wisdom?

I leave you with those questions to prayerfully consider in this season.


* image, The Temptation of Christ By the Devil, is a 12th century fresco transferred to canvas from the hermitage of San Baudelio de Berlanga now in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art 


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