Sermon March 6, 2022 – Luke 4:1-13 Jesus in the Wilderness Rev. Betsy Hogan
Are you a list-maker? There seems to be a variety of reasons why people might be list-makers.
Sometimes we make lists simply so we won't forget anything – much more secure to have it written down rather than depending on the vagaries of memory at any given time.
Other times our lists are more like a way of gaining a measure of control over our day or our week. Meetings, appointments, where we have to be – when, chores or errands we need to get done. Kind of like a series of sign-posts on what might otherwise be a sort of chaotic road ahead. Not just "here are the things that need doing" but "here they are in an order that will gently propel me forward, from sign-post to sign-post – like, this is restful, this will help, I will make my way through all the things."
So the day or the week isn't just chaos – it's a road clearly marked, we can move from stage to stage, cross one thing off and look to the next . A measure of control's been established.
Which is basically the same goal for still another reason why sometimes we make lists, which is to achieve a measure of control over one HUGE task -- that in and of itself feels chaotic.
Breaking it down into smaller pieces. Small enough that each feels achievable. That none will overwhelm. Granting ourselves, in effect, the pleasure and energy of each incremental accomplishment as a way of establishing a measure of control over this THING that's attempting to crush us with its bigness and its heaviness and its chaos.
So there are a lot of good reasons to make lists, that help, that create order, that establish control, that – if we were going to use the language of physics – that sort of disperse the weight of what we're carrying so we don't get smushed.
But then... there are the lists that aren't quite so helpful. That we don't make, because they kind of make themselves. Lists of worries, lists of crises, lists of fears. Some our own, and others curated collectively because that's how community works. Their relative urgency established or manufactured collectively because that's how community works.
So we have all our own stuff... and then there's the 'world' stuff. Covid and climate change and convoys and a housing crisis and inflation and Ukraine and war and the list gets longer and longer – and we act in self-defense. We turn off the news, we just shut it down. There's only so much we can deal with.
And you know what? We get to say that.
The season of Lent always begins, every year, with the story of Jesus going out into the wilderness after his baptism by John the Baptist for a period of meditation and preparation – forty days. There’s a version in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and we just cycle through them in the set lectionary of readings, year after year, on this first Sunday of Lent.
Because they sort of set up Lent. This forty days plus Sundays between this past Wednesday and Easter, that from the beginning of Christianity has always been associated with being intentional in our faithfulness.
Not that I’m sure we’re not all extremely intentional the rest of the time, but the idea of Lent is that we’re especially intentional. It’s a time when in the church we’re usually encouraged to try a spiritual practice, or give something up, or take something on, but always the point is trying – in this period -- to be a bit more focused on our spirit. On our faith. On deepening our connection to goodness and Godness.
And our model for that is the story of Jesus in the wilderness. Jesus in the desert. He’s just been baptized, he’s received his ‘mandate’ as it were to begin his ministry of teaching and preaching and healing – but the very first thing he does is he takes himself out alone to get focused. To push back against whatever might get in his way, so he can make himself ready. Centred and solid and strong.
It’s actually quite a compelling story. Regardless of how we personally might feel about the idea of the Tempter as an actual figure – however this sometimes gets imagined, and I have to say that personally the whole little-red-man-with-tail-and-horns thing has never really resonated for me much –
But the idea of something or somethingness that we do have to push back against in order to stay centred, in order to stay strong and grounded – that I CAN get my head around. Because there’s just so much, from busyness to anxiety to feeling overwhelmed to boredom or isolation or hopelessness, that can tip us off track and get in the way.
And so it makes sense in this story that Jesus, as he prepares himself for what lies ahead, that he takes this time to ground himself -- and that this time includes having to push back at some things.
In Jesus’ case, it's having to push back at all the ways he could get quick results instead of deep results. Quick impressive miracles that will fill people with shock and awe – stones into bread, and all the hungry fed, like THAT. Cast himself off a tower to show off God's power, like THAT. Do this one thing, and make himself king, like THAT.
All these quick impressive miracles, instant shock and awe. Divine intervention to solve all the problems. Instead of the invitations into deeper thinking and learning and real spiritual transformation that’ll take time. And demand more, of the people he meets. Of the human family.
These are real temptations that Jesus has to push back against. I think we deny his full humanness if we don’t allow for that. They’re real temptations and he really does have to push back at them. In order to stay centred, in order to stay strong and grounded.
And in order to cope. Because there's only so much he can deal with, and stay true to the vision not of magical solutions but a new way of being. And in effect, what the Tempter loads on top of him in this battery of temptations is a heavy heavy list.
Think of all those who are hungry, Jesus. You could feed them, stones into bread. Don't you care? Aren't you worried about them?
And so many crying out because they're in danger, begging for protection, begging to be saved. You could exercise that power, swoop in, carry them to safety. Why would you not do that? Don't you care?
And so many crushed by the tyrannies of dictatorial rulers, entrenched systems of greed, poverty and oppression? You could make yourself emperor. Shouldn't you want to? Don't you care?
It's this list, this list, this longer and longer list, of worries and crises and fears and brokenness. This list presented to Jesus – yes, as temptations he'd theoretically have the capacity to solve like THAT –
But he pushes back against it as an overwhelming list of need and pain. And it's too much. He needs to find his feet. He needs to get solid.
We get to act in self-defense. There is only so much we can deal with.
And Jesus in the wilderness, in the desert, shows us that. Shows us we can say to ourselves with no shame – it's literally God's grace in action – Nope. It's too much. I can't deal. I need to take some time.
Do we think of Jesus as selfish? We don't. And not just because we can easily relate to hitting that wall of Enough –
It's also because IF as people of faith we really take seriously being One Body and One Human Family, then that means the dealing is shared. The praying is shared. The worrying, the responding, the caring is shared.
That's real, in our faithfulness. This past week in our first conversation amongst those reading Wholehearted Faith by Rachel Held Evans, one of the things she lifts up is this notion of faithfulness being shared. That on the days, in the times, when she couldn't manage to pray all the concerns she should be praying about – when her connection to Godness seemed fragile at best – that there remained meaning for her in the notion that other people WERE doing that praying.
And then there were days when probably other people couldn't, but she could. These concerns and worries and crises and fears – they're shared. We carry them together.
That's real, in our faithfulness. This past Thursday, by evening, my head was so full and overwhelmed already with the Portapique Inquiry, and then more intense policing of the tent encampment of the homeless – not to mention climate change, and covid restrictions ending, and people in hospital, and my own kids -- that by the time there was a nuclear reactor on fire in Ukraine, I honestly had no more space. I just couldn't deal.
And literally in that moment, a note from a friend – "there's a nuclear reactor on fire, I am praying hard" she said.
We SHARE that list, that longer and longer list. We carry it together.
So we GET to push back when we need to, to say Enough, to let ourselves in effect get driven out by the Spirit into the wilderness. We GET to push back without shame when we need to, in self defense as Jesus did with "nope, it's too much, can't carry all of that right now. I've got to find my feet, I've got to pause. Take some deep breaths, breathe in the Spirit, feel solid."
In Matthew's gospel, though not in Luke's, there's a last comment at the very end of Jesus Temptation in the Wilderness. Matthew says that finally the Tempter left him, and then the angels came and ministered to him.
I find myself imagining that maybe they helped him make some nice lists, some good lists, some lists that made him feel not quite so overwhelmed, a bit of order instead of chaos. One step at a time, one day at a time.
In this season of Lent, may it be so for us too. Amen.