Thursday, February 11, 2016

Ash Wednesday 2016 Sermon: "Wilderness"

Luke 4:1-13

Jesus returned from the Jordan River full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. 2 There he was tempted for forty days by the devil. He ate nothing during those days and afterward Jesus was starving. 3 The devil said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4 Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread.” 5 Next the devil led him to a high place and showed him in a single instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 The devil said, “I will give you this whole domain and the glory of all these kingdoms. It’s been entrusted to me and I can give it to anyone I want. 7 Therefore, if you will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 Jesus answered, “It’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” 9 The devil brought him into Jerusalem and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here; 10 for it’s written: He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you 11 and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.” 12 Jesus answered, “It’s been said, Don’t test the Lord your God.” 13 After finishing every temptation, the devil departed from him until the next opportunity. (Common English Bible)

Ash Wednesday 2016

I have used this story at the beginning of my Ash Wednesday sermons every year here at FCC (so far, at least—five Ash Wednesdays and counting…maybe we should be doing a punch card of some sort).  Because this story is such a good one for setting the right balance in mood and tenor for this type of a worship service, I simply cannot ever pass up a repeat telling of it each Ash Wednesday--even though, let's be honest, all of us have had to sit through a sermon where you were thinking, "this pastor is just recycling an old sermon from long ago," right?

Sorry about that.

The Reverend Lillian Daniel, a pastor in the United Church of Christ denomination, wrote, in a book about parish ministry that she co-authored, this particular vignette about her experience serving a parish near her divinity school as a pastoral intern during her seminary education.  She writes, in part:

I remember sitting at the back of the sanctuary, reviewing my notes for my very first seminary-intern sermon.  It was to be a mighty word from God that would correct all the hypocrisy, greed, and faithlessness of the local church that was, nonetheless, supporting my education as they had supported that of so many others.  As I mustered my courage to sock it to them, I overheard one woman lean across her walker and whisper loudly to her pew mate, “Ah, our new intern is preaching.  I see it’s time for our annual scolding.”  Later, I would pastor a church near that very divinity school, and hear for myself a few “annual scoldings.”

Now, you lot have no seminary intern here to deliver unto us our annual scoldings—you are stuck with me!  (Oh dear.)  And it would be all too easy to dismiss Ash Wednesday as the day when the parish pastor administers said annual scolding, but it would be exactly that: easy.  Much too easy.

It’s easy because in preaching, much like in life, it is quite easier to define yourself, to set yourself up, by what you are against rather than what it is you are for.  How do you think we should solve the national debt?  I don’t know, but I know I don’t like any of the plans the 535 members of Congress have come up with!

That’s the sort of logic that I fear does take a hold of Christianity far too much—we define ourselves by what we are against, be it refugees, be it same-sex marriage, be it scientific consensus, and we just sort of lump it altogether as what we are against, then chomp on that bit far more vociferously (at least in public) than we do over what we are for, which is, quite simply, Jesus Christ.

It is tempting, mightily tempting, to define ourselves by what we are against, though, because it appears at first glance as though that is in fact what Jesus is likewise doing here in Luke 4, during His fasting sojourn in the wilderness: Satan, the adversary, has appeared, and is tempting Jesus with sustenance, political power, and the like, and Jesus of course opposes Satan.

But this is more than just a story of opposition, so much more.  Jesus isn’t opposing Satan from a position of strength; on the contrary, He is doing so from a position of profound weakness—not just physical weakness, but almost surely emotional and mental weakness as well.  The guy has just spent 40 days and nights in solitary, how strong do you think a person’s safeguards would be?

In other words, it is one thing to oppose temptation when you are safe and secure on your own home ground, it is entirely another thing to oppose such temptation when you are adrift deep in the heart of the wilderness.

The wilderness is not simply the place we go after spending a ton of money on tents and equipment so that we can live without the house that we also spent a ton of money on, no, the wilderness is that place where, like the Jesus that Bonhoeffer speaks of, we too are utterly alone and forsaken.

Put simply: the wilderness is a spiritual place, not just a physical place, and in that spiritual wilderness we too must wrestle, struggle, come to grips with our own temptations, our own proclivities to sin, our own attraction towards evil, that are present in each and every one of us.

The whole problem with this passage, though, at least for me, is that Jesus makes it all look and sound so…well, easy.  Satan quotes Scripture to Jesus, and Jesus quotes it right back.  Satan switches up temptations, moving from food to power, and Jesus demurs just as easily no matter which carrot is currently being dangled in front of Him.

I envy that.  I covet that.  It may be “holy envy” (whatever that is), but it is envy nonetheless.  I envy being able to resist my temptations as easily as Jesus seemingly resists His.

Because in truth, His temptations are some of mine.  I’m a big eater, always have been.  Resisting junk food, or food that was made unethically, is a serious practice for me.  And power?  I will forever strive towards being modest—I can out-humble anyone here, just try me—but we pastors are often always yearning to be able to reach and have influence over even more people, and I confess that I am no different than my colleagues in that regard.

The irony in all of this is that the wilderness can be a dangerous place to be, but getting out to safety can be one of the bravest things any person may do.  We so very rarely confess and own up to our own Satans, our own demons, when they are placed right in front of us.  We are far more apt to dissemble, hide, minimize, or sweep under the rug the true scope and scale of evil’s power over us.

Ash Wednesday is a time for us to admit the truth of our reality, that we ought not try to ignore or brush aside just how present evil is in our lives, but to confess and admit the hold that it has over us.  In a world in which each person simultaneously strives to choose between good and evil, it should not be so shameful for us to confess and admit that we too have to work to make that selfsame choice, because every single person is in that same boat that we are.

Every other person is in the wilderness, waiting to be called out of it.

And in order to be called away from the forsakenness of the wilderness, it is a small price to pay to be accurately termed a sinner if it gives you the direction to navigate your way back into God’s arms.

I know that term “sinner” has so much baggage from how it has been used to label people of different races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, by, ironically, sinners for millennia.

But in its lowness, may we also find liberation.  In its foulness, may we also find freedom.  And in its baggage, may we reclaim a once-hateful word to have it apply to ourselves, to be able to say freely that we are not without sin, that we are still in need of grace, that we are still in need of redemption.

Jesus, and His brother James, say repeatedly that those who are brought low are the ones who will one day be exalted.

May we bring ourselves low so that we too may find our way out of the wilderness to which we have been consigned, the wilderness in which we all to some extent live, the wilderness to which we ultimately do not belong.

It will not be easy, no.  But the world will not end, the sky will not fall, and we will all be better off for having done so.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
February 10, 2016

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