1 Lent – February 26, 2023
Matthew 4:1-11

So, we began the season of Lent with Ash Wednesday…remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return….we hear these words as we are marked with ashes on our foreheads. It is done to remind us of our Creator God. It is done to remind us whose we are.

And today we hear the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Just before this happens is Jesus’ baptism, where we heard God say, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”.  It’s important to the story of Jesus’ temptation.  And, why?  Because at its heart, it is about identity and that is crucial to how Jesus (and how we, for that matter) navigate temptation.

Because, when push comes to shove, all the various temptations we may encounter stem from the primary temptation to forget whose we are and therefore to forget who we are. Because once you don’t remember who you are and whose you are, you will do all kinds of things to get rid of the insecurity that is present in any human life and you’ll do all kinds of things to find that sense of security and acceptance that is essential to our desire for happiness.

That is, most likely, Adam and Eve’s problem in the Genesis story. When the serpent comes, he doesn’t start out with a temptation but instead sows mistrust in Adam and Eve. In particular, the serpent tries to undermine the relationship of trust between God and God’s children. “Did God really say,” the serpent asks, misrepresenting and undermining God’s instructions. “You will not die,” the serpent asserts, suggesting that there are things God knows but isn’t telling. Only when this primary relationship has been undermined are they susceptible to the temptation to forge their identity on their own, independent of their relationship with God, and so they take and eat the forbidden fruit.

Jesus’ encounter with the devil is, by contrast, nearly the opposite. The devil also tries to undermine Jesus’ relationship with God by suggesting it is not secure, that he should test it by throwing himself off the mountain, or that he should go his own way by creating food for himself, or that he should seek the protection and patronage of the devil rather than trust God’s provision. Yet at each point Jesus resists, not simply by quoting Scripture in general but by quoting Scripture that reminds him of God’s trustworthiness, the need to depend on God for all good things, and consequently of God’s promise to care for him and all God’s children.

Adam and Eve, victims as much to original insecurity as they are original sin, forget whose they are and so lose themselves in the temptation to secure their identity on their own. Jesus falls back on his relationship with God, reminding himself whose he is and so remembering who he is, a dependent, but beloved, child of God – dependent on the providence, care, and protection, of the God who has promised to do anything to care for him and all of us.

Lent is set aside as a season of self-examination based on this story of Jesus’ retreat to the wilderness, the desert. With the waters of baptism still clinging to him, Jesus enters the wilderness, where for forty days and forty nights he fasts and prays. Son of God he may be, but here at the outset of his ministry, he needs this liminal space, this in-between place, to deepen his clarity and to prepare him for what lies ahead. In this harsh landscape, bereft of any comforts that might distract him, Jesus comes to a vivid knowing about who he is and what is essential to his ministry.

That’s the question that the desert gives us, isn’t it? What are we doing here? Not just: what are you doing here in this physical place, but also: what are you doing here in this life?

That question, about the meaning of life, reminds me of a Krista Tippett OnBeing podcast with Dacher Keltner. Dacher Keltner is a professor of psychology at the University of California and he is the founding director of the Greater Good Science Center. He is first and foremost a scientist. He has a new book out, based on years of research about awe. It’s entitled, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life.

         Dacher has spent many years investigating the primary experience of awe in human life — you know, those moments when we have a sense of wonder, an experience of mystery, that transcends our understanding. These, it turns out, are as common in human life globally as they are measurably health-giving and immunity-boosting. They bring us together with others, again and again. They bring our nervous system, and heartbeat, and breath into sync — and even into sync with other bodies around us. As Krista Tippett shares, “this science is a wildly accessible, minute-to-minute invitation to practice a common human experience that is literally life-giving, and nourishing, and actively good for this world of pain and promise that we inhabit”.

Why am I mentioning this now? Well as we go deeper into the season of Lent, a season of self-examination, it seems appropriate that we might take on the practice of what Dacher calls “awe walks”.  In other words, being intentional about finding awe inspiring experiences.

What’s interesting is his finding that what most commonly led people around the world to feel awe was an experience of other people’s “courage, kindness, strength, or overcoming.”   It is the people around us, everyday people, who bring us awe and what Dacher calls “moral beauty”.

People also expressed experiencing awe in nature, music, religion and spirituality, but not as much as in other people exhibiting moral beauty.

Dacher explains his practice of “awe walks”: “For me,— and we’ve tested this scientifically — awe walks are simply going out and doing a walk to look for things that amaze you, big and small. And you can do that. I gathered up a lot of sacred texts to stay close to. I went to “awe spots.” I don’t know much about music, but I really intentionally went into music to find what is awe-inspiring about it. So, I made it a practice in life, like a lot of people do. And it changed my life”.

When Jesus leaves the wilderness, he takes this clarity with him as a treasure of the desert, a sign of the sustenance that always comes to those who survive that landscape. Baptized in the Spirit, named by the Creator, attended by the angels, Jesus walks out of the desert and into the life that has been prepared for him. He is ready, going in the company of all who know what it means to walk through the wilderness and find the gifts God gives us there.

As you travel into this Lenten landscape, may you find what you most need, may you receive the gift you never expected, may you find strength in those who have journeyed there before you, and may angels attend your way. You are a beloved child of God. That is whose you are. Blessings on clarity this Lenten journey. May you experience the “awe” and wonder of life. Amen.