1 Lent – March 5, 2017

Matthew 4:1-11

So, we begin the season of Lent with Ash Wednesday…remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return….we hear 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 the first Sunday in Lent we hear the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Just before this passage, keep in mind, is the story of Jesus’ baptism where we heard God say, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”.  This is important to the story of Jesus’ temptation.  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’ll do all kinds of things to dispel the insecurity that attends any human life and you’ll do all kinds of things to find that sense of security and acceptance that is essential to being happy.

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?

Sometimes it takes going into the wilderness, of body or of soul, to find the answer to this question. Traveling toward where the familiar contours of our lives disappear. Leaving the landmarks behind, the people and patterns and possessions that orient us.

That’s where Jesus goes. Surfacing from the waters of his baptism, he doesn’t fling himself into his ministry, doesn’t take up his work among the community that will meet him with both belief and betrayal. He first goes into the place where everything is stripped away, and he confronts the basic questions about who he is and what he is doing.

We don’t know precisely what it is that Jesus learns there, what he comes to know about himself in that Forty Day Place. We do know that when Satan shows up, Jesus is ready. What Mark hints at in his version, Matthew and Luke describe more fully: Jesus meets the chaos of his tempter with clarity. The baptismal waters may have evaporated from his skin, but not from his soul. A river of knowing runs through him. He is drenched with discernment.

Beloved. Son.

This is what he knows.

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 hides there. Perhaps he carries their names on his lips as he crosses back into the community, prepared to proclaim the good news; perhaps those names pound in him like a heartbeat, or rush in his ears like the sound of an ancient river:

Hagar, Jacob, Moses, Miriam, Aaron, Elijah…

So what are you doing here? At the outset of the Lenten journey, why are you where you are? What do you need from the Forty Day Place that this season offers? Is there a wilderness you need to enter—with your body or with your soul or with both—in order to gain clarity at this point in your life? What might that look like? Whose stories could you draw on, lean on, take heart from, as you contemplate this?

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. Blessings.  Amen.