Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!Easter.Do you believe in it? It’s not the easiest thing in the world to do, is it? Jesus—Son of God—raised from the dead, appearing to people, walking through walls… For us scientifically-minded people, the idea of resurrection is hard to grasp, much less believein…which is why I often address that difficulty in Easter sermons. Naming the elephant in the room gives people permission to look honestly at what they believe about Easter and—through that reflection—invites them toexperience it.
I’m starting to wonder, though, if Easter is too late to address that particularelephant. Maybe we need more time than one 20 minute sermon to figure out what gets in the way of experiencing Easter. Maybe if we can figure out what prevents us from experiencing Easter before the big day, come Easter Sunday, we might just find that we believe in it all.
So, this year, we’re going to use the whole season of Lent to look at some of the things that prevent us from experiencing Easter. Today, the first hurdle: Failing to Learn from Wilderness Experiences. And who better to teach us about learning from wilderness experiences than Jesus?
The story thus far: Jesus is born, grows up, works until he’s 30, then heads to the Jordan River where his cousin John baptizes him. Immediately after his baptism, maybe even before his clothes have dried, Matthew tells us that “Jesus is led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”
What’s up with that? Why this big temptation episode? And why does it follow so closely on the heels of Jesus’ baptism?
Let’s think about it for minute. You’re Jesus, right? All your life you’ve sensed that God has something special for you to do, something really special, so special that the people around you can’t imagine that thing for you. Even so, you carry this sense of calling with you until one day it becomes so powerful, you head down to the river to be baptized. You approach the river, wade into the water, face your baptizer, thenlet him lower you into the water.As you re-emerge–water flowing off your back and arms, dripping from your hair and face–you see God’s spirit descend like a dove; you hear a voice say: “This is my child, the Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased.”
In that moment, everything Jesus had sensed about his life is confirmed. He is claimed by God. Jesus learns that he really is called to something special—he is to be God’s proxy on earth. It makes sense that Jesus would want to spend some time thinking about that calling; heading to the wilderness for some prayer and reflection makes sense.
But 40 days! After 40 days of thinking about being God’s son, after 40 days of eating no food…in that weakened state, it’d be pretty easy to start thinking some wild, maybe grandiose thoughts about being THE Son of God. That’s when the temptations start—when Jesus is full of himself and empty of food, when he’s spiritually strong and physically weak.
Have you given up anything for Lent—TV or chocolate or French fries? So, what have you been thinking about, dreaming about, obsessing about since Wednesday? What are you thinking about right now? When you’re tempted—and resist the temptation—it’s natural to obsess on the thing you’ve given up. BUT…if you continue resisting the temptation, you can learn a lot about yourself. You might, for instance, learn about an unhealthy dependence on ice cream or TV orFrench fries. Once in touch with that dependence, you can explore the causes for it. What is it that makes me feel like I’m not complete without this thing I’ve given up? Why does this substance or experience have so much power in my life?
What tempted Jesus? He didn’t need to explore his relationship with ice cream or TV or French fries. Those things didn’t exist yet. So, what tempted Jesus?
Across the centuries, there has been lots of speculation about Jesus’ temptations. Why these three? Why in this order? What does each temptation represent? Turning stone to bread, taking a header off the temple, world domination… What is the significance of Jesus’ temptations? Theologian John Douglas Hall suggests that “there are not really three temptations, but three variations on the same basic theme. The devil has a one-track mind…from the beginning, he tempts his victims to go for power.” (Feasting on the Word, 44)
Taking this tack, each temptation Jesus confronts is a question about how he will use his power: Will he use it to serve himself (turning a stone into bread)? Will he use it to make a spectacle of himself (taking a header off the temple)? Will he use it to gain political power (world domination if he worships the tempter)?
Here’s what I wonder. I wonder if Jesus knew how he would respond to temptation before he was tempted. Do you think Jesus knew he would pass the temptation tests? Were the temptations written up so that we could see how Jesus would respond, ordid they happen so that Jesus could see how Jesus would respond? Did Jesus know for certain how he would use his power before the temptations, or did the temptations help him get clear about how he would use his power?In other words: Did Jesus learn from his wilderness experience?
If you look at his ministry from the 41st day after his baptism until his death, it sure looks like he did. Until the moment he died, the temptation to use his power in destructive, self-serving ways was always in front of Jesus. And yet, he never chose to use his power in that way. He always used it to advocate for the poor and marginalized. He always used his power to preach and share God’s love with others. By withstanding the temptations he confronted in the wilderness, Jesus learned not only that power had been given to him, but also why it had been given to him: to use it to do God’s work in the world. Period.
There are some striking parallels between Jesus’ wilderness experience and the one we’ll begin on May 26th: “our” sabbatical. Like Jesus’ time in the wilderness, the purpose of clergy sabbaticals is to give both pastor and congregation time to reflect on their calling to do God’s work in the world. Given a break from our usual roles with each other, each of us—pastor and congregation—has time to think deeply about the work we have done with each other and to get some direction about to what work God is calling us next. If we come together again in September rested, renewed and eager to embark on the next leg of our journey together as pastor and congregation, then our sabbatical will have been a rousing success.
As with Jesus’ wilderness experience, though, all of us will find ourselves tempted along the way. My temptationwill be to keep working…to constantly ask Allen how you all are, to try to find preaching gigs while I’m away, to get a jump on sermon-writing for next Fall. My main “job” on sabbatical will be to rest, renew, reflect. If I don’t do those things–if I give in to the temptation to continue working–then the sabbatical will have been a bust; I will have learned nothing. The only way to learn from temptations is to resist them. If I resist the temptation to work during sabbatical, then I truly will learn from the experience….and you all will have a wiser, more energized pastor to lead you into the next phase of our journey together.
So, what temptations might you encounter in the wilderness of sabbatical? The temptation to take your own sabbatical–to not show up until I return in September?The temptation to do nothing until I return?The temptation to make significant changes while I’m away?The temptation to pout?As you struggle with whether or not to give in to those temptations, remember this: As powerful as some of those temptations will be, if you give in to them, this sabbatical will have been a bust, a failure. If, on the other hand, you feel the temptations—andresist them—you’ll be able to learn from them….
What will we learn from sabbatical? We can’t know for sure until we’ve gone through it. We’ll have to compare notes in September. I suspect, though, that all of us will learn something about our relationship, the one between pastor and congregation. And I’ll probably learn something about my workaholic ways….and about how much better a pastor I will be in the future if I practice Sabbath more “religiously.”
And maybe you all will learn something about the strength of your togetherness. This is a strong Christian community. You care so well for each other. And you get the connection between what Jesus preached and how his followers are to live lives of service to others. As Cammilla at Family Promise said, “You all are rock stars!” Perhaps by resisting temptations that come your way during our sabbatical wilderness, you will learn all over again just how strong you are as a community—whether I’m here or not.
Can you imagine? If I return from sabbatical stronger and wiser and YOU get stronger and wiser in your experience of sabbatical….if we’re ALL stronger and wiser come September,just imagine what we might do together for God’s kin-dom! Just think of how much more effective we will be in sharing God’s love with a world that so needs to receive it! Just think of how deep, and rich and full and joyful our experience of Easter will be!
So, what do you say? Shall we commit ourselves to resisting temptations that arise during our sabbatical wilderness? Shall we consider the sources of those temptations and try to learn from them? Shall we use the sabbatical to gain clarity about who we are and emerge from it stronger, wiser, and eager to get back to work sharing God’s love with others? I say yes! What do you say?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Matthew 4:1-11 (NRSV)
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The Temptation of Jesus
4Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ 4But he answered, ‘It is written,
“One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you”, and “On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’
7Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; 9and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ 10Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” ’
11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.