Into the Wilderness – The Rev. Michelle Meech
February 21, 2021
A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Kingston, NY on the First Sunday of Lent, February 21, 2021. Click the play button above to listen along.
This story from the Gospel always makes me think of that old trope from morality plays: The angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. Jesus sitting there in the wilderness – devils and angels whispering to him. It’s not exactly what happens in the Gospel story but it’s the same story – humans, in our finite nature, are self-oriented.
And there is a battle for our soul going on whenever we are tempted: Will we choose the right thing to do or the wrong thing to do? Will we sell our soul for a sense of false security? Or will we live an honest, humble life?
It seems the choices are simple. But the problem is, they really aren’t. The tempting choices we face often don’t present themselves in such clear cut ways. It’s not usually Satan that we’re facing. It’s usually ourselves that we’re facing – our lesser angels.
Today Jesus meets himself in the wilderness. He faces the part of himself that wants to give in to a need for security, a desire for power and wealth. He faces the part of himself that we all know. The part that says, “What’s in it for me?”
Or more, specifically, if I do what is being asked, if I live my life as if God matters to me, what will happen to me? As humans, it’s an understandable starting place – what will happen to me? Will I be ok? Will we be ok? Will we have enough? Will I get my needs met? If I do this or if I trust in this – will it turn out the way I need it to?
The Temptation story is found in 3 of the 4 Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke. All have a bit of a different take, but they all take place immediately after Jesus was baptized and immediately before his public ministry. The placement of the story is significant both because it explains that baptism alone is not going to save us and because it illuminates the struggle we all have when we are called to live our lives as if God matters to us.
Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan was an event in which Jesus was called out as the Christ, the anointed one. In each Gospel the words are used – “This is my child, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus has already been given the title of the Christ. And yet, he’s still tempted.
We have these temptation stories because even after baptism, even after Jesus was anointed as the Christ, he was tempted. Jesus faced himself. And so do we… face ourselves in the wilderness. We are tempted by that question – What will happen to me? Will I have enough? Will I be ok?
It comes down to what we believe. Do we believe the dark stories of our lives – that we are not worthy, not loved, not good? That there is not enough? That we are not capable, not safe, and that we do not matter?
When we believe these wilderness stories, Jesus knew, we react by trying to get love in some way, to shore up our privilege and our ego, to make sure we are seen as good or powerful. And we try to protect ourselves by building walls between ourselves and those whom we imagine will change our lives.
Or do we believe in a different story? One that tells me I have an abundance to offer. I am capable and worthy. I am OK and I will be OK because what I offer will be replenished. I am good and I am loved and from that place I can do what is being asked in living my life as if God matters. I can trust in the ground of my being.
On Ash Wednesday, we were invited to observe a holy Lent. Joel’s words echoed to us from eons ago – “Rend your hearts, not your clothing.” Bring everything you have to God, bare your heart and make known all of who you are – all of it, every last bit. The hope and the pain. The vulnerability and the strength. The fear and the love. All of it – bring it to God.
And today we have this story from Genesis that comes to us from the end of the Flood story – a part of the larger story of creation in the first part of Genesis. We call this Noah’s Covenant, the promise that God makes to humanity that “all flesh shall never again be cut off” from God. That God will be with us in the depths of our fears. God will be with us as we battle the voices of temptation. God will be with us. Period.
As Christians, we’ve come to know this through our teacher, our Redeemer, Jesus the Christ. The one who taught us to live by two commandments – Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus taught us that this is all that matters in the end. Love.
Because we are made of dust and to dust we shall return and all of this life, this breath, this blood is lent to us for a time so that we may share life with one another and love one another. The purpose of life is nothing more than this. We know this but we don’t always believe this. Because the temptation is very, very real. It’s in our minds most of the time, if we’re honest.
What will happen to me?
What will happen to me… if I invite someone to share my life?
… if I make friends with someone who doesn’t think like me or look like me?
… if I let someone use my stuff?
… if I help someone who is in trouble and I break the law while doing it?
What will happen to me?
I can tell you what will happen: You will change. Relationship changes us. It’s just that simple.
But, it is relationship that is life-giving. It might not be the relationship we’ve always imagined for ourselves, but it’s the relationship we have been given. I’m not talking about putting up with abuse – that’s not relationship, that’s oppression. I’m talking about seeing the person right in front of us and opening up ourselves to being changed by them to be in relationship with them because the purpose of life is nothing more than to care for one another… because we all breathe.
Witnessing others, being moved by them, celebrating them. When we do this, we not only offer a blessing, but we are blessed ourselves. And we all have a different path through the wilderness, different temptations that try to keep us bound in fear and pain. Temptations that keep us from being in relationship with one another. But, through the wilderness we must go if we are to live our life as if God matters to us, to live our lives as if we matter to each other.
In the story of Jesus’ temptation we see ourselves reflected. When Jesus meets himself in the wilderness, he sees his own face, just as we are met with ourselves, our own lesser angels, when we are tempted to live our lives for ourselves alone.
Can we see Jesus in ourselves? Do we believe the light of Christ shines through our own heart? So that we can carry on his work in the world as the Body of Christ?
When we see Jesus in ourselves, when we are able to hold ourselves with compassion, we might just stop insisting that our world show up for us in the particular way that suits us. And as we practice, we learn to identify the temptations we have and we get better at saying no to the story in the darkness and saying yes to the truth, saying yes to the light.
We turn away from our fears and say yes to the relationship that is awaiting us, that will surely change us. When we are able to see the face of God in our own face, we can let go of the story that tells us we are not worthy, not loved, not safe – because we know that we are. Reminding ourselves that God resides within us, helps us remember that we have everything we need and we are good and holy, precious children of God. We are Beloved. Beloved. Beloved.
And we are able to withstand the temptation to shrink and become what God is calling us to be – Christ, whose heart is broken open for the world. When we finally learn to see Jesus in ourselves, then we can begin to see Jesus in others.
This is the first task of Lent – to recognize and believe in the Christ in ourselves.
May it be so.