Must We Stay in the Wasteland? March 9, 2014
Episcopal Church of the Ascension The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess
I. Introduction. Jesus is in the wasteland today. Just following his exhilarating experience of being affirmed by God at his baptism, the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, the wasteland. The plot line of Jesus’ story moved very rapidly; there was no wasted time. Have you ever asked yourself why Jesus, the Son of God, was required to undergo this experience of temptation? Let me offer up an explanation that has made sense to me. Jesus is fully divine, he is the Son of God, and as the Son of God is acquainted with, but not subject to, evil’s tempting ways, its manipulations, and its subtle distortions. But Jesus is also fully human, the Son of Man. He had free will and therefore was subject as are we to evil’s tempting ways and could have made different choices. Jesus needed to be tested in order to become better prepared for the many and diverse temptations he would face in his ministry. He had to be ready for what he would encounter both in the world around him and in his own spiritual life, just as we need to be ready in our own lives.
II. What then happens in the wilderness, according to Matthew? Jesus was alone for 40 days in a barren, harsh place where his only companion was the Devil. Today I am not going to focus upon the person of the Devil other than to say that I perceive the Devil to be the personification of evil. Further, I believe that evil forces do exist and have an investment in our making sinful choices. Such choices are often characterized by theologians as our human attempts to position ourselves in the place of God. Further, I have witnessed many times that when God’s people are engaged in activities that are holy and worthwhile, evil forces will attempt to undermine us. This dynamic was true for Jesus and it is true for us, his followers.
Therefore, it seems only natural that Jesus as fully human would be tempted by evil forces to abandon his mission even before he began. Evil would tempt Jesus in three ways: to turn stone into bread; to throw himself off of the pinnacle of the temple; and to gain all the kingdoms of the world. The purpose of all three temptations is the same: to entrap Jesus into positioning himself in God’s place. Another way to frame this is that all three temptations were variations of the invitation to commit the sin of pride. In his book Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis asserts that all other sins have their root in the sin of pride. Jesus’ powers to do miracles could have been used either to advance himself or to remain true to the tasks that God had given him. The stakes were high. Jesus truly suffered during the temptation just as he would later on the cross; but, thank God, he remained true to his mission. He was not manipulated by the Evil One’s distorted use of Scripture, by his own loneliness, or by his physical hunger and vulnerability. Embedded in the temptation story is a mirror of our own stories of repeatedly struggling throughout our lives to respond to countervailing forces of good and evil.
As a liturgical people, we use the seasons of time to help us grow in our spiritual lives. Lent is intended to remind us of the constant choices we are making between good and evil alternatives, and that none of us, truly none of us, are free from sometimes making wrong choices. In the early church, Lent was designed in fact to give Christians a distinct opportunity to enter a thorough review of their choices and to repent of and amend their errors. So our practice today reflects this early discipline.
III. Spiritual change. In my personal experience, self-examination and the reform of our lives either as individuals or communities are not easy. We are given today’s Gospel story to help us see that we can overcome evil and experience powerful redemption in our lives. C. S. Lewis wrote another book dealing with these topics entitled The Great Divorce. I would highly recommend this book to you. The story begins in a dreary, dank city, in many ways like a wasteland, in which people line up early in the morning each day to board a bus. Initially the reader is unclear who the people are or where the bus is going. While in line, the people fuss and fight with one another, and by the time the bus arrives, half of those in the line have left and gone back home. Those who remain board the bus, and it carries them to a beautiful and mysterious new place. By this point in the story, the reader realizes that the inhabitants in the city have died and that it is their spirits who are making this journey together on the bus.
The bus arrives at the edge of heaven where the travelers are met by someone they have known while they were living on earth. The role of these persons is to help teach each spirits an unique, critical lesson. Unless the travelers learn these lessons, it will be impossible for them to continue their journey, moving closer and closer to God. Lewis brilliantly tells a series of individual stories – who meets each spirit; what lesson each must learn; and how each responds.
Interestingly, most of the travelers strongly resist learning the necessary lessons and changes they require and eventually go back to the bus to return to the dark wasteland of the village. Why does C. S. Lewis tell his story in this way? I believe it is because he wants us to understand how many opportunities God gives us to face our missteps honestly, how very difficult it is to change, and how pride propels us to remain just as we are. Yet there are the few in the story who do take an enormous risk, confront their fears, and allow transformation to occur. These spirits then begin a glorious new chapter of their spiritual lives.
IV. My sisters and brothers in Christ, I invite us to enter into a holy Lent. I encourage all of us to undertake a time of serious self-reflection and repentance. The church is here to help us. Consider, for example, using the daily Lenten devotional compiled by Deacon Amy, participating in Morning and Evening Prayer, walking the Stations of the Cross on Friday evening, attending the Thursday Centering Prayer Group, joining us in the Wednesday noon healing service, or walking the Labyrinth. I also encourage you to consider adding to your Lenten discipline the Sacrament of Reconciliation offered by our priests.
Let me reiterate our understanding of Jesus’ temptation and passion. Jesus is fully divine, he is the Son of God, and as the Son of God Jesus was not subject to, evil’s tempting ways and lies. But Jesus is also fully human, the Son of Man. He had free will and therefore was subject as are we to evil’s tempting ways. He could have made different choices. As we walk with each other and with Jesus through this Lenten season, we must be aware that God has given us free will – we can make choices. We, like the spirits in C. S. Lewis’ poignant parable, can choose to remain in or return to the wasteland or we can choose to get on the bus and be open to making the choices that will bring us closer and closer to God. This Lent we will be tempted, and we will have the opportunity to choose life, over and over again.
There is a wonderful truth about Lent, about evil, about sin and making mistakes in our lives, and that is this: We are a redeemed people. When we are intentional and open in our spiritual journey, nothing, no nothing, can separate us from the love of God through Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8.38). Amen.