Reflecting on Jesus' Forty Days in the Wilderness in Matthew 4:1-11
Six weeks from this morning, six Sundays from right now, we’ll break out all those ‘alleluias’ again, and look around at a huge crowd, and tell the old, old story about an empty tomb and stunned disciples and a bedraggled gardener who turns out to be Jesus. Easter. Six weeks from this morning.
So here’s a question. Are we going to be ready for that moment, six weeks from now, for that empty tomb? Are you going to be ready? Because that’s what this strange Lenten path is all about. Forty days, forty nights, all kinds of testing and temptation, six weeks of practice—all of it getting us ready for Easter, for Jesus, for his world-flipping, life-loving liberation project.
Now if the devil had his way, Easter would be just another coronation: our faith over their faith, Jesus trumps Mohammed, God beats death once and for all. Make Jesus a king—and be done with it. To be honest, Christianity’s pretty good at the coronation business. But Jesus knows a deeper truth, a harder truth. Easter, in the end, is a practice, not a coronation. It doesn’t solve all the riddles. It doesn’t soften all the edges. So for forty days and forty nights, Jesus defies the devil and denies his coronation. It’s the Easter practice he’s come to teach. It’s the Easter practice he’s come to encourage. Weaving when the world seems to be tearing, loving when the world can’t stop killing, rising when the world buries all hope.
So if Easter’s a practice, the question is this: Are we going to be ready? You and me! Are we going to break out those ‘alleluias’ and risk everything for peace and plant seeds with that relentless, bedraggled gardener? We’ve got six weeks. To get serious about Easter.
And it starts, I think, right here, right now. Lent starts with us—an odd mix of believers and cynics, a strange brew of courage and fear, a wild circle of green robes and hidden tattoos. Right here, right now, we step together onto a long path, one that stretches out before us—all the way to Yeru-shalom, all the way to the cross, all the way to Easter. It’s not supposed to be easy. It’s not supposed to come quickly. Because everything is at stake. Everything.
Whatever you make of the devil, whatever you do with this seductive figure in the wilderness, it’s the testing that makes this old story matter. The Spirit leads Jesus out into the wilderness precisely to test him. Wherever you go, she says, this is how it’s going to be. Testing, temptation, all around. When you’re teaching in the hill country and the broken and battered come calling in waves, you’ll wish you could work nothing but miracles. Stones into bread, that kind of thing. So much easier than feeding them yourself. So much easier than suffering with them. The long haul.
And when you’re organizing in the city and the powers-that-be are breathing fire down your neck, you’ll wonder if you’re really up to it. You’ll be tempted to go a safer route, tempted to find a reputable path. So much easier than speaking truth to power. So much easier than praying, “Your will be done!” So much easier than a cross.
So Jesus, you see, has his own Lenten path to travel. Just like the rest of us. Of course, he’s hungry, fasting forty days. Of course, he’s vulnerable out there, all those beasts and the cold. And of course, of course, he wonders what it would be like to be king, to have that kind of power over people, to be in charge. Just for a little while. Just to set things right. He’s been fasting for forty days and forty nights. Every weary muscle in his body wants some bread. And his sorry soul aches for reassurance. Can you blame him? Have you been there?
The problem is—as soon as we put comfort first, as soon as we put security first, as soon as we put power first, we fall for the timeless temptation. The temptation to divide the world up: folks I can use and folks I can’t, folks I understand and folks I never will, folks on my side and folks on some other. But Jesus is baptized—you and I are baptized—into the unity of all beings, into the Oneness of God, into the Mystery that joins heaven and earth, light and dark, friend and enemy. These temptations are about dividing the world up. Easter’s about bringing it all together. So Jesus resists. He resists an Easter coronation and commits to an Easter practice.
So a little story. About what’s at stake in the wilderness. What’s at stake during Lent.
I’m sitting in my favorite coffee shop on Friday morning—just trying to process the day’s news. You remember Friday? The colossal earthquake in Japan, tsunamis all over the Pacific Basin, Gadhafi in Libya, revolts everywhere else. I’m sipping my cup of tea, scratching notes in my journal; and I notice the guy at the next table is answering his cell phone.
And really, he makes no effort to be discreet. He’s loud and he doesn’t care. A lot of heads are turning. And before very long, he’s telling his friend on the other end about the tsunami alert; and it’s clear the coffee guy is warming up for a joke. I can feel it.
“Hey,” he says, almost insisting that the rest of us listen in, small coffee shop. “Hey, did you hear about California’s new policy on illegal immigration?” And then this chilling kind of pause. “Yeah, they’re gonna round up all the illegals and get them down to the beach before the tsunami hits.” And now he’s laughing—darkly, proudly—at his own stupid joke. “Wash ‘em all out to sea,” he gags. “Wash ‘em all out to sea.”
Now whatever you make of the wilderness we’re living in these days; however you read the tea leaves in Sacramento and Madison, Washington and Tripoli; you probably recognize the temptation in this story. Because it’s everywhere. The temptation to curse the darkness. The temptation to curse dark faces. The temptation to close ranks on all that we don’t understand or love. I’ll hazard a guess that the instability of this age—global warming, religious violence, economic collapse, massive natural disasters—this instability only intensifies the temptation. Divide. Judge. Separate.
And easy enough for me to call out the belligerent New Yorker in my coffee shop. But that same fearful, judgmental spirit lives in my heart—a whole lot more than I like to admit. I spend a good bit of time—I suppose we all do—in that same wilderness, that same Lenten wilderness where Jesus is tested by his own vulnerability, and his own ego, and his own appetite for pleasure and comfort.
These six weeks offer me a way of putting Spirit first and making new commitments to Jesus’ Easter practice. I need this season. That xenophobic New Yorker in the coffee shop: he needs this season. We all need it. On our way to Easter.
Alexander Schmemann—a Greek Orthodox priest—once said that, “Easter is our return, every year, to our own baptism.” Think about that. Easter is your return to baptism. The point of this journey, our journey, the Lenten journey—is baptism. Are you growing into the blessing of your baptism? Are you immersing yourself in Jesus’ example and learning from him the ways of peace, shalom, mercy? Are you growing into the blessing of your baptism? I want to say to you this morning that what we do during these six weeks—what we do in Lent—has everything to do with that blessing. Growing into that blessing.
Maybe you risk attending a new class and being challenged. Maybe you take on a Lenten prayer practice, meditation perhaps, some way of putting Spirit first every day. Or maybe, maybe you make a commitment to staying for soup every Sunday. Maybe you make a commitment to sharing that cup of soup with someone you really don’t know yet, someone who used to attend another kind of service, someone you used to think of as different or strange or even unapproachable. What would happen then? And isn’t this the heart of our Easter practice? We grow into the blessing of baptism as we immerse ourselves in Jesus’ example.
So we’ve got six weeks. And I wonder if the real test, our real test, might come three days before Easter Sunday. We call it Maundy Thursday. Maundy coming from the Latin word, mandare, meaning ‘to command.’ On Maundy Thursday, we remember the one last, great commandment Jesus shares with his friends in the upper room, around supper. “When you love one another,” he says, “when you serve one another, when you humble yourselves before one another, do this.” And then he steps away from the table, peels off his outer cloak, ties it like a towel around his waist, and washes their feet. To their amazement and, in some cases, chagrin. “When you love one another,” he says, “do it like this.”
I want us—all of us—to think of these six weeks as training, as preparation for Maundy Thursday. Now in the past, to be honest, we’ve kind of split the congregation during Holy Week. Traditional friends come on Maundy Thursday. Jazz friends come on Good Friday. But this year, this year, we’re going to do all of this, the whole six week Lenten journey, together. All kinds of people, all kinds of music, all kinds of spirit.
And when we arrive in that upper room, when we reach Maundy Thursday three days before Easter, I want all of us, all of us, to sit here together. Some will wash feet. Some will watch and pray. But I imagine all of us—Chancel Choir folks, Jazz folks, gay folks, straight folks, transgender folks, conservative folks, liberal folks—I imagine all of us embodying Jesus’ primary practice. Washing feet. All kinds of feet. Weaving unity. Making peace. Transcending difference.
Now it’s not supposed to be easy. And it’s not supposed to come quickly and effortlessly. But make your commitment now—to be with us that night, to wear sandals if you can. Because this practice, this Easter practice, is everything the world needs from us. The world doesn’t need our certainties, our orthodoxies, our keen attachments to this language or that language, to this Jesus or that Jesus, to this music or that music. What the world does need—from Tokyo to Tripoli, from Ocean Street to Wall Street—what the world does need are communities who learn to wash feet. What the world does need are communities who learn to break and share bread. What the world does need are communities who learn to ask for—and offer—forgiveness.
Six weeks from this morning, we’ll break out all those ‘alleluias’ and tell that old, old story about an empty tomb and stunned disciples and a bedraggled gardener who turns out to be Jesus. Are we going be ready? Are we going to be ready for Jesus and his world-flipping, life-loving liberation project? I have a hunch. I have a hunch that we are.