The Second Sunday in Lent
A Meditation on Matthew 4:1-17
Last week Yael made this very important connection between the forty days Jesus spends in the wilderness, at the very outset of his ministry, and the forty years the Hebrews spend in another wilderness. Like Jesus in his wilderness, the Hebrews are tested in theirs. Together, tried and tested. And this is one of the great themes of our own Lenten journey: that we are tested here, that we make choices here, that faith is (at least in part) a struggle. To be human is to be tested. To believe is to be tested. There just aren’t any short cuts.
You remember that those Hebrews have been liberated, amazingly, from Pharaoh’s oppressive and violent regime. Exodus. The story that sets the whole bible in motion. But on their way to the promised land, on their way to a better place, on their way to justice and freedom, God’s people are tried and tested in the wilderness. Much to their chagrin, by the way. They expected a swifter deliverance. But it turns out that the spiritual grip of Pharaoh’s Egypt is harder to escape than the physical or political. The habits of empire are harder to shake. There are rabbis who like to say that it’s easier for God to get the people out of Egypt, than it is to get Egypt out of the people. And scripture tells us that takes forty years. In the wilderness.
Now there are three temptations, three tests the Hebrews face out there that seem especially relevant to us, that seem especially relevant to our Lenten journey in the church. We hear unmistakable echoes of the three in Matthew’s Gospel this morning.
First, the Hebrews are tested by economics. They look around in that wilderness, they scan the hills of that desert, and they are desperately afraid that there’s not enough out there. The temptation is to give in to a mindset of scarcity and a practice of protectionism. There’s not enough food, not enough health care, not enough good housing, not enough protection against the elements. But especially food. What about me? What about my people? What about my needs? There can’t possibly be enough. And they complain to Moses about it, God’s people, and God has to teach them to trust and to receive and to share. You remember the whole manna from heaven episode. It’s really one of the Hebrew Bible’s most important stories. God has to teach the Hebrews (and us) not to take too much, not to want too much, but to share generously and equitably what they receive from the hands of grace. From the turning of seasons. From the goodness of God.
So when Matthew tells his story, when Matthew’s community tells their story—with the Roman empire breathing fire, with the Roman economy bearing down—they are undoubtedly conscious of that Hebrew tradition and the importance of that tradition and the meanings of that tradition. You really can’t read the Jesus story apart from the Exodus story. Jesus is a Jew. And Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness not simply to have his own private encounter with temptation, but to embrace his people’s experience, his people’s struggle. To be human is to be tested. To believe is to be tested. There just aren’t any short cuts.
So I want to say this about Lent. It’s interesting to give up chocolate for a few weeks, or to swear off swearing, or to forego TV for a season. And many of us grew up with this sense that Lent was about personal discipline, the temptations of the individual, a solitary journey into a lonely desert. But if we look at these forty days, these forty days of Lent, as a solitary journey, we’re missing the point. Like the Hebrews we are tested together, we are tempted together, we are called to struggle for faith and justice and hope together. Like the first communities of Jesus’ disciples, like Matthew’s church, we are tested together, we are tempted together, we are called to practice compassion and embody a beloved community together. If we reduce Lent to giving up candy or swearing off swearing, we’re missing the point. The point of Lent is liberation: not sobriety or misery or self-righteous religious practice. The point of Lent is liberation. It’s about getting our hearts right, and getting our communities right, and getting our churches right for Easter, for the resurrection. For the renewal of hope and possibility and grace. And that means, for us, these forty days in the wilderness together: wrestling with temptations, testing our values and priorities, renewing our covenants and commitments. Because the point of all this is liberation: yours and mine, ours, the liberation God intends for all living beings. All of us.
The second test the Hebrews face has something to do with safety and comfort and protection. The wilderness is a scary place to be, and forty years is a long, long time out there. And God’s people are rattled by rattlesnakes and unnerved by constant movement and migration. You remember these stories, too. Wouldn’t it be better, they ask, to return to Egypt? Wouldn’t it be safer to know where we’re sleeping at night and where the food’s coming from in the morning?
It turns out that being God’s people, accepting God’s promise of liberation is dangerous business. God can’t guarantee safety and comfort, not in the ways we might expect or desire. I’m thinking now about some of the women and men we know who’ve left oppressive homelands, seeking freedom, believing in liberation. And I’m thinking about the risks they take, the borders they cross, the raids they endure in their new lands. Liberation is dangerous business. And God can’t guarantee that we won’t get hurt. Sometimes we will. Sometimes the prophets get hit and hurt.
And Jesus faces that same test, that same temptation, doesn’t he? In Matthew’s story, he too wrestles with the possibility that he’ll get hurt, that he’ll experience pain, that God won’t protect him from bruising and sadness and loss along the way. And for Jesus’ beloved community, for us, this is an important test, a struggle. Will we risk getting hurt to stand alongside our immigrant friends in their hour of need? Will we risk sadness and disappointment to show up night after night after night in a homeless shelter, preparing meals and making beds and caring for friends who’ve lost hope in many cases? On our way to liberation, on our way to truly human liberation and compassion, we will bruise. We will weep. We will get hurt.
Yesterday, we hosted a most amazing gathering here in the sanctuary. Friends from across the county came together to train with San Francisco immigration lawyers around documenting the raids and deportations of our immigrant neighbors. These friends were friends of all colors and ethnicities and sexual orientations. They were friends working all kinds of professions and jobs and representing all kinds of organizations and faith traditions. What bound us together was a commitment to liberation, to compassion, to human decency. And I was so moved, so powerfully moved, to see this large and motley crew offer to risk something on behalf of our immigrant neighbors: to risk safety, to risk embarrassment perhaps, to risk a scary encounter with an Immigration agent or officer. I think that’s the test Jesus is facing out there in the wilderness: the test that says if you love people with all your heart, if you devote yourself to justice with your body, if you accept the liberation as a way of life, you will suffer. At least a little bit.
Which leads us to the third test, the third temptation. For the Hebrews, the third test has something to do with control and governance. Out there in the wilderness, God offers the Hebrews a new way of living together, a new way of governing themselves, a new way of marching into a promised land. And it’s a way of collaboration and covenant, a way of mutual respect and community engagement. This is, in reality, what happens on Sinai when Moses goes to receive God’s instructions, God’s commandments, God’s covenant. The old way—the way of a Pharaoh, the way of hierarchy, the way of patriarchy, the way of 1% ruling the 99%--that way is past. The new way is about respect for the poor, provision for the needs and decision-making for the many. A covenant with God, a covenant with the community.
And, of course, that’s a struggle too. Pharaoh’s Egypt is so much easier; covenant and democracy and collaboration are so much harder. And our temptation is just to give in: give in to the 1%, give in to the powerful and elite, give in to the captains of industry and the wizards of Wall Street. Politics, after all, can be so messy, so engrossing, so consuming.
But Jesus and Moses and the Hebrews resist. That’s really the good news today. Jesus and Moses and the Hebrews resist. They’re tempted to be sure. To be human is to be tempted. To believe is to be tested. But God’s people choose God’s way of collaboration and covenant. That’s really the only way in the wilderness; it’s really the only way to survive together, to claim our freedom together, to find liberation together in the wilderness. Collaboration and covenant.
If the point of Lent, if the point of these forty days, is liberation, the practice we’re aiming for is collaboration and covenant. Sure, giving up chocolate can help us work on self-discipline and simplicity; and swearing off swearing can help us pay attention to our ways of communicating and our interactions with disappointment and anger. But on our way to Easter, making sense of resurrection, we’re aiming for collaboration and covenant. That’s why Jesus marches out of his wilderness and right away finds friends, disciples, collaborators to build a beloved community. That’s why Jesus wrestles so with his people’s demons, with his people’s history—to find a pattern of communion, to embrace a practice of compassion, to trace a circle of brotherhood and sisterhood. On the way to liberation, Jesus insists on collaboration and covenant. It’s the way. It’s the gospel way. It’s the church’s way, too.
So we’re claiming and celebrating our church’s covenant throughout this Lenten Season. You’ll find it at the end of this morning’s liturgy:
We covenant with God and with each other:
To walk together in all God’s ways
As the Holy is revealed to us.
To give ourselves freely and without reserve
To Jesus’ ministry in this church.
I looked around the sanctuary yesterday—at the immigration forum and training here—and I watched our covenant come to life. I watched God’s people—from all walks of life—choosing an economy of abundance and kindness: resisting an economy of scarcity and choosing an economy of abundance and kindness. I watched God’s people—from all walks of life—choosing risk and solidarity and courage: resisting comfort and safety and choosing risk and solidarity and courage. And I watched God’s people—from all walks of life—choosing collaboration and covenant and shared leadership.
These forty days and forty nights, this Lenten journey: it’s so important for us. It’s such a critical season of discernment and testing, a crucible for resistance in a time of fearfulness and bigotry.
But what a joy to walk together in all God’s ways. What a wonder to give ourselves freely and without reserve to Jesus’ ministry here. What a gift to find our liberation and our purpose together.