Wilderness

One of Us


Mark 1:9-15 (NRSV)

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”


It is the season of Lent, and this story of Jesus’ baptism and temptation in the wilderness tells us much about how to put sin behind us and grow spiritually, seeking holy alignment with God.

Not that Jesus, who was in a mysterious way fully divine and fully human, had sin in his life. He did have the potential to sin; he simply did not succumb to temptation, as we so often do as frail humans.

We often think of baptism as an act of repentance and a cleansing of sin, and these are accurate notions. We have to go a little deeper into baptism’s meaning, however, to comprehend what the sinless Christ accomplished at the Jordan River, and how it ties to our lives today.

When Jesus was baptized, a new alliance between humanity and God was affirmed. When we accept baptism as the key identifying event in our lives, we make ourselves part of that alliance, with ties that run as deep as the purest bonds of family.

The Father in Heaven affirmed Jesus’ sonship; in baptism, we too become children of Father God, siblings of the Savior Son. As the author of Hebrews notes, “The one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.”

Think of baptism as God lifting up his children, gazing upon them and claiming them as his own. God also kneels down with his children. Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness was God, through Jesus’ eyes, seeing life from our level. And what a painful place the wilderness can be.

In the other synoptic gospels (Matthew and Luke), the effort to tempt Jesus is described in greater detail. We hear specifically the lures old Satan dangled to try to convince Jesus to sin: You know you’re hungry; make bread from stones. Throw yourself from the highest point of the temple; angels will save you. Bow down to me and I’ll let you rule the world!

I also like the less-detailed account in Mark, however. It creates the possibility that Jesus faced the temptations most dangerous to me. I feel I can see him walking about in the chalky, sun-baked wilderness, hungrily praying about everything that draws humans away from God.

I’m also reminded of the need to find time apart for meditation and prayer. Folks, we’re really not very good at this in our culture. It is as if our goal is to fill every moment with something to tingle the ears or penetrate the eyes, as if time spent in unstimulated silence is somehow wasted.

We fail to do what Jesus did. We fail to go without so we can remember our fragility and dependence. That’s the real purpose of fasting. The act helps us become more conscious of the voids within us, deep depressions in the soul we too often try to fill with excesses in eating, sex, recreation or other diversions.

Having consumed the wrong kind of sustenance and thinking we are satisfied, we then fail to gather our strength through direct communion with God. That’s the great result of intense communal worship and private prayer: Those voids can be permanently filled with God’s Holy Spirit.

I don’t talk about our failures to make us despair, however. No, I point them out so we can, with God’s help, overcome them and be amazed at all that God wants to do for us!

Never forget that in the midst of what seemed like vacant, dry wasteland, a place of constant danger, there were angels ready to tend to our sibling Savior. Do you not think they will do the same for us, his little brothers and sisters in the family of God?

All around us there is a God-aligned spirit world ready to come to our aid. Its members stand between us and what tries to afflict us. They go to war for us against the forces of evil, if only we let them.

When the brokenness of this world overcomes us, the angels comfort us. They want to help, particularly as we, like them, work on God’s behalf more each day.

Yes, the Bible stories in the Lenten season remind us of sin. But more importantly, they remind us of the joy and power in a life redeemed from sin, a life connected to eternity by Jesus Christ.

 

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Through the Wilderness: Companionship

We’ve reached the last week of our Lenten “In the Wilderness” series, and so far, I hope, we’ve learned a few things from the Israelites about how we best cope with our own wilderness journeys.

We’ve talked about how to stay oriented toward God’s will. We’ve discussed the difficulty of trusting God’s provision, and we’ve emphasized the need for God-inspired perseverance, or “grit.”

In Exodus 18:13-27, the importance of mature, thoughtful companionship on such a journey shines through. At this point in the wilderness story, Moses has been reunited with his wife and children, who have been staying with Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, a Midianite priest. Jethro is astonished by the miracles God has performed while liberating the Israelites from Egypt, but he is equally concerned about how Moses is trying to lead the people and handle all their problems on his own.

His advice is pretty simple: Find men you trust, men with high moral standards, and group the people under them to help. Otherwise, Moses, you are going to burn out. Moses takes the advice.

Sadly, Moses eventually burns out anyway, the stress of leadership proving to be too much. A fit of anger while leading the recalcitrant people ultimately costs him entry into the promised land. Moses’ failure is no fault of Jethro’s excellent advice, however. No matter how smart we may think we are, we all need wise companions as we make our way through this broken world toward God’s kingdom, particularly if we are called to lead in any way at all.

Jethro’s model for grouping people and spreading the burden of leadership and spiritual development has worked in every era. Jesus did something similar, focusing on his 12 disciples, who then would lead other disciples. They also ultimately founded churches, which largely were clusters of what we would think of today as home-based small groups.

The early Methodist movement mimicked such a model with great success. It’s distressing to me that most Methodist churches have wandered so far from such small group closeness and mutual accountability; I think it is one of the primary reasons we are in decline in the United States.

Churches working along such lines have been able to do great things even in the midst of terrible evil, where the howling wilderness becomes murderous. Take World War II and the mass killing of Jews by the Nazis, for example.

If you don’t know the story of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, you should take time to learn more about it. In short, this little French village, working mostly out of its small Protestant church, was able to save thousands of Jews from deportation and extermination. What fascinates me is how the people of Le Chambon say they never needed a planning meeting or a vote to figure out what to do. Well before the war, the pastor had put in place a biblical system for teaching and communication. He taught a small group of leaders, each of whom then went and taught their own groups.

When crisis came, the people knew biblically what God called them to do and they simply did it, using their little system to pass Jews back and forth to safety without ever having to discuss out loud what they were doing.

Le Chambon reminds us of what we are capable of doing when we follow common-sense biblical strategies. The kingdom of God can suddenly bloom in the most vile environments.

Put all this together—constant faithful companionship, orientation toward God, trust in God’s provision, and perseverance through faith—and we can make it through any sort of badlands, finding the Kingdom of God on the other side.

Through the Wilderness: Perseverance

Numbers 13-14:25

I find the concept of perseverance a little difficult to define, even with multiple dictionaries handy. From time to time, it certainly requires courage to persevere, but there also is more to persevering than having courage. Courage usually happens in a moment, while perseverance happens over a long period of time, perhaps most of a lifetime.

Sometimes you hear people talking about other people having “grit.” I like that word. It evokes an internal quality, a kind of spiritual fortitude that comes from deep down inside but manifests itself in very real, outward ways. If you have perseverance, or grit, you may die trying, but you’ll likely die standing on your feet. (I fear I may be channeling John Wayne here.)

To sum up this story from Numbers about the Israelites in the wilderness, I’ll just say they lacked grit. Their past experiences as slaves had crushed their spirits, and far too few of them were willing to persevere, despite the promises of God and the tremendous rewards that lay before them. Their lack of grit cost them mightily—instead of life in a rich land that “flows with milk and honey,” they became a people condemned to die in the desert, their hope and joy transferred to a generation to come.

Grit is needed and developed in a variety of different ways. If we’re going to succeed in life, we have to develop a little grit. There’s even research now showing that the ability to persevere may be as important or more important than intelligence. That research explains something most of us have observed at one time or another: It’s not always the most intellectually gifted people who are the most successful in this world, and it’s not unusual for an average classroom performer to do astonishingly well later in life.

I think we can go beyond the personal lesson and move to a national one, too. Just as we see in the Numbers story, a group of people may or may not, as a whole, have grit, even if their leaders do have it. Moses, Joshua and Caleb have grit, but the people won’t follow them. Later in the Old Testament, you see the problem in reverse, too. Armies or citizens know the right thing to do, even the hard thing to do, but an unspirited leader keeps them from succeeding.

I frankly think that’s what we lack as a nation now, a sense that we need to somehow persevere as a group. I’m not sure we’ve had such unity of spirit for some time. It would be nice if someone would develop a National Grit Index and publish the results on the business channels alongside the stock reports.

I’m reminded of the World War II generation, what we now call “The Greatest Generation.” As a group, they had incredible grit, developed as they grew up in the Depression and then tested as everyone at home or abroad sacrificed to fight a great growing evil on two fronts. Given a common vision for why we exist, I wonder if we could be like them.

Now, everything I’ve said so far could be safely used in a high school commencement address without a complaint from the ACLU. “Develop your grit; let us persevere as a nation.” But this is a sermon, and this Bible story has an obvious spiritual call embedded in it, one most useful in this season of Lent.

Let me ask you this first, my fellow Luminarians. Do you feel certain God is with you individually, and with us as a church? By that, I’m asking you whether you’ve fully embraced Jesus Christ as your savior, understanding this belief changes everything. By that, I’m also asking if you think we’re bound together as a church by God’s Holy Spirit and able to move as a group according to God’s will.

If your answers are “no,” we need to have a whole different conversation. We have to get that part right first, this idea that God is with us. We don’t want to be like those first-generation Israelites in the desert, with God obviously present among us, but whining how we want to go back to our old ways, crying that the future is too daunting, too frightening.

I’ve not really known you that long, but I’m sure I see faith in you as a group. And I’m confident enough in you that I’ve spied out our promised land a little.

Ultimately, our promised land is the same as everyone else’s, an eternity beyond death, a constant blissful abiding with God. But we can have a taste of its joy now. We can live into it in this church now.

I see a shining building on a hill that becomes a symbol for life with Christ, not because of the building, but because of the people who go in and out. I see it filled up on both floors with people of all ages, children playing and learning to love Jesus, their parents growing in their commitment to God and each other, and our elders deepening themselves spiritually and rejoicing together at what has come to pass because of their early commitments.

I see babies and adults lined up for baptism. I see hungry children and adults in our community fed physically and spiritually every day of the week.

We can get there. We can become that church.

There are giants to slay. I’ve given names to a few. One is called Halfheart; he’ll tell you worldly, secular concerns are more important than spiritual matters. He’ll even convince you there are better places to be on Sunday.

Another is called Hesitation—he’s the one who convinces you that maybe you had better hold your time and money in reserve, just in case this God thing doesn’t pan out in the end. I’ll call another one Eyepoke: He wants to blind you so you can’t see how real the grace of God is, how much better grace is than anything else you’ll experience. And then there’s the giant Lookback: he’ll actually try to make you long for your past life, your past pain, the way the Israelites longed for slavery.

Those four giants, and some others, are a problem, but they cannot stand against us. It takes grit to fight them, but God is on our side. And we want to be the generation to see the promises fulfilled.

Through the Wilderness: Provisions

Exodus 16:1-8

Last week, as part of our Lenten journey, we headed off into the wilderness with the Israelites to see how they would grow in their understanding of God. They first learned to orient themselves in the easiest of ways, by keeping their eyes on the highly visible sign God gave them, a pillar of cloud and fire.

They quickly received another powerful sign, a story most people know, the parting of the Red Sea. Through this miracle provided by God, they were able to escape the pursuing Egyptian army by crossing the sea bed on foot. They even watched that army drown when the walls of water came crashing down.

You would think they would follow that clear sign of power through the desert with a mixture of astonishment and deep trust. We’ll find, however, that the Israelites were much like us—they were a worried, very human bunch. Astonishment and trust faded as soon as they became concerned their needs would not be met. Specifically, they became hungry.

God responded with the promise of provision. They didn’t even need to carry food with them on their journey. Instead, God told them, it would rain down on them as quail and manna, described later as a substance sounding a little like Frosted Flakes.

The lesson was pretty simple: God will provide. In fact, God wanted the Israelites to go to bed every night trusting his provision would be there for them the next day—no long-term planning needed on this journey. There was work to be done, but they always had enough. (He provided them with water in a similar way.) The one exception was when God sent them enough food for two days when the Sabbath came. God also wanted them to rest!

God still seeks the same kind of trust from us today. Pray this prayer with me: “Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread … .” Stop right there just a second.

Hmmmm. At least weekly in worship, and maybe daily, we lift up this prayer Jesus taught us to pray. Do we mean it? Do we live it? What does it mean to live as if we trust our bread will come on a daily basis?

The idea certainly conflicts with our 401K/pension plan/Roth IRA world. We’re taught to plan for our own provisions 40 years or more into the future, with all of that planning affecting when we can retire. We’re sometimes even left with the strange concern that we might live too long, running out of money in the process. How do we reconcile these two very different world views?

First, I’m reminded of one of Jesus’ parables. He begins telling it at Luke 12:16:

“The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

Jesus said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.”

The big problem for the rich man, it seems, is not really hoarding, although he certainly is committing a serious sin when he hoards. He is deluding himself about how much control he has, in the process failing to understand his basic relationship to God. Preparation seems prudent, but we should never let go of this basic truth: We don’t control the future. And no amount of planning or stored provisions remove us from our need for God.

There also is the issue of how we use the resources we are given. Do we live as if this life is the only one that counts? Or do we live as people who believe something greater is happening—that God’s kingdom is truly arriving, and that the kingdom is where we store our true treasures and live out eternity!

John Wesley had a sermon, “The Danger of Riches,” that explained his idea of how to balance proper planning and trust in God. (He was working from 1 Timothy 6:9.)

In the sermon, Wesley said that God provides for the roof over our heads, food, and other basic needs, allowing us to ensure the well-being of our families and even our businesses, if we are people who operate them. Beyond those provisions, everything we are given counts as riches, and they have been given to us to use “to the glory of God.” Often, this means using our riches to help those who are less blessed materially, playing a role in God’s provision for people’s basic needs.

Even for a tither, this is a concept that requires thought. It forces a reassessment of every decision we make regarding how we handle our income and possessions, simply because we learn to say, “It’s not really ours, anyway.”

When we learn to make such decisions in the light of God’s dawning kingdom, we not only trust God daily, we begin to participate actively in the kingdom’s growth. We let God work through us so others see their daily bread arrive.

When all Christians adopt such an attitude, God’s presence will be as visible in this world as a pillar of cloud in the sky and Frosted Flakes on the ground.

Next week: The importance of perseverance.

Through the Wilderness: Orient Yourself

We have entered the season of Lent. Since the earliest days of the church, Christians have observed 40 days of spiritual preparation to ready themselves for Easter. It is a time we hope we will grow in our ability to understand and relate to God, particularly as we experience God through the story of Jesus Christ and direct interaction with God’s Holy Spirit.

Long before Jesus Christ came upon the scene, however, the people from whom he was descended, the Israelites, had to go through their own process of understanding and relating to God. Their Lent was a long one, 40 years rather than 40 days, and it was spent wandering in the wilderness.

The Israelites were happy to go to that desolate place, at least at first, because they had been slaves in Egypt, and the desert was their escape route. The journey was a hard one, though, and staying close to God proved to be difficult.

There is much to be learned from their time in the wilderness. The lessons God was teaching them are many of the same lessons we should learn during Lent. Including this Sunday, we’re going to spend four weeks during Lent understanding some of those lessons, letting them shape our Lenten experience.

We’ll begin with Exodus 13:17-22, that moment when the Israelites set out from Egypt. Right away, we’re told something that might be a little disturbing; rather than taking them the relatively straight, easy-to-navigate route to their homeland, God leads them toward the desert. This is in part to help them avoid something they were not ready to handle, war with the people who would have attacked them along the way.

For me, this falls under what we usually call “God’s timing.” Even when we follow God, it’s not unusual to continue to think we’ll meet our goals and find success according to our very human expectations. When we’re disappointed in God’s apparent slowness, what we may be missing is how God has steered us away from some disaster we could not foresee. The creator of the universe is also the seer of the Big Picture.

There also is an important little aside in the story, the detail that the Israelites gathered up “the bones,” the mummified remains, of Joseph, who more than four centuries earlier had risen from slave in Egypt to its de facto ruler, in the process saving the Israelites from famine. It was only later the Israelites became the Egyptians’ slaves.

What’s interesting here is that over four centuries, the Israelites had remembered who Joseph was, despite their declining circumstances. They had remembered what God had done for Joseph, and what God had promised he would do for the Israelites.

To trust God, it helps to have storytellers—you need at least a few people who remember the community’s narrative of truth and hope. It is how a community of people remember their identity and pass that on from generation to generation, staying focused on a common vision.

Lent is a good time to ask ourselves how we’re doing as a Christian community at telling our stories. Do we know the story of Christ well enough to tell it? Do we share the story with a sense of urgency, knowing that if we fail to tell it, a generation may find itself disconnected from God’s promises?

Lastly, we see the Israelites knew how to remain oriented, even if it seemed they were going in circles. As long as their eyes were on God, they were on track; when they doubted the path laid out for them, they got themselves into trouble.

God made the path easy for them with a kind of holy GPS. He led them with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Sometimes, these signs kept the people in place for a long time. Other times, these signs kept them moving.

As believers, we have signs, too, signs as obvious as holy cloud and fire. I know, you hear it from the preacher all the time, but you need to hear it again. The Bible really is our guide, and Lent is a great time to rededicate ourselves to living by its truths.

I frequently hear people say you can make the Bible prove any point you want. I will agree that the Bible really is more a library than one book, and there are parts that seem to conflict, usually because of different contexts for the passages that seem at odds. But I also believe it has a cohesive, overarching message, and when we understand that message, we find it fairly easy to discern from Scripture how to live our lives.

That big message is along these lines: God is holy and perfect and made all things. Through disobedience, we are separated from God, but God loves us so much that he went to extraordinary lengths to reunite us to him. After revealing himself through Jesus Christ, he made reunion possible through the cross. When we affirm through our own lives that Christ’s death on the cross is a real event, we are rejoined to God. And finally, God is remaking all things to conform to his holiness.

Orient ourselves toward the big message and the one who delivers it, and we’re following the Lenten path.

Next week: How do you pack for a trip like this?