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Wilderness Struggle

Luke 4: 1-13

This is the first Sunday of Lent, and our journey starts with the story from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when he is said to have fasted and prayed for 40 days in the wilderness; the length of time that the church celebrates the Lenten season. It’s a strange story.

 In telling the story, the early Christians knew that those who heard it would hear the number 40 and make a lot of connections. 40 is a biblical symbolic time, a mystical time of transformation and rebirth. Remember Noah… 40 days in the ark…everything destroyed by floods. After 40 days the ark, the bearer of the remnants of creation, came to a new beginning and to renewed relationship with the Creator! Watch for a radical new beginning. Remember the exodus… Forty years of wandering in circles in the desert for the people to be transformed from a nation of slaves, to a people of freedom! Watch for a story of liberation! Remember Moses, who led the people out of slavery… 40 days he spent on Mount Sinai fasting before he received the Law! Watch for the Way, as Jews called the Law. 40 means God’s doing something important here! Pay attention!

The story also happens in wilderness a place hugely evocative to those steeped in tradition. Wilderness; where the people learned to cast off slave mentality; where they learned (only with a lot of struggle) a radical trust in God and how to be a people of God .

All of us are thrust into wilderness at some point in our lives.. Who knew that this year, would be one year when I’d be able to identify with wilderness big-time. After our annual meeting today, I will be flying up to Thunder Bay as my mom in critically ill. This on top of a few other major life transitions happening….It is a time of wondering in wilderness. And many in this room are also living wilderness times a job is lost; illness strikes; a loved one dies; a marriage ends; a family member attempts suicide, family relationship is tested to the limits. Wilderness comes with many faces and names, but is never very far away.

Wilderness is where one wrestles with illusions. Wilderness is where the rules and way one defined oneself in the past, no longer work. Wilderness is transition time, dying to the old, living with the ambiguity of not knowing the new. Wilderness is where one has to rediscover who one is, when who one was, no longer makes sense. Wilderness is where we wrestle with being pulled in different directions; with tempting alternatives-to take the easy way out, to resist necessary growth and change; or to grasp at paths that offer only an illusion of hope.

But wilderness can be where one discovers one’s deepest meaning, the core of one’s being; where one grows beyond the ego self to what Carl Jung calls the true Self, the sacred self. Wilderness is where one can face and conquer paralysis from fear.

Jesus chose to enter wilderness at the beginning of his ministry. Many looking for a renewed spirituality gathered in the wilderness around the prophet John who baptized with a baptism of repentance, and called for a radically transformed order. We love the story of Jesus baptism where he experienced the affirmation “You are my dearly beloved, in whom I delight”. Yet immediately following that we find him wrestling with the implications of what he had heard. What do you do with your life, after you’ve offered it to God? Jesus was at a turning point. He could not turn back but he still had to begin the new life, not knowing where it would lead.

Luke tells us that it was the Spirit who led Jesus deeper into wilderness. Wilderness it seems is part of the path-Not something God protects us from – but protects us in. Jesus engaged in what native traditions call a vision quest. It was a time of great tension, great fear, great vulnerability.

Jesus is pulled in different directions. There were easier ways out, there were ego ways to use his power. Perhaps there was the temptation to forget all about it, to not get involved in something that wasn’t his business, to go on living a normal life in Nazareth, caring for his mother and younger brother and sisters.

Anyone who has spent time wrestling with the inner demons in wilderness time, knows that the few lines and quick answers we heard in our gospel today are not even a Cole’s notes version of the inner turmoil that must have gone on. Jesus is tempted not by necessarily evil options, but rather by his strengths- He could provide food for the hungry—Indeed he later does this in his ministry-so it is not a bad thing in and of itself. He could take the route of political power and authority . Or he could do flashy signs that would show how much he relied on God. Tempting alternatives are not real temptations unless they really are possible options-possible life directions. He had to wrestle with difficult moral delemmas. Whom will this serve? Whom will this harm? Will this choice simply benefit me at the expense of others? And that big discernmnet question: What are the gifts and calling that are core to my identity and which are illusions? It is interesting to note, that all the temptations are from the scriptures themselves. It seems that scripture itself can be interpreted in ways that distort and twist .

I don’t know about you, but I don’t particularly feel tempted to turn stones into bread; or to jump off the top of the Peace Tower in Ottawa so God can catch me; or even to political power (despite the despair one feels when one looks at the political spectrum at the moment).

But when I reflect on what had tempted me away from my sacred path; what has seduced me away from my God centre, and created illusions that pulled me away from my identity as a person of faith I realized there are many. Sometimes I feel seduced, as do most of us by what has become the modern western “god of consumerism”…the notion that we can buy our way to happiness and fulfillment. Billions are spent to make sure that we are loyal servants of this particular demon. To resist is to be incredibly counter-cultural.

And as I face into retirement, I feel seduced to put my faith in my RRSP and my mutual funds; in the “god of security”. Many of us have seen the illusion of that particular seduction in the last few years. It is not to say that concern for investment is an evil thing…but at what point does it become the focus of one’s life? what one pays too much energy and heed to?

I find myself tempted sometimes as well to take the path of least resistance; to opt out of believing I can make a difference with my life and choices. It takes effort to orient one’s life to justice and healing. It takes work to keep centred in God’s intention for my life. It is so much easier just to buy the cheaper coffee, rather than the 10,000 villages fair trade coffee. It is so much easier to be an unconscious consumer, and turn a blind eye to where a product is made, and how those who made it are treated. It is so much easier not to care about the amount of fuel I burn, or electricity I consume. It is so much easier to watch the chaos in the world and throw up my hands and say I can’t do anything about it, than to find the ways I can make a difference and faithfully act in the areas I am able.

Well that’s three temptations…the same number as Jesus experienced..That should be enough’ but you know I have even more! The temptation to negative focus on the half empty glass; on what needs to be done, but is not happening, rather than celebrating what IS happening in the present…The temptation to see myself as powerless, rather than claim God’s power working in and through me….The temptation to feel that everything rests on my shoulders, rather than trusting in the Spirit of God to work through me….And I could go on and on; but enough exposée already! You get the idea.

If you were naming what seduced you away from “ the Jesus way” “ the sacred way” what would be the illusions you would name? Some I have named you might not experience, but I’m quite sure there are others out there I’ve not named.

Lent calls us to honestly look at our illusions; to see through them for what they truly are; untruths; half-truths; ways of avoiding life; ways of seeking power and control; ways that keep us stuck in the way things always have been. All of these prevent us from living the new life in Christ; a radical faith in Spirit. It takes courage to do this, but we are changed forever as we take this honest appraisal of our lives. We have the possiblity of becoming more profoundly human, and of making choices to go in more life-affirming directions, and like Jesus it will prepare us for getting on with what God wants us to do in our lives.

For me the story of Jesus in his struggle in the wilderness, gives the challenge, and the courage to face my demons..trusting that the spirit will lead to the path of integrity as it did for Jesus. And the Matthew version of this story ends with angels coming and holding Jesus up. When we go into wilderness times, we become acutely aware of the angels, the companions, the spiritual and physical beings who accompany us with love and prayer. And we know that we never walk this wilderness way alone.

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