First Sunday in Lent
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

The first Sunday of Lent always begins with Jesus being led out into the wilderness by the Spirit (mind you) and being tempted by the “devil.” This happens just as he has come up out of the waters of baptism and is affirmed by his heavenly Father and called the Beloved.  It is right before he begins the most significant aspects of his life and ministry.   

The Old Testament passage and Ash Wednesday take us all the way back to the beginning. They remind us that we have been carefully and intricately formed by our Creator, shaped from the dust of the earth and infused with God’s own breath.   

We set out on this journey of transformation that takes us from inconsequential dirt to glorious disciples setting the world on fire. That’s what the season is all about: transformation.    

And we will need to be careful. Mindful. We will need to slow down. Pay attention to what we see, hear, and respond to.  

Before the Sermon on the Mount, before the Beatitudes and miracle stories, Jesus is in the wilderness. He is tempted about his power and how he is to use it. He is tempted about his identity.  

I have been thinking about that. The gospel writers would have us think that there was a physical person, a being, conversant with voice, eyes and ears. Perhaps. Some might say, yes that’s true – I’ve met that person!   

It might be difficult to imagine Jesus having a conversation with such a creature. Except I suspect we do it all the time. How easy it is to listen to those voices roaming around in our head that try to strip us of our confidence and make us feel vulnerable, unsure, like a failure. God’s affirmation to Jesus and to us is essential: “This is my Son [Daughter], the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”   

I think the heart of evil begins right here. Right in those places where we are so unsure and insecure. When we lack confidence in who we are. When we feel threatened and have to compete. When we have to prove ourselves and our worthiness over and over again, only to never quite be able to convince others of who we are.

And let’s face it: the insecure can never make someone else feel secure. The unloved can never fully love another. Those who do not see themselves as viable can never see you as viable regardless of what you do.  

Sometimes, it’s so hard to think that we are enough, just as we are. There is not a whole lot in our culture that is affirming. In the church, at work, sometimes in our homes, there are a whole lot of voices that say more is required.

Those thoughts are planted, and those words and tones are intended to shake us at our core, casting doubt and fear and anxiety, telling us who we are and who we are not. How we have come up short over and over again? As if we are not enough and never will be enough. But we know that’s not true. We know it but – there we go.   

We wrestle with demons and spirits all the time – from within and outside. Some seem to never go away. Some are systemic, deeply rooted, from generation to generation. Some are prompted by fear and anxiety, a generation of shaming and name-calling, deeply embedded and prodded by a lust of power, a lust of money, or a lust of pride that sticks like glue.  

And it can feel like we are in the wilderness. And the wilderness is not a good place. It’s filled with briars and thickets, untamed and unchartered territory. It’s a desolate place characterized by loneliness and struggle, where we are tossed about physically, spiritually and emotionally. Broken, exhausted, and overwhelmed. Stuck.   

We go to the wilderness early in the season so that we can rise to the mountain of greater consciousness on Easter Sunday morning. We go there in order to do our good work over these forty days and beyond so that we can develop patterns of reflection and truth: honesty about who we are, where our vulnerabilities lie, and what matters most. Let’s face it, truth be told, sometimes the only way and the only place that we can do really good God work is in the wilderness. When we are tired and worn, when we have nothing but ourselves and God, nothing but our faith to hold onto. It becomes clear what we believe and on whom we depend. And we abandon all the false gods and all the false images and sensibilities about ourselves and others. We get down to the heart of the matter.  

And we pray that we come out with enough of ourselves intact. That we emerge not so bitter, not so angry, not so wounded that we cannot help others who find themselves in those places too.   

Kayla McClurg writes, “However or whatever or whomever we imagine Satan to be – whether physical incarnation or mental apparition – this adversary is anything and everything in our lives that rejoices in deception, seeks to destroy the good, craves ultimate control. The Satan factor is whatever comes to us as a mindset, a strategy, a system, a person or group disguised as desiring only our best while stubbornly conniving for private benefit.”

I was thinking about that old African American Spiritual – how did you feel when you come out the wilderness? Grammatically incorrect but nevertheless. How did you feel when you come out the wilderness leaning on the Lord?  It’s a question that begs a response and if you listen carefully, you hear a summary of faith and dependency on God as the only one that can help you through the struggle.    

For the wilderness represented all those places and spaces of oppression and abuse; those places where one’s humanity is denied; those hard things that one could not do on his or her own. It represented the struggles of life, sickness and death, oppression, hatred and pain. And it somehow presumes that despite it all, in between the going in the wilderness and the coming out of the wilderness, one is going to emerge triumphant. It’s a mighty bold expectation for someone with so little. It is a faith-filled song. A song of hope and determination.  

It speaks of liberation and freedom, rebirth and renewal, and assurance that even the struggle has its perfect work. You cannot see it. Cannot hear it, cannot taste it, but you know it’s there. God is there and God has done something amazing. 

Someone is asking in hindsight, on the other side: how did you feel when you came out, when an answer came, when the miracle happened, when you survived against all odds, when healing was made possible beyond your wildest dreams? The responder answers back, not just about the answer, but also in celebration of the long, hard struggle that seemed impossible, broken. “Well, I felt like shouting. I felt like clapping. I felt like singing because the deliverance was so magnificent that it demanded an action, a physical response. It demanded movement because the body could not hold it.” It’s like the choir singing something so beautiful and some word or melody touches us so deeply that we cannot help ourselves. It demands a response. We stand on our feet or we clap our hands. We may not even want to, but we just can’t help ourselves. We have to do something.  

So it is in faith. We have to do something. We have to do something.