Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
Every year, Lent invites us into the wilderness. Sometimes we look forward to it, to the chance to flex our spiritual muscles, and maybe lose a few pounds in the process; to spend a bit of time living in a minor key. Other times we’re reluctant, seeing the wilderness as a place of testing that we’re not sure we’ll pass. Perhaps we’ve been this way before, and we know the wilderness to be a hard place, a barren place, a place of hunger and thirst, of blisters and quarrelling. It’s a place where the devil taunts you; where you’re tempted to give up on God. Why would we want to go there?
We go there because the wilderness, testing though it is, is also a place of revelation, and even of blessing. Right at the beginning of Israel’s wilderness wandering we read that ‘when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, ‘If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea.’ (Ex 14.17-18).
God led the people into the wilderness, and he led them there for their good: because the quicker route, the easy path, contained hidden arrows and swords. Similarly, we read in Matthew that the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness: the Spirit, not satan. The wilderness is not a place where God is absent. And just because it’s uncomfortable doesn’t mean it’s a place of punishment.
The temptations of Christ in the wilderness are familiar; to turn stones into bread; to put God to the test; to bow down and worship satan. These three temptations echo the temptations of Israel in the wilderness: first they complain that there is no bread. Then they put God to the test at the waters of Meribah and Massah. Then they worship the golden calf. Jesus is obedient where Israel is not, but I think there’s something for all of us to explore in the nature of these temptations. It might not be a comfortable exploration: the wilderness is a place where illusion and fantasy are stripped away. But it’s also the place of revelation, where Israel learns that God is to be trusted; where Jesus shows us that despite its apparent aridness, it is the way to a deeper life in God.
The first temptation is about bread. After two and a half months in the wilderness, by way of pleasant watering holes, the Israelites get fed up. Their bellies growl with hunger; their mouths growl with complaints: Egypt was better than this. Remember how we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill? Jesus, likewise, is famished, and satan says, ‘if you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ Sometimes hunger is an evil: when children’s bellies swell with it while the rich make themselves obese or waste food, that is the sort of hunger that clamours for justice. But sometimes hunger is good for us. That’s why Lent invites us to fast.
Fasting helps us to discover what life is like with no comfort but God. If we’re honest, we might find that we’re like the Israelites, and that we prefer the fleshpots of Egypt to the nearness of God in the wilderness. We sate ourselves, often with real or metaphorical junk food, because we want to block out the deeper hunger in our souls.
If I give up alcohol, I am faced, in Lent, with the absence of a quick fix for a bad day. Without it, I have to face up to why I am feeling tired and stressed, rather than pushing those feelings away. And I am feeling tired and stressed, usually, because I have once again succumbed to busyness, to the outworking of my fantasies of omnipotence and omnicompetence. I don’t much like this realisation, which is why I’d rather muffle it with a G&T. But it’s the sort of revelation the wilderness will bring us.
The first temptation is to depend on those things that drown out our hunger for God. We have absorbed from somewhere the idea that the empty space inside of us is something we have to fill; that unless we do, there’s something wrong with us. But we all have this empty space, which is rightly the dwelling place for God within us. Often we flee it, filling the silence with noise; gorging ourselves on things that cannot, ultimately, satisfy our hunger. We skirt the wilderness within us because we don’t quite believe that God can be in it. And if our tummies rumble in the wilderness it’s because we’ve stopped trying to block out our hunger for God. When we fill ourselves with other things, be that chocolate or booze or busyness or whatever, then we learn to depend on them, not on God. In the wilderness, we learn that we don’t live by bread, or work, or reputation alone, but by the word of God.
The second temptation is testing God. Testing God comes from a position of unfaith, and it usually hits when our trust in God’s promises and faithfulness is at a low ebb. It happens when we look around and think ‘this isn’t the promised land. How did I get here?’ For the Israelites, being thirsty in the wilderness was a sign of the absence of God, and a provocation to make him prove his love. For Jesus, the temptation is to put the Father’s love to the test. Will the Father catch him? When we don’t trust God, we often try to coerce him.
Learning to trust God involves letting him lead us through the wilderness, rather than expecting him to conform to the path we’ve mapped out. When we find ourselves thirsty or fearful or just not sure of God’s presence any more, it’s easy to assume that we’re in the wrong place; that God must be sought elsewhere. But the wilderness is the place that both the Israelites and Jesus are led into by God. The one who has called them by name will not abandon them – or us.
The final temptation is idolatry. ‘Worship me’, demands satan. After 40 days of waiting for Moses to come down from the mountain where he has received the law, the Israelites get impatient. They ask Aaron to make a different god for them, a god that seems much more palatable than the fire-breathing, smoke-wreathed divinity that thunders on the mountaintop.
That God is too close, too terrifying, too demanding. It’s not safe to be in his presence, at least, not if by safe you mean you will be able to carry on living your life as though God isn’t involved. The golden calf is what we make when we try to cut God down to size, when we try to make him safe. And before we start protesting that we’re too sophisticated to make golden calves, the idols we fashion are just as alluring. They take the form of whatever it is that keeps God at arms’ length, that substitutes for the fear and trembling caused by the Holy One of Israel.
For Jesus, the temptation was to choose the easy path. ‘Worship me,’ says satan, ‘and I will give you all this.’ Satan is clever: he shows Jesus the kingdoms of the world, which the Father has already promised him. The Father wants to give him all this. But not this way. Not by worshipping satan, by exchanging the worship of the one true God for the father of lies.
Worship is about ascribing worth. And God is pretty clear that ultimate worth belongs only to him. When we find our worth in other things we worship them instead – in old-fashioned language, we commit idolatry. Unless we have our worship oriented in the right direction, all our other loves and desires will be out of kilter. ‘Love God and do what you will’, said St Augustine, not because he was saying that nothing else matters, but because he knew that only when we love God are our desires properly shaped.
Idolatry often happens when we try to get to our desired state our own way. We decide what a good life blessed by God must be, and work our way towards it. Idols may not necessarily be bad things in and of themselves – but they are when they get out of proportion. Money, possessions, family, nation, religion, social status, academic and professional achievement – all these have the potential to become idols when we become too attached to them; when we let them usurp the place that rightly belongs to God. True worship, of the true God, will help us to spot these idols, to discern the voice of satan trying to lure us from God.
So, ‘lead us not into temptation’ we pray, and all the while we are invited into the wilderness where we know temptation lurks. But avoiding the wilderness will not mean we can avoid temptation; rather following God through the roundabout way of the wilderness will help us to learn the particular form our temptations take. It will also, as we learn anew to depend on God instead of ourselves, help us to learn the way to overcome them, by making space for the true hunger deep within, and attending to the voice of God beyond the seductive patter of the tempter. It’s hard: we cling to our illusions and our fantasies, but the God who leads us into the wilderness will stay in it with us, and if we listen for his voice, he will bring us through to the other side, to new life and the promised land, to our Eastertide.