Walking the Walk
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 Luke 4:1-13
First Sunday in Lent February 21, 2010
Lent is always a bit of an odd time for us modern folks. It is a set-apart time of the year that secular people don’t worry much about. Few people stop to question why there is such a huge party going on in New Orleans and what exactly Carnival and Mardi Gras are, anyway. Many have no clue that they are tied to the Christian calendar. Carnival comes from the Latin words carne vale meaning “farewell to the flesh,” and Marde Gras is literally translated “Fat Tuesday.” Carnival is the season from Epiphany through Fat Tuesday. This is actually the precursor to the somber season of Lent. “Fat Tuesday” is the last chance to get the fat out of the house. During Lent, cooking becomes more austere and no fats are allowed, according to the strictest of followers. Ash Wednesday begins the season, diving into Lent by imposing ashes on our heads or hands to remind us of our mortality, “ashes to ashes and dust to dust.” Lent itself harks back to the gospel reading that we heard this morning. Jesus is in the wilderness, fasting and praying. He was whisked there by the Holy Spirit right after his baptism, and so it was not necessarily a self-imposed time apart, but probably more a response to the choice he made to be baptized, to accept the role he was meant to play in the world. All throughout his wilderness fast, Satan shows up here and there to tempt him with food, power and privilege, among other things; but Jesus did not fall for his smooth-talking. Jesus stood strong in his faith that God would provide him with whatever he needed. He quoted some of the scriptures with which he had grown up, as a way of spurning those temptations, pointing out that answers to the questions were at his disposal, from the richness of his spiritual tradition.
It is this spiritual tradition that I want to point to this morning. The psalm that we read was very clear about the fact that the people who make the Lord their refuge are going to be protected. I hadn’t really noticed in previous readings of this psalm, but if you look closely at the words you can see that the people had to proclaim their allegiance to God as a part of the protective covenant between them. At first glance I thought that was a basic trade of allegiance to God for God’s protection; but after spending some time with the psalm, I think it goes a bit deeper than this. I think what is going on here is that the people need to acknowledge their reliance on God for their own understanding of the situation. They need to remind themselves that they are loved and sheltered and protected from on high, because it can be all too easy to forget. They need to remember that the fortress that is built all around them is not of their own making, and nor is it a fluke of nature; rather, it is the very real and tangible protection offered to them by God.
Jesus knew this truth when he faced Satan. He knew that his strength was not made up only of his own abilities. He knew that even though he was out in the middle of a desert wilderness, God was with him. He was not alone for a minute, and so, buying into what Satan was offering him was not even the slightest bit tempting. He already had everything he needed, right at his fingertips. All he needed to do was ask God, ask his Father. Nothing was lacking in his life - nothing.
Our struggles and temptations are rarely as obvious as Jesus’ seem to be in this reading. But I think we can relate to him in terms of spending time in the wilderness, perhaps feeling alone and separated from everyone and everything that is most important to us. We don’t even have to go to a literal desert to feel this way. Sometimes we can feel lonely even in the midst of a crowd. Sometimes the desert is inside of us, so that we can’t get away from it no matter how hard we might try. At times like that it may be tempting to give up on God and even to give up on ourselves. It may feel easier to just go ahead and sell our souls to the highest bidder, rationalizing that at least we will get something for it. But Jesus’ experience shows us that it is important to tap into and hold onto our own roots, our own faith, our own traditions. Jesus quoted Hebrew scriptures when Satan came around, which to me, says that he was holding fast to his faith in those challenging moments. Interesting too, that Satan was quite adept at quoting scriptures as well. But maybe it isn’t as strange, when we look at what was going on between Jesus and Satan as perhaps taking place within Jesus himself. Maybe it wasn’t a face-to-face confrontation out in the desert, but maybe it was a matter of Jesus wrestling with the devil inside himself. I can easily see how the writer of the gospel wrote about it the way he did, just to bring it alive for his readers. But maybe he did us an injustice in writing about it in this way - as if Satan appeared in person, so to speak? Because most of the time when we confront the devil, we do so within our own minds and hearts. The wrestling we do inside ourselves can be some of the most difficult wrestling we ever do in our whole lives. Mahatma Gandhi said that the worst enemy he had ever confronted was not the oppressive British Empire who ruled over India, nor was it the Indian people, who seemed to fight change at every corner. “My most formidable opponent is a man named Mohandas K. Gandhi. With him I seem to have very little influence.”
At the beginning of Lent, at the start of this odd and difficult journey, it can be good to be in touch with the things that tempt us and to be honest with ourselves about the struggles we face. You can’t meet a challenge until you admit that it exists. Gandhi’s story reminds us that no matter how hard we might try to avoid conflict, avoid going into the wilderness, what is essential about either one actually exists inside of us. Lent, then, is maybe most significantly a journey into the depths of who we are and how we live in the world. It is a time set apart for searching the soul, and looking into the dark corners until we make a way for the light to reach them. Lent is about confronting the temptations that are ours to deal with, the ones that come at us from the outside, but maybe most significantly, the ones that lie in wait for us within our own being. These can be particularly challenging because they are fashioned just right to fit into the places left by our insecurities. At times like these, we do well to remember the words of the psalmist, reminding us that we are already in the shelter of God’s care and protection. All we need to do is wake up to the reality of love and protection within which we live. In the midst of whatever difficulties come our way, we need to hold fast to our faith and to the knowledge, strong and certain, that we actually have our dwelling place in God. And when you live in God, then no matter how many challenges come your way, the most important reality of your life is that basic fact.
God our shelter and our home, may we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we live in you. We are held and protected and loved beyond imagining. May our minds and hearts grasp this essential truth of our lives. In the name of Christ Jesus who walked this path before us we pray, Amen.