On most Monday evenings, you will find a small group of us gathered in the outer office wrestling with scripture. We start with some check-in time, and then we read the possible scripture passages for the coming Sunday. From that point on, the conversation can go anywhere. This last Monday it went to puberty, sex, and horror movies, among other places. See what you’re missing? Sometimes parts of our discussion work their way into my sermon; sometimes I go off in a completely different direction. So if you’re ever free on a Monday night, know that you could come and join the fun.
What is the wrestling in this first week of Lent? Jesus has just been baptized and has gone off into the desert for a good long stretch to ponder what happened there. You may recall that a dove came down and a voice said, “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Pretty amazing! And what do you do with that? Let’s say you got baptized and heard the voice of God say, “This is my daughter, this is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” If you wanted to take it seriously, what would you do? Kind of makes you sit up and pay attention. Clearly this is a calling. How do you make your life available to answer this call? Clearing the calendar for a while—forty days, in Jesus’ case—and spending some time in retreat in the wilderness sounds like a good plan, although personally I might take along a few sandwiches and a sleeping bag. Just saying. So maybe I’ve already failed some test.
If we think of Jesus as knowing his identity as the Son of God since he was born in a stable and heard angels singing to shepherds and so on, then this is the moment when he gets the cue to start his ministry. He’s known since forever that he was divine, and now he goes off into the desert for some alone time with God and the devil, and he easily rebuts the devil’s temptations. That’s one way to look at this reading.
But I also love to explore the possibility of Jesus’ full humanity, because then his story is more like ours, and what’s possible for him is also possible for us. In that scenario, Jesus is just a guy getting on with his life. He hears John the Baptist preaching and feels something stir in his soul. He gets baptized, and then God basically stops him in his tracks with this message: “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Oh! Oh! Stop everything. Figure this out. Discern this call. And from this point on, Jesus’ life pivots to become something entirely different. And this time in the desert is when he’s deciding what that’s going to look like.
Okay, Son of God. Exploring this identity is like starting a new job. What are the perks and benefits? Are there special dispensations for those with Son of God status? Am I invincible? Do I have power over, or power with? Is there extra security, authority, or glory associated with this position?
Have you ever said, “If I ruled the universe, things would be different”? Jesus is having that kind of a moment.
And the voice of temptation comes not from some little horned devil man dancing in the desert in front of him, but from that voice inside. You know the one. We all have it.
It’s the one that says, “That fudge brownie is absolutely not on my diet, but I really want it, and I’ve been good all this time. Just have it. What’s it going to hurt?”
It’s the voice that says, “I’m just borrowing the money. I’m going to pay it back. No one will even know it was gone. Besides, it’s going for a good cause.”
It’s the voice that says, “I’ve worked hard. I deserve this. Yeah, other people work hard and don’t get this reward. That’s not really my problem.”
It’s also the voice that says, “I’m not going to share with those people. They won’t appreciate these things the way I do. They don’t deserve them. I was here first. They’re different, and foreign, and unfamiliar. Surely God doesn’t love them as much as God loves me, the one with whom God is well pleased. Maybe we should just lock them up. They are less than human.”
If someone tells you at your baptism that you are not just a child of God but the child of God, with whom God is well pleased, don’t you feel as if that status should carry some special benefits? As if you should have a superpower, or be teacher’s pet, or be invincible? That’s the wrestling that Jesus is doing. That is how he is put to the test. And we are put to that test, too.
The Rev. Dr. Dale Turner, who was my minister over at University Congregational when I was growing up, preached a sermon back when I was in junior high about keeping the conscience corners square. Imagine that your conscience is perfectly square when it starts out. Over time, as we cut corners, tell little lies, we start to dull those corners. “It was just a little white lie—no harm done.” “No one will ever notice that this is gone—no one uses it anyway.” “Everyone else does it.” There’s that voice again, that devilish voice tempting us to cut those conscience corners.
The problem, of course, is that our conscience only helps us navigate life when those corners are square. So as they are whittled away, as the square starts to resemble a circle, our conscience ceases to be a useful moral compass. Look at those who end up in court saying they are so, so sorry. Sure, they’re sorry because they got caught. But also because they see—too late—what bad choices they were making without that conscience as a good guide.
Lent is our invitation to spend some time in the wilderness, to build up our spiritual disciplines, to refresh the corners of our conscience. It’s not about giving up chocolate, necessarily, although I’m doing that just to be mindful of what I eat. It’s about clearing space in our soul.
Barbara Brown Taylor calls is a “spring cleaning of the soul.”
Our conscience is a muscle, and we have to practice using it, build up strength.
Notice that what tempted Jesus sound reasonable at first. Surely Jesus should be able to eat bread when he’s hungry. The Son of God has important work to do; he needs fuel. And surely Jesus would rule the realms of the world with more justice than Caesar. And surely people would flock to see someone who could fling himself off the top of the temple and not die. But instead he comes to understand that being the Son of God is about being called to serve, with an open heart and great humility. No special perks, just lots of work, and death on a cross. Oh, and people healed, people brought into a closer relationship with God, people empowered to work for justice and peace and love all over the world. So there’s that.
Figure out your addiction, your privilege, your sin—whatever separates you from God—and see what happens if you move away from it for 40 days. Where do we create space to hear God in our lives? Might involve moving out of our comfort zone, away from what offers security or power or glory—the three temptations that Jesus faced. One clergy colleague I know has decided to give up racism for Lent. She knows we live in a racist culture and that it is locked into her very being, but for Lent she is going to be intentional about reading theology and leisure writings all by people of color to gain insight into their worldviews.
Starting in Lent, we are convening a focus group to explore what it might mean to build relationships with those who use our building rather than making it purely a transaction/money arrangement. Maybe this is our own congregational time in the desert. This pushes us out of our comfort zone on several levels. Is it the right move? It pushes us to live on the edge a little more, to get ourselves out in the community more. Yikes. Is that what it might mean to be a beloved child—or a beloved community—of God? Let’s spend some time listening for answers, not just the temptation to choose what is safe and comfortable and easy.
So during this Lenten period, I invite you to be intentional about clearing space to listen for God speaking in your life. You could even drop me a note saying what is changing for you. We have a few Lenten devotional books in the narthex. Give it a try.
Because here’s the thing: If Jesus out in the wilderness decides to cut a few corners, he knows to whom he is ultimately accountable, and it’s God. There’s no hiding, no pretending that God won’t notice. How much better to be able to stand honestly before God and know that, however imperfect we are, however many times we fail, we are continuing to prioritize our relationship with God in ways that push us out of our comfort zone, that nudge us to be our best selves, that get us out serving the world. May we recognize that being called as children of God is not about our own security, power over others, or invincibility. It’s about loving God and each other. Let us be about God’s work, in ourselves and in the world. Amen.