My sermon from this past Sunday – the first Sunday in Lent.
Do you know who you are?
Perhaps this strikes you as an odd question. Of course I know who I am. I can answer the question by telling my story. I can tell you about my parents, about my history, my education, my work, my strengths and weaknesses. I can tell you a great deal about myself. Of course I know who I am.
Nevertheless, the question is asked this morning. When push comes to shove, do you really know who you are? Deep down, are you sure of what matters to you, about where you’re going, and about the meaning of your life?
We read this morning in Luke chapter 4: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” It’s interesting to note that this wilderness event takes place very early in story of Jesus. It happens before Jesus has begun teaching, before he has called his first disciples, before he has performed any miracles. Before all of that the Spirit leads him into the wilderness to be tested. Before all of that, Jesus is faced with the question of who he is – of the meaning of his life.
It’s also interesting to note that immediately before the temptation of Jesus, Luke gives a list of the ancestors of Jesus: It’s one of those long lists of names we like to skip over when we’re reading the bible. It begins like this: “Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work. He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph, son of Heli, son of Matthat, son of Levi, son of Melchi, son of Jannai, son of…” And the list goes on until we come toward the end: “son of Enosh, son of Seth, son of Adam, son of God.”
Luke provides this list of ancestors to answer the question of Jesus’ identity. With that genealogy Luke confirms Jesus’ identity as a child of God’s covenant – a son of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He’s a child of the human family – a son of Adam. He is, in the final instance, a child of God.
But having provided this picture of Jesus’ ancestry, Luke immediately goes on to give the story of Jesus’ temptation: “Jesus, fully of the Holly Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was thrust by the Spirit into the wilderness.” Jesus, we know who you are. We know your family. Jesus, we know where you’ve come from. But Jesus who are you really? Deep down, when push comes to shove: Who are you? Jesus, do you know the meaning of your life or are you at a loss, like so many of us?
What is the wilderness? It is a place few of us would choose to venture. It is a place outside the routine of our daily existence; the wilderness is a place with none of the comforts of home; a place where we are very much alone; a place where hunger and thirst are real; a place where we are without friends or family members.
On the one hand we can think of the wilderness as a physical, geographical location – for example, the desert where the Hebrew people wandered for forty years, or the desert place where Jesus was led for forty days. But on the other hand, we can think of the wilderness in a more metaphorical sense. Even in the midst of a comfortable urban life it is possible to you find yourself isolated, vulnerable, without comfort, without support and friendship – alone. Even in the midst of a comfortable urban life you can find yourself in the wilderness.
In many respects, we modern westerners do our very best to avoid the wilderness. In fact, we modern westerners will do just about anything to avoid finding ourselves in that place where we must be brutally honest about our identity and about the meaning of our lives. Truth is, most of us don’t want to face the wilderness. We worry that if we end up in a place where we are alone, vulnerable, hungry – we might just discover that we don’t know who we are. We might just discover that we can’t cope with it all. We might just discover that all our reasons for pride in ourselves don’t amount to a hill of beans. If we find ourselves in that place of isolation and real need, we might just discover that all our happiness was fleeting and illusory.
To enter the wilderness is to be tested. To enter the wilderness is to be faced, beyond the superficiality of day to day life – is to be faced with the question of who you are – who you really are, deep down.
Again, we modern westerners do our very best to avoid the wilderness. We’d prefer to live with the illusion that we have everything in hand, that we are happy, that we have every reason to be proud. But let’s try to be more specific about the ways we avoid the deep questions of life:
Some of us avoid the wilderness experience through preoccupation with work. We make ourselves so busy with our work. Because by working long hours, and by dedicating our whole energy to our employment, and by relentlessly climbing the corporate ladder, we leave no time for the deep question of our identity and the meaning of our life. Those questions are left safely in a deep dark corner of our mind.
There are so many ways we westerners avoid the wilderness – avoid the question of who we are and the meaning of our life. Many do so by immersing themselves in the internet – in constant surfing through an endless stream of video and text and images. As long as we are distracted by a constant stream of visual and auditory stimulation, the big, difficult questions of our identity and meaning can be held at bay.
Thirdly, on quite a different note, many of us try to avoid the wilderness through a fixed routine of life. I go here on Monday; I do that on Tuesday afternoon; I have this responsibility on Thursday; I go to church on Sunday. We keep ourselves firmly within the cycle of our routine. To depart from our routine would be to face something new that might challenge my assured sense of self. To depart from my routine might bring me in contact with individuals, or lead to experiences, that don’t fit with my carefully, narrowly constructed vision of life. To be faced with such individuals and experiences might undermine my careful categorization of the world and might put everything in question. And so we stick to our routine – everything comfortable and sure.
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness – into a place of vulnerability and isolation and challenge – there he has none of the usual means of self-protection. Jesus, who are you? Jesus, what is the deep meaning and purpose of your life? Do you even know? Jesus, are you ready to be tested? It seems that whether or not Jesus is ready, the moment of his testing is upon him. Jesus is thrust into the wilderness.
But here’s the thing. Jesus doesn’t go into the wilderness alone. The Spirit that sends Jesus into the wilderness, is the same Spirit that came upon him at his baptism; it is the same Spirit that fills his life; it is the same Spirit that equips him to proclaim good news.
Jesus goes into the wilderness – he hungry, he is without his family members, he is without shelter, he is without any of the protections of community and culture. Yet as he faces the deep question of his identity, Jesus is not ultimately alone. The Spirit of God is upon him. The Spirit of God sustains him. The Spirit of God will help him answer the question of who he is. The Spirit of God will remind him of the deep meaning of his life.
We avoid the wilderness, perhaps, because we have lost confidence in God. We are unwilling to go into the desert places, the place of vulnerability alongside Jesus because we have lost our assurance that the Spirit of God is with us, upon us, among us.
Lent is a time to focus on the many ways we try to avoid the wilderness – Lent is about remembering the many ways we distract ourselves from the deep and difficult question of who we are and what our life means. Lent is about acknowledging the many ways we protect ourselves from the challenge of the wilderness.
Even more, however, Lent comes as an invitation to go with Jesus into the wilderness. Lent comes as an invitation, to each of us, to very intentionally face the isolation, the vulnerability, the challenge, the testing of the wilderness – to go to that place where we can no longer avoid the deep question of our identity. Lent is about learning to trust that as we approach that place of loneliness, of vulnerability, and of risk, the Spirit of Christ goes with us – it’s about learning to trust that through the Spirit we will find the answer to the question of our meaning and identity.
Let’s think again of the various ways we try to avoid the wilderness – returning to the themes already raised. But doing so, let’s also think about the change Lent invites.
We try to avoid the wilderness. We become preoccupied with our work, we put in long hours into professional activity because we worry that when the work stops, and when our ambitions fade, and when our colleagues stop asking our advice, then we will be left utterly alone in the room – not sure who we are; desperately uncertain whether there is purpose in life.
But in the season of Lent we are invited to enter that lonely room. We are invited to trust that when we turn off the cell-phone; when we put aside those reports; when we leave off climbing the corporate ladder – when the room becomes silent and the work stops, the Spirit of Christ is present. The Spirit who reminds us we are a child of God; the Spirit who is always with us; the Spirit who fills our life with purpose, and who wants to lead us in Christ’s way of humble service.
We try to avoid that wilderness experience. We lose ourselves in the eternal maze of the internet – blogs, youtube, tweets, feeds and endless anonymous contacts. We lose ourselves in the eternal maze of the internet because we just aren’t sure what will happen when that whirl of images and video and words fades to black.
But in the Season of Lent we are invited to trust that when we turn off all our screens; when the blur of images and words is gone; and when we enter that place of silence and loneliness and vulnerability – the Spirit of Christ is present.
We try to avoid the wilderness experience. We stick to our daily routine with an almost-religious fervour. We live in fear of encountering that which is new or different in the wide world. We are afraid because there is every possibility that such encounters will call in question who we are; that such encounters will call in question our careful categorizing of this, that, and the other thing; there is every possibility that such encounters will undermine our self assurance – our easy confidence in the meaning of our lives.
But in the Season of Lent we are invited to new encounters with the people around us, to new experiences in daily existence, and to a vital encounter with a world where everything doesn’t necessarily fit where we think it should; where events or people may indeed call in question our sense of self. But we do so knowing the Spirit of Christ is with us. The Spirit who reminds us we are a child of God; the Spirit who is always with us; the Spirit who fills our life with purpose, and who wants to lead us in Christ’s way of humble service.
For us Presbyterians, Lent hasn’t generally been part of our tradition. Yet Lent comes to us as a gift. It represents yet another opportunity to discover who we are as followers of Jesus. But Lent also helps us realize that discovering and claiming our identity as a child of God will require that we take some risks – it may in fact require that we go into the wilderness in some very concrete ways. Put aside your workaholic life, and find your identity and meaning in following Jesus. Shut off the screens with their barrage of auditory and visual stimulation, and find your identity and meaning in following Jesus. Get out of your comfortable, easy routine, to find your identity and meaning in following Jesus.
Immediately after his wilderness experience, what happened in the life of Jesus? Luke tells us that Jesus went from wilderness back to Galilee and began teaching. He went into the synagogue in Nazareth. He unrolled the scroll in the presence of the people. And he declared: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recover of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
Jesus came through that wilderness experience – and he came through it with new strength and confidence. But the grace of the Spirit, he knew who he was. He new the purpose of his life. In the Season of Lent may we discover who we really are as we walk with Jesus, as we go with him even into the wilderness.