Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, March 1, 2020 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7+Psalm 32+Romans 5:12-19+Matthew 4:1-11

Have you ever been to the wilderness? If you intend to go there, equipped with the things you will need for as long as you plan to stay, the wilderness can be a beautiful place. It looks a lot different for me to go on a day-hike outside of Tucson than it does for someone who has crossed the border of Mexico at Nogales and is trying to make their way there across the desert.

Jesus fits more in this latter category. He wasn’t planning on going there, but it’s not an accident that it’s where he ended up. He’s just been baptized. God has called him beloved. It would seem he’s hit the jackpot, but he did not get to shout into a camera, “I’m going to Disneyworld!” No, the Spirit led him to the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. Note that it doesn’t say that Jesus was led into the wilderness and there Satan tempted him. Oh, no. He was put out there in order that Satan could tempt him. How’s that for doing a victory lap?

But why? Why would God want the beloved Son to go through such an ordeal?

Well, God knows what the road ahead is going to look like for Jesus, and in order to withstand all of that, to stand firm as the One anointed to announce God’s reign, he needs to know without a doubt, for himself, who and whose he was. It appears to have been Satan’s job to help him do that or to destroy him first.

Satan, הַשָּׂטָ֖ן in Hebrew, διάβολος in the Greek, first shows up in Job, even if later tradition calls the serpent in the Garden of Eden the devil. The first chapter of Job tells us who ha-satan is:

One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. The Lord said to Satan, ‘Where have you come from?’ Satan answered the Lord, ‘From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.’ (Job 1:6-7)

Some translations call those heavenly beings the Sons of God. Ha-satan is known to God. Ha-satan can quote scripture to Jesus because Ha-satan is there in the desert because God put him there. There is no evil so dangerous as the evil that is an insider. Just ask Judas.

So this Satan knows just how to tempt Jesus away from his mission. He knows Jesus is hungry so offers him bread. “If you are the son of God.” Taunting. Tempting. Trying to get Jesus to test God when in reality he’s urging him to throw himself from the pinnacle of the temple to his death. And, finally, the temptation to power. You don’t need to launch a ministry where you’ll be wandering around with a ragtag bunch of losers; you can have all the kingdoms of the world!

Jesus sends Satan packing and the angels tended to him. Angels. Heavenly beings. Just like Satan. Except these angels tend to him as a parent tends to a sick child. After 40 days of hunger and deprivation, that must have felt like heaven.

Jesus is now ready. He has completely relied on God and not taken for himself power and authority that is not yet his to wield. This reading is paired with the serpent tempting Eve with an apple, because Adam and Eve take power for themselves that is not theirs. At least, they think they are going to get that. But the serpent, ha-satan, is a liar. They don’t get power. They don’t get angels tending them. They get kicked out of paradise.

Throughout scripture, the number 40, whether in days or years, leads to blessing, even if it doesn’t feel like blessing along the way whether passing through a desert or a flood. For Noah, the 40 days on the ark led to God’s promise never to destroy the earth again. Moses fasted up on Sinai and received the tablets containing the 10 Commandments. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years but still ended up in the Promised Land. Elijah fasted in the desert for 40 days and finally heard the voice of God in a still, small voice, receiving a new path for ministry. The Church observes 40 days of Lent. What blessing waits on the other side? What ministry is waiting for us?

We often think of wilderness experiences as punishments or a result of our having done something wrong. Yet wilderness experiences can also be a gift, a blessing, that lead us into greater love and service of God and neighbor.

At our first Sharing Sacred Stories meeting a couple of weeks ago, we all shared some part of our own story of faith, whatever it might have been that helped us believe that maybe, just maybe God is real. For some it was a person. For others, it might have been an event or series of events. The beautiful thing about this kind of format is that we continue to find connections with each other, sharing our stories and discovering the ways they reflect The Story.

I mentioned a portion of this part of my story to the group, but I want to tell you all the rest, because there was most certainly a wilderness filled with blessings for Tim and me.

I was on top of the world. I had just graduated from Yale, been ordained as a transitional deacon, and off I went to South Africa for three weeks to do some research and to spend my first three Sundays as a deacon at the cathedral in Cape Town, serving with Desmond Tutu on Friday mornings when he celebrated the Eucharist, and then going to breakfast down the way where he always, always ordered his smoothie.

On my way home, I Skyped with Tim from Oliver Tambo airport in Johannesburg before my 16-hour flight. Upon landing at JFK, I turned on my phone to send a text to Tim letting him know I had arrived and that I would call him when I got through customs and was on my shuttle home.  But there was a text waiting for me from him saying that he was in the hospital, and I needed to call him right away.

In my absence, Tim had been having headaches which eventually began to cause blurred vision, and I knew he had gone for an MRI the day I was flying home. He told me about it in that Skype call, assuming he wouldn’t hear anything since the following day was the 4th of July. He got a phone call, though, and was told to immediately go to a hospital in Philadelphia that specialized in neurosurgery. A tumor had been found.

So there I was, on top of the world, finally living into the vocation I had felt called to for so many years, and my life seemed to crash all around me. The one person I loved more than any other might die.

You all know that he didn’t because there he sits every Sunday, but the days that followed felt like wilderness. I didn’t know where I was. I had no road map for this. I was terrified that I would lose him in addition to having already lost our son. There was nothing to hold onto but God. I had no power, even had I been tempted to use it. I could not bring health to Tim out of a few stones. I could not call the kingdoms of the world to my aid. My world shrank to sitting with Tim as he recovered, of making him walk from our driveway to the next one and back, and the next day to the second driveway and back.

Up to now, I had been disappointed and even ashamed that I had not yet been offered a position at a church. It may surprise you to learn that mature, experienced women are not in great demand to serve as associates at churches, most of whom are looking for someone to do children’s or youth ministry. I was the last one in my class, in the end, to find a church position.

So the wilderness provided a blessing. After three years of living apart – me in New Haven and Tim in Downingtown, PA – it was just the two of us. He couldn’t go off traveling on business. I wasn’t diving into a new job. It was just the two of us. And it was a gift. And once we were through that wilderness, we moved into our lives in a new way, with even greater appreciation for our marriage and each other and a renewed dedication to using our blessings to be a blessing to others.

No, we aren’t Jesus. But we did have a wilderness experience that we did not ask for. We did not do anything wrong to deserve it. But God was with us in it. And once through to the other side, we are more fully who God wants for us to be.

The prophet Isaiah wrote

       The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom… (Isaiah 35:1)

There is beauty in the wilderness. There is blessing on the other side. So come into the wilderness this Lent. The blessing at the end may look something like resurrection.

ASEPSermon for the First Sunday in Lent, March 1, 2020 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas