We go into the wilderness of life to be tested that we might become the Christ we are anointed to be; we do not go alone, we are filled and led by the Spirit of God.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The First Sunday in Lent, year C
text: Luke 4:1-13
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Jesus wasn’t alone in the wilderness.
Think about that. This looks bleak, Jesus spending forty days in the wilderness of Judea without food. He was tested, tempted. He had no companions with him. But he did not face testing alone.
He left his baptism at the river Jordan full of the Holy Spirit, Luke says. He was in the wilderness by choice, to fast, to be tested, to learn what kind of Christ he would be. But the Holy Spirit filled him to overflowing, and, Luke says, “led” him through those forty days.
Jesus faced his wilderness, his learning, his testing, in communion within the Triune God. That made all the difference.
What’s challenging is knowing what this has to do with us.
How does this story connect with us? We’re not Jesus.
We can’t compare to the Son of God. Consider his wilderness experience: well, he was fully God and fully human. Of course he handled this, we say, he is God’s Son. Whenever he had crises, we forget Jesus was fully human and sometimes assume his truth as the Son of God got him through, made it easier for him.
Well, what if it did? What if it was easier because of being God incarnate? Isn’t that also our truth? Repeatedly we are taught in the New Testament that in our baptism into Christ, we are joined into the life of God, made children of God ourselves. We are anointed, are Christ ourselves. We are, as Luke reminds us in Acts, filled with the Holy Spirit, ourselves, who leads us by the hand.
How can we be alone in our wilderness, then, when we have this same advantage Christ had to handle the tests we face in being Christ in the world?
But then we wonder: can we claim we live in a wilderness?
Most of us haven’t done a forty day fast in rugged terrain without any human support. The forty days of Lent mean to give us the spiritual sense that we are engaging in such a testing, but we keep eating and being with people.
Even if we say all life is a wilderness, we know we have it better than most. We’re privileged, wealthy people who have compassion for those who suffer. So we discount our own struggles because we always remember so many suffer far worse.
And they do. But that doesn’t mean life isn’t challenging for us. We can work for the healing of the world, care for those on the brink of death and loss and pain, and still recognize that we, too, walk in the wilderness.
We face all sorts of challenges from within and without. Doubts about our goodness, fears about our future, threats to those we love. No one in this room hasn’t faced deadly illness or death, either themselves or with a loved one. No one here hasn’t faced a desert time where God seemed absent, where we were feeling spiritually empty, if not physically hungry.
Life is often wilderness time. We don’t need to compete for whose is worst.
We also are tempted, tested, by the demonic.
Luther taught us that our testing comes from the devil, the world, and our sinful self, and all of these challenge us.
It can be embarrassing in some circles to speak of the devil. Maybe some have moved beyond belief in such things. But it doesn’t take much to see forces working in the world beyond simple human choice, forces in society, culture, even in mobs, that carry great power. They may not challenge us directly, as our ancestors felt. But seeing the evil perpetrated in the world, we can join those ancestors in acknowledging unseen forces working against God’s loving will for the world.
As for the world, we know that testing well. When children are teens we warn about peer pressure, but it’s rare that we aren’t pressured by culture, society, or led astray away from following God’s path. Our culture is designed to promote materialism, destructive self-centeredness, and individual autonomy as the prime good. We can’t claim that never tests us, challenges our faith, leads us to choices we later see are not of Christ.
And the sinful self? If that were the only testing in our wilderness we faced, it would be more than enough. Our own internal demons, ruts we’re stuck in, thoughts of inadequacy and failure that plague us, desires and wants that lure us, the fear of not being loved that haunts us: we may not easily speak of external devils, but the ones that wait to plague us from inside are all too familiar.
We often think we’re alone in all this. Like Jesus, we’re not.
Sometimes it’s easier to see our demons than the Spirit within us. We know our failings, our internal and external struggles. We know when we’ve messed up, when we’ve not been what we want to be, let alone what God wants us to be. These things we see easily. Sometimes we feel we’re in this by ourselves.
But we have a promise from the Triune God that we are not alone. In our baptism we were anointed with the promise of the Spirit, and that Holy Spirit is filling us even now. It’s only a matter of looking for God’s movement in our lives.
We see the Spirit in our lives when we follow Jesus’ model of constant communion. The Spirit led Jesus in the wilderness. Jesus walked with the Holy Spirit as companion and guide. That’s our gift. We can live our lives with open hearts and minds to God’s Spirit, a life of walking prayer. It takes reminding, being attentive. We’ll forget sometimes. But take this promise seriously. God is with you.
We need to talk about this together, too. Tell each other when we sense the Spirit’s presence, when we see the Spirit’s guidance. If we’re really not alone, it’s critical we name that when we see it. When we see glimpses, even if as in a mirror’s reflection, we point it out with joy so others can see.
And we do glimpse things like the fruits of the Spirit, when we see love, or joy, or patience, or self-control, all these gifts. We glimpse those moments of inner peace when we know God is with us, however fleeting. Or those times when we felt confidence from God to face life unafraid. These glimpses come to us. We would make such a difference if we told each other this.
Life’s wilderness is actually a gift to us, as it was to Jesus. It’s where and how we become what we’re meant to be.
Jesus intentionally went from his baptism into this testing. He needed to face whatever demons challenged him, learn what kind of Christ he was to be. How would he use his power? How would he lead people? How would he trust in God? In each test, he made decisions with great implications for his teaching and ministry, decisions that led directly to the cross. With the grace of the Holy Spirit, he made it through this testing, was filled to become what he was meant to become.
Like Jesus, we are tested as to what kind of Christ we are, and given the Spirit’s grace to become that. We need to know the Spirit’s presence even more, since we sometimes need to be convinced we are also Christ.
As the Spirit gives us grace to endure, to stand up for who we are called to be, gives us wisdom in our decisions and our plans, comforts us in our hunger and fear, we grow. We become. We are made holy, like Christ. We’ve seen glimpses of this, and we will again, because this is really happening to us.
That doesn’t mean our path won’t be hard. It will. But we won’t be alone.
In the name of Jesus. Amen