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Wilderness Transformation

A sermon on Luke 4:1-13

[An audio recording of this sermon is available here.]

When I first joined a Lutheran church (in my late twenties), I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Lent. The idea of “giving something up for Lent” just seemed like spiritual dress-up for a 40-day diet from chocolate. I needed something to get hold of to make this defined time of reflection and discipline a meaningful spiritual practice.

I found that something in my pastor’s offering of a theme each Lent: a phrase or idea that focused me in a unique way on looking for what God is doing in this sacred space of time. Focusing on a Lenten theme has made the discipline of Lent a transformative practice for me.

So, as I was considering what Lenten theme might help our church to get the most out of our Lenten practice, it makes sense that the word that came to mind was: Transformation.

Transformation, as a Lenten theme, reflects the expectation that the life of faith, the path of Jesus, is something that does and will change us.

Luke’s gospel gives us a great resource to focus on this transformation, because transformation is exactly what happens in many of Luke’s stories, including the stories that fit into Luke’s narrative themes of travelling and meals. During our mid-week dinner church services we are going to be examining Luke’s stories of transforming tables, so our Sunday morning focus for these 5 weeks is going to be transforming travels.

I love travelling, in part because of the ways that it changes me – by offering me new perspectives on the world and my place in it and exposing me to customs and people who expand my vision of God’s good creation. There are many, many places on this planet that I would love to visit. But, I have to confess… none of them is the place that Jesus travels in today’s gospel lesson. The barren, empty wilderness is NOT a place I long to spend my time.

That’s not to say I’ve never been to the wilderness. I imagine most of us have visited the wilderness at least once or twice in our lives, if not on a regular basis. By “wilderness” I don’t mean an arid desert in Palestine. I’m thinking of a more metaphorical wilderness. I bet we can all name at least one wilderness in our lives that scares us… something that keeps us up at night…

Perhaps it’s worries over work, or over money. Perhaps it’s a relationship that we don’t know how to fix. Maybe it’s a diagnosis, or the lack thereof, or an addiction, or a failure, or something we don’t know how to face, or something we don’t even want to name.

But transformation starts with naming – with acknowledging that we need a change. So, right now, I invite you to take your slip of paper and give a name to your wilderness.

Don’t write your name on the paper, and don’t write the name of another person. Just describe the challenge in your life that scares you or overwhelms you right now. Whatever represents your wilderness, that you might rather not travel through.

Then, once you’ve named you wilderness, fold your paper in half, and hold onto it. If you are anything like me, your instinct is to NOT hold onto your wilderness. It’s to get rid of it. Or at least to move through it as quickly as possible.

But the story of Jesus’s sojourn in the wilderness presents a different approach, perhaps a Lenten approach. Because Jesus stays in the wilderness… for forty days, he travels a journey that isn’t about getting through to the other side. His journey is about what happens in the wilderness.

So, what does happen? Why does Jesus stay in the wilderness for 40 days? Luke’s gospel does not offer us a whole lot of details. We only know that Jesus is tested, that he eats nothing, and that by the end he is famished. Not exactly what I would call a wilderness survival guide!

In fact, Jesus’s behavior seems utterly mystifying. If he is in the wilderness… and actively being tested… why would he make himself vulnerable by not eating anything? With personified evil actively harassing him, why not protect his strength to resist? That’s my instinct in facing my own wilderness. [And, for the record, the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 19:1-8 gives us a biblical example of the importance of food and rest when we are overwhelmed. I don’t think we should read Jesus’s wilderness story a mandate to starve ourselves in times of trouble.]

But I also think there is a lesson in Jesus’ willing vulnerability. In her book Braving the Wilderness, researcher story-teller Brene Brown uses the idea of wilderness as a metaphor for the deeply transformative process of learning to embrace our own vulnerability in order to truly belong to ourselves… to face our fears so that they don’t control us… to – in her phrase – “choose courage over comfort.”[1]

What if Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness are a kind of training in choosing courage over comfort? What if it is precisely his willingness to be vulnerable that helps him to overcome his temptations and be transformed by his wilderness?

I think that choosing courage over comfort is actually an apt description of Jesus’ response to the temptations he faces in the wilderness. And I think it is his experience of vulnerability that allows him to resist the seduction of comfort.

First, he is offered the comfort of food, something he needs. His body is completely famished.

But he has gone 40 days without food. He isn’t afraid of or controlled by his physical needs. He has found sustenance in God through his very experience of hunger.

Next, he is offered the comfort of power. It’s debatable whether the tempter really had the authority to make good on his offer, but, regardless, power is the apparent antidote to vulnerability. If we each were offered the power that would allows us to eliminate our wilderness challenges… how easy would that be to refuse?

But Jesus is not deceived. After 40 days of total vulnerability he is crystal clear that God is the one who is supposed to have the power, not him. He will not try to rest that power away. He will only worship and serve.

Finally, Jesus is offered a much subtler comfort… that of despair and helplessness… the temptation to abdicate all responsibility for his own life, and thus to manipulate God into taking care of him.

“Throw yourself down from here. God will have to protect you, because it’s promised in God’s word.”

It’s a desperate gamble for control disguised as vulnerability. But Jesus has spent 40 days really and truly vulnerable. Letting go of all the tools and resources he has to protect himself, and utterly trusting God’s provision. Jesus doesn’t need to test God. He already knows that God is with him and will never leave him or forsake him.

He knows that, because he didn’t go into the wilderness alone. At the very beginning of today’s reading we learned that Jesus was “full of the Spirit” when he returned from his baptism (Luke 4:1). That word – full – means “filled-up… complete; lacking nothing; perfect.” [2] God’s Spirit was everything he could need, and that Spirit led him while he was in the wilderness.

Jesus’s days in the wilderness were days of total dependence. Days of stripping away anything that would take up space that belonged to God’s Holy Spirit. The lonesomeness and desolation of the wilderness is, perhaps, the only place to learn that kind of vulnerability, because only in the wilderness do we fully confront the truth that we cannot meet our own needs – no matter what false promises the Tempter offers.

Vulnerability is the transforming invitation that we can find in the wilderness. Our wilderness times are our invitation to discover the truth of our own vulnerability… because that’s what opens us up to our need for God. Our need is what breaks our hearts open to be filled by – to be full of – God’s Spirit.

So, today, I am going to invite you into vulnerability. I told you to hold onto your wilderness papers, but in a few minutes, I will ask you to let them go, by placing them into the basket during the offering.[3]

I will then take them and transcribe all the names we have given to our wildernesses onto a poster paper that will hang in the Narthex throughout Lent – a reminder of the challenges through which God is accompanying us, and through which, we trust, God is transforming us. And on Easter Saturday, we will take the names of our wildernesses and burn them in the Easter Vigil fire.

The fire won’t eliminate our wilderness experiences, of course, but perhaps it will help us to remember how God is transforming us in the wilderness. After all, fire is how God’s Holy Spirit first showed up for the church on the very first Pentecost. And that fire – that Spirit – is still with us today, in the wilderness.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, New York: Random House, 2017, p. 59.


[3] For online readers, consider writing your wilderness on a paper as well, and putting it somewhere that you will see over the 40 days of Lent. Allow it to be an invitation for you to step into the call to vulnerability and reliance on God's Spirit. You can have your own Easter Vigil fire on Saturday, April 20. Or - if you would like - you are invited to bring or send your paper to Abiding Peace, to be added to our fire. (305 Rt. 46, Budd Lake, NJ 07828),

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