The First Sunday in Lent
Sunday, 1 March 2009
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Deacon Paul S. Kahn
Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted of Satan: Make speed to help thy servants who are assaulted by manifold temptations; and, as thou knowest their several infirmities, let each one find thee mighty to save; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
I Peter 3:18-22
I'm sure many of you have vivid memories, like I do, of the great film, "Lawrence of Arabia," in which Peter O'Toole made his major role debut back in 1962. At one point in the film a Chicago reporter asks, "What is it, Major Lawrence, that particularly attracts you to the desert?" "It's clean," Lawrence replies. "I like it because it's clean." And indeed, in the film the Arabian desert is gorgeously clean. It's positively romantic. There are glistening sands, shimmering oases, high-stepping camels, the young Omar Sharif... and this is the image of a desert that so many of us grew up with. So I was shocked last year when I got to see something of the Judean desert. It is not romantic. It is barren and forbidding. It is basically rocks and mineral salts. Nothing can grow there. It is the most dead place I have ever seen.
Most of us would not voluntarily take ourselves off to the Judean desert for forty days.
Nor did Jesus, apparently. We are told that the Spirit "drove" him out into the wilderness. Or depending on the translation, "led" him or "guided" him... I am told that the Greek verb used here can even mean "to throw out" or "to cast out." The Spirit cast Jesus out into the wilderness. But why? As we have been seeing these past months, Mark's Gospel is not known for excess verbiage. All we get is that the Spirit puts Jesus out there, where he is with wild beasts (real ones? imaginary ones?) He is ministered to by angels (how?) and he is somehow tempted by Satan. No details of that, like we get from the Luke and Matthew versions of the story. No dares from the devil, no witty repartee from Jesus ("man does not live by bread alone") -- zilch. So the question remains: Why does the Spirit cast Jesus out there?
The answer is: because it's necessary. And the potentially painful truth is that if it's necessary for Jesus... it may very well be necessary for us. In Jesus' case, it is in some way necessary for his transformation from a private, unknown person to a very public person with a mission. We'll leave the details of that for some other preacher in a Luke or Matthew year.
But what about the times when we find ourselves cast out into the desert? When we find ourselves in some barren and forbidding place, where nothing seems to grow? There may be wild beasts there, but as to ministering angels... if they really exist, they're not paying you any attention. Sometimes an event seems to precipitate this -- a job loss, a death, the end of a relationship -- but sometimes we're just humming along, everything's fine, and we realize -- maybe gradually, maybe suddenly -- that we are surrounded by spiritual wasteland. And we don't know why we are there. We certainly cannot imagine that the Spirit drove us there.
But the Spirit does sometimes cast us out into the desert. Because sometimes we need to be shaken up. Sometimes we need to be tested. We need to be stripped of those things that are not part of who we are really meant to be, those things that hinder us from hearing and responding to God's voice, that prevent us from being more fully alive in the spirit. We may be forced to look at our behavior, to discern what is constructive, and what is not. We may be forced to look at some of our cherished beliefs, and to face up to whether or not we truly believe them. We may be forced to let go and fall, not knowing where we will land. These desert experiences are painful.
They are not something we volunteer for. Well, maybe the desert fathers did, but really all they could do was put themselves in a physical desert, and wait to see what would happen. The Spirit cannot be forced.
As we go on our Lenten journey, the symbolic forty days we spend with Jesus in the desert, we need to remember that the Spirit doesn't schedule itself according to the church calendar. If and when it does cast us out, it probably won't be when we expect it to. But that doesn't mean that our Lenten disciplines are in vain; on the contrary. Whether we have taken something on or given something up, whether we find ourselves truly penitential or unseasonably joyful, we can use this time to deepen our awareness of how the Spirit works in us, to reflect on how it may be feeding us, pruning us, renewing us, transforming us -- maybe in ways we're not expecting. We may learn to recognize the desert for what it is, and for what it can be in our spiritual lives when the time for it does come. It may be a place where we are tempted and tested, a place where we learn to recognize both our wild beasts and our ministering angels. And the desert may prove to be something else entirely. It's a place where only the Spirit can truly cast us out -- and where we find that the Spirit will reel us back in."So what is it, Major Lawrence, that particularly attracts you to the desert?" The desert may not be as romantic as that movie led us to believe, in fact it may be an extremely messy place. But it can be a very holy place. May God inspire us all to the observance of a holy Lent.
©2009 Paul S. Kahn