Game Over in the Wilderness

Sermon Preached on March 9, 2014
Lent 1A – Matthew 4:1-11
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church (Evanston, IL)

On Ash Wednesday, the liturgy for the day includes an invitation to the observance of a Holy Lent.  The invitation includes a number of specific acts to be undertaken during this 40 day season: self-examination and repentance; prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.  Historically, this 40 day period was a time in the early Church in during which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism, that great sacrament through which we are adopted as God’s children and made members of Christ’s Body, the Church.  The 40 days of Lent are, as Bishop Jeff Lee, wrote in his Ash Wednesday reflection, “about the pilgrim way we all walk together toward the waters of new life waiting for us at Easter.”[1]  In other words, our entire Lenten journey is preparation for baptism – or for those who have already been baptized, preparation for the renewal of the baptismal covenant.

The connection between the Lenten wilderness of 40 days and baptism is made quite clear in this morning’s passage from Matthew’s Gospel.  “After Jesus was baptized, he was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”[2]  Baptism and wilderness:  for Christian living, the wilderness is unbearable without baptism and, perhaps more significantly, without the reality of wilderness living -  wilderness temptations - our baptism is rendered meaningless.  

 “The tempter came and said to Jesus, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But Jesus answered, ‘It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”[3]  In Baptism, the candidates are asked, “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?”[4]

 “Then the devil took Jesus to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”[5]  In Baptism, the candidates are asked, “Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?”[6]

  “Again, the devil took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”[7]  In Baptism, the candidates are asked, “Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?”[8] And In the world of some of the best arcade games of the 1970s and 1980s, our response – “I renounce them” – might be punctuated with flashing lights and the words, “GAME OVER!”

“After Jesus was baptized” he was in the wilderness for “forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished” and then, as if hunger wasn’t challenge enough, the temptations began.  But through the experience of Baptism, Jesus was ready.  For in baptism, Jesus learned the most important truth when “as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”[9] In baptism, Jesus learned his true identity – beloved child of God – and in the wilderness Jesus was given the opportunity to put on this new identity – an identity rooted in the stories of his faith and an identity rooted in the covenant relationship between God and humanity: “’Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him ‘ . . .and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”[10]

Forty days in the wilderness, forty days in the season of Lent, a season in which we are being invited to put on our new identity in Christ – beloved children of God – and to allow that identity to seep into our very being so that when faced with temptation – whether the temptation is for more power, more recognition, more money, more control – so that when faced with whatever temptation comes our way, we can turn once again to the promises made in baptism to find that sure footing in our true identity, beloved child of God. 

A few weeks ago there was a short essay in the Christian Century called “A Fool’s Awakening.”  Its author, Brian Doyle, described a time when he was a teenager in which he realized he was being a fool.  When his father announced that some relatives were coming over for dinner the next weekend, Doyle recalls:

“I shoved my chair back and whined and snarled and complained. I believe this had something to do with some vague plans of my own that I had of course not shared with anyone else as yet, probably because they were half-hatched or mostly imaginary.”[11]

When Doyle’s father responded calmly, Doyle writes, “I said something rude.” When his mother added her own thoughts to the conversation, Doyle writes, “I said something breathtakingly selfish.”  Then, when his sister added her two cents to the conversation, Doyle writes, “I said something cutting and sneering and angry.”[12]  And then Doyle describes the moment of transformation:

“As I remember it was just as my mother was putting her teacup on the table. . . just as my father put his big hands on the table and prepared to stand up and say something calm and blunt to me and cut the moment before it spun out of control, that I realized I was being a fool.”[13]

Now, my guess is that if you are anything like me and if we are anything like Doyle, we have all had moments where we recognize, in an instant, the foolishness of our ways – the wrong path we have taken, the words we have chosen poorly, the simple act of kindness that we allowed to go undone.  Unless you are quite blessed, I suspect we have all had at least one of those kinds of moments.  And here is what I loved reading in Doyle’s essay: 

“For a second,” he writes, “I saw who I actually was rather than who I thought I was, or wanted to be, or wanted other people to think I was. I understood, dimly, for an instant – I believe for the first time in my life – that I was being a fool. I kept right on being a fool, of course. You cannot escape yourself that quickly, not as a teenager, or later either, it turns out. Often you keep playing a bad hand even when you know it’s a terrible hand and you should laugh and throw down your cards and say something self-deprecating and apologize and tiptoe into the next moment.”[14]

It is just such a moment that I imagine when I hear theologian Frederick Buechner’s words of wisdom: 

“It can be a pretty depressing business [to begin to hear something not only of who you are but of both what you are becoming and what you are failing to become], but if sackcloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end.”[15] 

And that, my friends, is the journey we are embarking upon in this season of Lent.  A journey of self-examination and repentance; prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.  A challenging journey to be sure.  A journey that threatens to take each of us into the heart of the wilderness  where we will, no doubt, encounter our foolish selves.  But it is a journey we do not take alone because we carry with us the living memory  of God’s words to us in baptism: You are a beloved child of God. You are a beloved child of God. You are a beloved child of God.

“Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?” “Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?” “Do you promise to follow and obey him as your  Lord?”[16]  Let us take this journey together as we prepare once again for the Easter renewal of our baptismal vows.

[1] The Rt. Rev. Jeffrey D. Lee, “Gritty Resurrection,” in Renew a Right Spirit within Me: Journeying Toward Easter with All Your Heart, Soul, Strength, and Mind, (Living Compass, 2014).
[2] Matthew 4:1.
[3] Matthew 4:3-4.
[4] BCP, 302.
[5] Matthew 4:5-7.
[6] BCP, 302.
[7] Matthew 4:8-10.
[8] BCP, 302.
[9] Matthew 3:16-17.
[10] Matthew 4:10-11.
[11] Brian Doyle, “A Fool’s Awakening,” Christian Century (February 19, 2014), 12.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Frederick Buechner, “Lent”, originally published in Whistling in the Dark, accessed online at The Frederick Buechner Center on March 5, 2014.
[16] BCP, 302-303.