Oh, the Places You Will Go: A Sermon Based on Luke 4:1-13 Preached by Mark Harper at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Athens, Ga March 10, 2019 – The First Sunday in Lent
You’ve heard this advice before, but today’s scripture from Luke reminds us why we should take it seriously: Be careful what you pray for. Especially when what you pray for is the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
And that seems odd, right? In the church we pray for the power of the Holy Spirit to fill us and guide us all the time. “Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us.” Which is all well and good – except that those words make the Spirit sound like nothing more than a gentle spring shower to cool us down after weeding in the garden all morning. And sometimes that is what the Spirit does, and exactly what we need. We need to be led beside still waters, guided into the green grass, where our souls will be restored. I once heard someone say they were certain that it was the Holy Spirit that had led them to take a Caribbean cruise.
I don’t know about that, but sometimes the Holy Spirit doesn’t seem to be so gentle, so gracious, so “I’m just the captain of your Love Boat.” Sometimes the Spirit takes us to places we would rather not go, places we would avoid with our last ounce of energy if we had known what God had in store for us. Years ago the writer Annie Dillard asked a good question of us church people: “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.” She goes on to suggest that we should trade in our spiffy attire for something more practical. “We should be wearing crash helmets,” she says. “Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.” (from Teaching a Stone to Talk, pp. 40-41).
Something like the latter seems to be happening to Jesus in our gospel reading. Remember that in the story line he has just been baptized and receives the kind of unconditional affirmation we all long for. As soon as he comes up out of the water Jesus hears his heavenly parent tell him that he loves him completely, and is just tickled pink with who he is. So much so, apparently, that now he’s going to send the Holy Spirit into his life – which in this story makes the Spirit sound like the wonderful but wild and slightly off-the-charts uncle you’re not so sure you should trust the kids with when he proposes to take them camping. Luke doesn’t even tell us if Jesus asked for this blessing. All we know is that all of a sudden, Jesus is “filled with the Spirit” who “drives him into the wilderness” where he goes man y mano with the devil for forty days and nights. Whoooo boy. Please pay attention to the aggressiveness of the Spirit here. There’s no invitation, no “I’ll be by next weekend so get your sleeping bag and backpack ready to go.” When the Spirit shows up, there seems to be little or no room for choice about what happens next. It makes me think ahead to what happens to the cowering, scared group of disciples that were trying to stay out of sight from the Romans and religious leaders in Jerusalem at the Pentecost festival. They had been in prayer, wondering what to do now that Jesus wasn’t around, when out of nowhere the Spirit comes busting in like a desert tsunami or an Alabama tornado and drives them out into the street, out into public view where they immediately start preaching the about Jesus and healing folks. And getting arrested. Again, be careful what you pray for.
Of course the most daunting wilderness that Jesus is led into by the Spirit is not the vast expanse of sand, rock, and wind. It is the wilderness within himself, the interior expanses where self-doubt can slip in and take root. The so-called temptations are really bribes offered by the devil so that Jesus will abandon his true self and his calling to be a servant messiah who changes the world not through domination but by sacrificial love. After all, the devil isn’t inviting Jesus to engage in a lot of self-indulgent mayhem. In a way, he’s nudging Jesus to do things that could be used for good: it’s a hungry world, so why not turn stones into bread? Wouldn’t we rather have Jesus ruling over all the nations than, well, anyone who is currently in power? And what’s wrong with having a leader who’s spectacular and bullet-proof? No, the devil isn’t tempting Jesus to do bad things; he’s trying to convince him to be somebody else.
What’s wrong with that picture is that it isn’t the way God chooses to be and work in this world. And Jesus knows it. He’s willing to know hunger and powerlessness and even death if it opens the way for God’s nonviolent, resurrecting love to be demonstrated through him. He’s able to face down all the distractions from the devil and embrace his real self, his real way of life, the one that God has already blessed and affirmed. The Holy Spirit is a gift, a strange gift to be sure, but a gift nonetheless because it enables him to get a feel for all the subtle ways he could lose his way once the pressure of this world on his ministry starts to mount. I wonder, as William Stringfellow once did, if Jesus had not had his wilderness experience would he have been able to fight off the temptation that must have been lurking on the edges of his imagination when he finally goes into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday? There’s that whole crowd cheering him on, singing his praises. How easy it might have been to turn them into a popular army and head straight for Pilate’s headquarters. Would he have been able to resist that urge if he hadn’t already faced it down in the wilderness? Might that have been “another opportunity” that the devil had been waiting for?
I wonder, too, what the rest of the world thinks about the church this time of year. It must seem to some eyes and ears that Lent is a weird Christian season when we “punish ourselves for being human” (Barbara Brown Taylor). We groan and try to give up stuff we love to eat and drink, stuff that we know doesn’t love us back. I’m guessing that our seasonal obsession with diet is peculiar to the North American observance of Lent. After all, have you noticed the irony that sometimes our church door is not only advertising an upcoming FEAST food distribution for hungry neighbors but also a weekly meeting for Overeaters Anonymous? Only in America…
Let me say that there’s nothing wrong with taking care of ourselves, with trying to be better stewards of the bodies and lives God has given us. I just worry that when we get hyper-focused on our selves, and what’s good for us, then we might lose sight of the fact that we have been created to love and live for others. Every single thing that the devil proposes to Jesus sounds like it would have been good for Jesus. But Jesus knew that he wouldn’t be living his true life if his own comfort and health and success were all he was about. He knew he wouldn’t be free to be his true self if all he could see on his screen of things that matter was himself. He needed to lose his appetite for anything and everything that didn’t empower him to see and serve his neighbors with compassion. And the wilderness was the place where all the props and pain-killers and pleasant distractions got swept away, the place where he reached clarity about his identity and mission and the true source of his life. I think that’s why the Spirit took him there.
I can’t begin to know what the wilderness might be like for you. One pastor I know says that “Wildernesses come in so many shapes and sizes that the only way you can really tell you are in one is to look around for what you normally count on to save your life and come up empty” (Barbara Brown Taylor). So it could be that your wilderness is a hospital waiting room where the answer you finally get is the one thing you didn’t want to hear. Or maybe it’s the cheap motel where you slept on when you got kicked out of your house. Or the parking lot you wandered around in looking for your car after you lost your job. Or that unopened bank statement that would show you that your debt is far deeper than you ever imagined.
These are the places we try to avoid with everything we have. These are the untamed geographies of our identities that we don’t want to explore. But if we find ourselves in one of them, if we find ourselves facing the self that we’ve been ignoring or hiding from, then maybe, just maybe the Holy Spirit is at work. Maybe it’s the Spirit leading us into the wilderness, and maybe it’s not as bad as we think. Maybe the Spirit is emptying us out of everything that is temporary and false. Maybe we’re being emptied of all the hungers that can’t ever satisfy us until we finally experience the one hunger we need – the hunger for God and God’s grace. After all, none of us is completely or adequately defined by what we do or how much we make or the shape of our bodies or the power of our minds. Ultimately we are children of God, called to love others and ourselves as much as God has loved us. And if it takes the Holy Spirit to drive us into a wilderness to figure that out, then thanks be to God. Because according to the gospel, we can trust that the Spirit who leads us into the wilderness will also lead us out again, ready to worship God and serve no other all the days of our lives. Amen.