Harrowing Of Hell
February 19, 2013

Sitting with Ourselves in the Wilderness

Preacher: The Rev Kate Wesch

Luke 4:1-13

After his baptism, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”

Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

In the name of God; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday.  About 100 of us gathered here in this place to meditate on how God sees us, what it means to enter a season of penitence and fasting, and to spend some moments embracing our mortality.  The ashes smeared on our foreheads in the sign of the cross are such a visceral, earthy and outward sign of that mortality.

I came across a striking poem by Jan Richardson that dives into exploring what God can do with dust and what it means.

She writes:

So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are

but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
is made,
and the stars that blaze
in our bones,
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
we bear.

I repeat this not because we are stuck in Ash Wednesday, but because it is helpful for ushering us into Lent and the next 40 days.  Lent ISN’T about punishing yourself for being human, but rather a cleansing of the system.

The word “lent” comes from the Old English word “lenten” which means “spring.”  As we look ahead to the promise of spring and the lengthening of days, it’s also a time to turn our gaze inward towards the rebirth and renewal of our souls.

Luke’s gospel offers us a framework today as we see Jesus engage the devil and come out unscathed.  The devil offers and tempts Jesus with more; more bread, more power, more protection and Jesus says, “No!”  Jesus says no because he is perfectly content to worship and serve God. They go head to head in the desert and in the end, the devil leaves with all of his bribes unclaimed, his temptations untouched, and Jesus is free to go.

The wilderness is someplace we have all been at one time or another.  For each of us, the test is different, as unique as we are, and yet we all know what it looks like.  For some, the wilderness has been a hospital waiting room, or your car on a rainy night after you had a fight with your spouse, or the long drive home after losing your job.

For my husband and me, we found ourselves in the wilderness while walking the dog in a snowstorm four years ago.  As we walked along, the cold stung our faces and opened our eyes to see our present reality for the sandstorm it really was.  It wasn’t rock bottom, but we were on the way down.

Our jobs weren’t satisfying or healthy places in which to work, we didn’t “belong” in the community in which we were living, and our profound unhappiness was reflected in the way we were conducting our daily lives.  It took us six months to climb out of that dark hole, but we confronted the devil that day and made a decision to change.

Where is your wilderness?  Sometimes, the silence is in your own soul – when you reach out for God’s voice and hear nothing except your own heart racing and the panic settling in to stay for a while. The wilderness is so unique for each of us.  How do we know we’re there?

Often, it’s not until you look around and realize you’re running on empty surrounded by nothing but sand with the devil on your back.  The wilderness exam we are all bound to experience at one time or another is the most reality based, spirit-filled, life-changing places a person can be.

While it is utterly depleting, spending a long time in the wilderness is ultimately freeing.

The things that have tempted us for so long and have no power to give us life –are rejected.  Resisting temptation also teaches us that God will not make decisions for us. In order to be the person God knows us to be requires learning to manage our appetites and desires.  And how do we do that?  How do we learn to resist?

We learn to resist through faithfully observing the spiritual disciplines; through prayer, fasting, and giving.  The spirit may lead us into the wilderness, but the spirit will always — eventually, lead us out as well.  And what happens in the wilderness, in that liminal space as you travel nearer and nearer rock bottom, is the development of clarity and grit.  Secular culture may call it character formation.

I know slowly climbing out of my pit four years ago was instrumental in forming me into the person I am today. It taught me self-awareness, gave me clarity, and required nothing short of grit and determination to pull myself up one day at a time until I stumbled out of the desert and back home. This development of our character and our souls is imperative for following Jesus.

Lent isn’t about punishing yourself for being human.  Lent is about choosing to step into the desert, spending some weeks in the wilderness, and voluntarily squaring off against the devil of your temptations whatever they may be.

It’s not just about drinking less or skipping dessert, Lent is about paying attention.  It’s okay to be hungry, okay to be lonely.  Sit with that hunger or loneliness and spend some time with it.  These next forty days are a chance to step into a space of discomfort whether it is inside your own soul or in relationship. Simplify your home; spend an evening alone in contemplation, introspection, and prayer. Leave the television off and put away your cell phone.  Mend a relationship that may be tattered or broken, send that difficult email, mail a hand written note, call a friend you’ve lost touch with over the years.

Between now and Easter, we are each invited to step into the wilderness with intentionality and integrity as we seek to see our own reflection a bit less dimly – and a little more like God sees us.