Solidarity with Jesus in the Wilderness

Year A, Lent I, Matthew 4:1-11

Sermon to Pohick Church March 1, 2020

The Rev. Dr. Lynn Ronaldi

If you’ve travelled to the Holy Land, maybe you’ve seen the desert monastery perched precariously on the edge of a steep cliff near Jericho. You may have wondered why on earth those early monks would choose such an inhospitable, practically unreachable, place to build a place of prayer.

In one direction, all you see for miles are sand and rocks, with shimmering heat waves rippling over the horizon. Wild animals lurk there. In another direction is the distant Dead Sea, where nothing lives.

Of course, these desert cliffs could well be where Matthew says Jesus is “led up by the Spirit to the wilderness.” Mark’s Gospel says the Spirit “drives” Jesus there. Whether gently lead or forcefully driven, Jesus submits, and faces temptations.

As Jesus arrives, I imagine he is still dripping wet from his recent baptism in the nearby Jordan River. There, God’s voice has just pronounced him His Beloved. Now the Divine Son plunges into the wilderness in solidarity with Humanity.

First Jesus fasts “for 40 days and nights.” As He faces the “Tempter,” all that fills and sustains him is the Holy Spirit.

Struggling with common human temptations, Jesus grows in compassion for the human condition. Surrendering to the Holy Spirit in the solitude of the desert, Jesus reveals the process of becoming more fully human, and our truest self.

Notice that Jesus faces three basic temptations:

  • The temptation to boost his self-esteem by showing off and making bread from stones;
  • To demonstrate control over death and suffering by jumping off a high parapet and living;
  • And to exercise power over others by ruling all kingdoms and having all riches.

Contemporary Monk Thomas Keating believes Jesus’ temptations represent humanity’s common, misplaced human desires that cause all of us to sin. He points out that we tend to make poor, self-centered choices whenever we inordinately desire:

  • Affection and esteem;
  • Security and survival;
  • Or Power and control.

Keating says we build a “false self” that we think will protect us. We seek…

  • Affection and esteem when we fear of not being lovable, or “good enough.” This is what’s going on if we’re constantly seeking to please others. We may exercise poor boundaries.
  • Security and survival when we are paralyzed with fear about suffering, or sin, or condemnation. We can become judgmental, defensive, even rigid.
  • Power and control when we fear being manipulated, or being out of control. This can manifest in attempting to control situations or people. We may create a power imbalance over others.

Hooked by fears we tend to build these “false programs for happinesss,” in order to deny them. The result is creating a false self, and living with a lack of integrity. We experience inner chaos, disintegration, and sin. And we need to seek inner reconciliation of those conflicts.

Do any of these fears and temptations have a familiar ring to you? Our greatest temptation is usually the one we’re likely to deny. Confronting fears, weakness, and false programs for happiness is painful, and we resist the Holy Spirit’s nudges. We keep the Spirit at bay by remaining busy, filling days with noise and activity. This way, we maintain a false sense of control.

This is why we all need wilderness time. Solitude, silence, and surrender are necessary if we want to grow in compassion and solidarity with Jesus.

Sure, we think we can just choose to become more compassionate. We can go right out and practice Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation in the world, feeding the poor, visiting the sick and the prisoner…We need to focus on being reconciled within. Our hearts need to be converted to love from the inside out.

Outer reconciliation demands inner reconciliation. And we have all it takes, including God’s mercy and grace. Inside, we are all “microcosms” of the world. I recall thinking something like this as a hospital chaplain, as I listened to hundreds of stories of all kinds of suffering, sin, and redemption. Pioneer theologian Origen once summed up our struggle and our potential like this:

You yourself are even another little world and have within you the sun and the moon and the stars.”

In time, this became one of the most universal spiritual insights: that our souls contain everything, every temptation, chaotic thought, misplaced desire…as well as the very Spirit of God. Religious people came to realize the Holy Spirit is no stranger to temptation and sin. In fact, God’s hospitality is such that his Spirit welcomes and integrates all of it. For God longs to reconcile our inner and outer lives.

Time and again, the desert monks and nuns entered the desert longing to discover the depth of compassion and mercy that led Christ to die for humanity. They went into the wilderness to escape the world, only to find that the world came with them. In solitude, they discovered all the conflict, temptation, and sin was within them.

At the same time, there was no escaping the Spirit of God there, either. They realized the Spirit pursued them, seeking to reconcile their inner dividedness.

The wilderness was where they learned the value of surrendering to the Holy Spirit: solidarity with Jesus Christ. There they realized the path to divine compassion and mercy is never escaping pain or resisting change. On the contrary: one-ness with Jesus calls for befriending pain, becoming vulnerable, naming fears, and allowing the Spirit to reconcile inner conflict. As they grew in compassion, they participated more fully in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation to the world.

Now do you see why those monks built a monastery in that solitary place? They went into the desert to experience the undivided love of God! There, they surrendered to the Spirit’s reconciling and redeeming movements. There they discovered their truest and most compassionate selves.

In the wilderness, Jesus models our path to integrity as well: our surrender to the presence and leading of the Holy Spirit. Remember, inner conflict is not foreign to the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God is hospitable and at home in our chaos. In fact, God deeply desires:

  • Our trust in His love, hospitality and compassion for us;
  • Our willingness to be vulnerable and name our fears. And through it all,
  • Our submission to the Holy Spirit’s leading.

This Wednesday at our first Lenten Program our speaker is The Rev. Martin Smith. I consider him a contemporary desert father. He has written books on Reconciliation, including a devotional for the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Throughout this Lent, we can try letting go of our typical belt-tightening disciplines, giving up this or that, committing to do more. Sure, we can try those things. But what would happen if instead, like Jesus, we simply surrendered to the leading of the Holy Spirit?

For in the wilderness, God is wholly present to us, wholly available. The question is: will we be present to Him? Amen.