A Risky Business, This Spirit in the Wilderness
Year C, Lent 1 Luke 4:1-3 and Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Sermon to Pohick Episcopal Church March 10, 2019
The Rev. Dr. Lynn Ronaldi
This Holy Spirit business is risky stuff; you never know where it’s coming from or where it’s going. The same Spirit that gently descends like a dove upon Jesus in the crowded Jordan River suddenly becomes a driving wind whisking Him away into the lonely desert.
We will never fully grasp the magnitude of Jesus’ 40-day experience of isolation and hunger that the Holy Spirit leads him into. However, Luke does give us a glimpse of Jesus’ inner struggle.
Three brief conversations with Satan suggest that reconciling the two poles of Jesus’ true identity—Divine and Human—requires his detachment from three general categories of temptation. It seems Jesus faces down the same false programs for happiness that tend to hook all of us and hold us captive. These are our disordered desires for security and survival, self-esteem, and control.
What’s at risk in the wilderness is Jesus’ compassion and solidarity with ordinary, suffering people like you and me. He freely chooses to experience the same temptations we face, and suffer as we suffer.
First, Satan tempts Jesus with: “If you are the Son of God, why not use your power to provide bread for your own survival?” Jesus rejects the easy way out, which would be to invoke the divine power that makes Him special and unique. Instead, Jesus embraces solidarity with regular people. He freely chooses to rely on the Lord’s protection and trust in His provision.
Apparently frustrated but not defeated, Satan taunts Jesus twice more. He dangles before Jesus all the glorious riches and Kingdoms of the World, on the condition that Jesus would worship him. But Jesus chooses the Kingdom of God—where the greatest treasure is God’s selfless love.
Then Satan tries one last time, but to no avail: he tempts Jesus to show off his glory and throw himself off the top of the temple. Satan even quotes a psalm saying Jesus should trust that angels will bear him up and protect him. But Jesus firmly maintains that the only one He trusts is God Himself.
Ultimately, Jesus faces those false promises of security, self-esteem and control, and in doing so rejects all temptation to use divine power for himself. In fact, Jesus maintains his unique identity as God’s Beloved Son precisely through identifying compassionately with broken people.
Challenged by the same temptations we face, His wilderness experience deepens his compassion for us. It also clarifies that his identity as Son of God and his mission to dwell among us. He is to free us from our own self-centered attachments, self-defeating habits, and sins.
Don’t you wrestle at times with certain areas of temptation? You might even recognize one that keeps coming back to bite you!
Ask yourself, when you face losing your sense of security, do you react with fear and cast blame, or scapegoat others? Ruthless dictators facing economic or military distress target whole races for extinction. This false over-identification with security is the root of prejudice, bullying and even genocide. When Germany faced economic collapse, Hitler called for the annihilation of the Jews. Ask yourself, when you’re feeling scared, do you react by blaming, or cutting others down, or bullying?
Or when your self-esteem is threatened, do you react with resentment, unforgiveness, envy or greed? Perhaps someone has hurt you by not valuing your gifts, not listening to you, or even rejecting you? Do you tend to shut yourself off and sulk? Do you cut off relationships rather than work to reconcile them?
Or maybe you tend to find yourself trying to control everything and everyone around you?
Instead of being reactive when we are hooked by any of these, there’s another response that will break through these repetitive cycles. In humility, we can become aware of when we begin to react. We can prayerfully detach from those false needs for security, esteem or control that enslave us. And we can attach ourselves to God alone. We can surrender to the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us—and learn to trust in God’s love.
Jesus shows us this path of no resistance. Yes, the Holy Spirit does drive him into the wilderness. But like all humans, he has a choice. We have a choice. God would never force us. Like Jesus, we can risk surrendering to the Spirit of God—the only path to freedom.
As we submit to the workings of the Holy Spirit, we may feel disoriented at first. After all, we are facing unchartered territory, a wilderness where we begin to face all kinds of beasts hiding within us.
Surrendering to the Spirit can be scary, which is why we tend to resist it. We sense that we run the risk of discovering what’s really been driving us. The Holy Spirit is apt to reveal all those ways we’ve been protecting ourselves from the pain of knowing the truth about ourselves.
I am reminded of a man who finally surrendered to the Holy Spirit as he completed Clinical Pastoral Education, called CPE for short. Ask any clergy person who has experienced CPE; it’s basically learning about yourself as you minister to others. Students almost always resist the wilderness at first, then many surrender and come out transformed. This student was resisting the truth everyone else saw. He refused to let down his guard and relinquish control over every person and circumstance in his life. It was not only hurting others; it was enslaving him. He’d said he wanted to be different from his father, who had lost control of his life. Toward the end of CPE, he’d met a dying patient who told him he didn’t believe God could love him. As he shared that story, his walls finally broke. In tears he said, “No matter what you’ve done, God does love you, and there’s nothing you can do to change that.” In solidarity with his pain, he had discovered his identity as a beloved son.
It’s clearly risky business, this Holy Spirit—but we’re certainly not alone in resisting the wind that drives us into the inner wilderness of our hearts. Most of us do resist.
But if we would simply open the ears of our hearts to listen for God’s voice calling us Beloved…If we would just open the eyes of our hearts to see what blocks our freedom—we would be well on our way to discovering our truest identity.
Transformation is an ongoing process.
With God’s grace, we constantly need to reconcile the conflicts within us, as Jesus does. For instance, are there times you sense that you are unique and special, set apart? Other times, are you vulnerable and suffering? You can embrace both.
Notice again how Jesus models facing temptations and how he reconciles what’s divine and human in himself.
First, Jesus enters the Jordan River to be baptized in solidarity with humanity, and there he receives the gentle infilling of the Holy Spirit to sustain him. Then, Jesus surrenders to the insistent Holy Spirit and enters the wilderness to face temptation. It is precisely in compassion and solidarity with us, that he is most one with God.
Of course, at the climax of Christ’s story, the Son of God surrenders himself completely for us once and for all, by his death on a cross. Then, in His resurrection, we witness how God transforms death into life.
During Lent, particularly in our Wednesday Lenten Supper Series, we can practice our intention to be with the Lord in contemplative prayer, and to listen for His voice of love. Trusting that we are loved no matter what, we can stop resisting so much, and risk surrendering to the Holy Spirit in the solitude of the wilderness, in solidarity with Jesus Christ Himself.