“Jesus With Us in Our Wilderness”

“Jesus With Us in Our Wilderness”

Year C, Lent I, Luke

Sermon to Pohick Church March 6, 2022

The Rev. Dr. Lynn Ronaldi

A “wilderness” takes many forms – some personal and some corporate.

Have you ever journeyed through a “wilderness” – a season of trial and testing -that was intensely personal? Maybe one like Jesus’ own wilderness of temptation; or the great loss of a loved one; or even a sin you find hard to forgive yourself? Perhaps you’re experiencing a personal wilderness at this very moment.

A wilderness experience may also be corporate, in the sense that it is shared by an entire people. Humanity has certainly experienced these throughout history: Epidemics and pandemics that wiped out millions. The imposed exiles of ancient Israelites over hundreds of years. Likewise today, more than a million Ukrainians are making a mass exodus from their homeland into the unkown.

Daily we see images of Ukrainian women pushing strollers and tugging children alongside miles of cars, fleeing violence and oppression. Refugees flinging suitcases into ditches, their discarded baggage filled with the few precious possessions they’ve salvaged and can no longer carry. Loved ones dying in a ruthless invasion.

Yet, in the midst of this wilderness, the Spirit of Love is transforming the world. Angels are ministering to these people.

Whether personal or corporate, many wilderness journeys seem to bear these two graces in common:

  • The Spirit of God is present and active in them, leading and transforming us into who we are meant to become. In the desert, the Spirit is stripping away baggage and integrating our inner and outer selves. 
  • Second, no matter how painful the journey becomes, angels arrive to minister to us.

Luke wants us to understand, that no matter how hopeless or challenging a wilderness experience is, or how solitary and tested we feel, the Holy Spirit is very much involved. God’s Spirit is exposing us to what is most real.

This is why Luke bookends the story of Jesus in the wilderness with the Holy Spirit.

Just before today’s passage, Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan. “The Holy Spirit descended on Jesus, and God pronounced him, “My Beloved Son.”

And in the next movement, “the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness.”

Finally, after today’s wilderness account, the Gospel will point out that the Spirit is with and within Jesus in the desert, and holy angels are ministering to him.

Whether the Holy Spirit “drives” Jesus into the wilderness, as Matthew says, or “leads” Jesus there, as Luke describes it – the Holy Spirit is clearly present and active in his season of transition, turmoil, temptation, and testing.

No matter what form a wilderness journey takes, these seasons have a divine purpose. God is very interested in transformation: in discovering eternal identity, meaning, and mission in life.

For Jesus, the wilderness is literally a desert. If you’ve ever been to the Holy Land, all you see for miles in one direction are sand and rocks, with shimmering heat waves. In another direction is the Dead Sea, where nothing lives.

Having just emerged from his baptism in the Jordan River nearby, God’s Beloved Son plunges into the wilderness. There Jesus faces trials and temptations in solidarity with all of humanity.

As Jesus fasts “for 40 days and nights,” he faces the “Tempter.” During this time, the only thing that sustains him is the Holy Spirit.

Struggling with human temptations, Jesus grows in compassion for our human condition. Surrendering to the Holy Spirit, Jesus reveals the transformative process of becoming more fully human. He discovers his truest identity and affirms his mission in life.

How? Jesus faces three basic and universal human temptations:

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

Of course, Jesus passes these tests with flying colors, simply by depending on God alone.

The late Fr. Thomas Keating said Jesus’ temptations represent three categories of common, misplaced human desires that cause all of us to sin. We think we don’t need God to build up our identity. So we make poor, self-centered choices whenever we desire:

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

Keating says we unconsciously build a “false self” we think will protect us and make us look better than we are secretly afraid we really are. We tend to 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. Or earn praise or avoid criticism. We’re exercising poor boundaries.
  • Power and control when we fear being manipulated, or being out of control. This can manifest in attempting to control situations or people.  We’re creating a power imbalance over others.
  • Security and survival when we are paralyzed with fear about suffering, sin, or condemnation. We’re becoming judgmental, defensive, even rigid.

Hooked by these fears, we’re building “false programs for happinesss” in order to deny them. The result is, we create a false self. We lack integrity. We experience inner chaos, sin, and disintegration. What we desperately need is to seek integration of those inner conflicts. And discover our true purpose and mission.

Do any of these fears and temptations have a familiar ring to you? I’ve got news for you…the one you most strongly deny may well be your greatest temptation! Confronting fears, weakness, and false programs for happiness is painful. We resist the Holy Spirit. We keep the Spirit at bay by remaining busy, filling days with noise and activity. We maintain a false sense of esteem, control, and safety.

This is precisely why a spiritual wilderness can be transformative. Dropping our false crutches, letting go of the baggage that weighs us down, and surrendering to the Holy Spirit, we gain the freedom to grow in compassion and solidarity with Jesus – and into the likeness of God himself.

The desert mothers and fathers – the earliest Christian hermits – entered the wilderness longing to discover the depth of compassion and mercy that led Christ to die for humanity. At first, they went into the desert to escape the world, only to find that the world came with them. In solitude, they discovered that all the conflict, temptation, and sin was within them.

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

The desert was precisely where they learned the value of surrendering to the Holy Spirit. In solidarity with Jesus, they realized the path to divine compassion and mercy is never escaping pain or resisting change.

Union with Jesus calls for befriending pain, becoming vulnerable, naming fears, and allowing the Spirit to reconcile inner conflict. As the desert fathers and mothers grew in compassion, they discovered their truest identity. They solidified their own mission to participate in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation to the world.

In the wilderness, Jesus models our path to integrity as well: our surrender to the presence and leading of the Holy Spirit. Jesus shows us the Spirit of God is hospitable and at home in our inner conflict and in the chaos of our lives. God deeply desires:

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

Indeed, a wilderness takes many forms. – some personal and some corporate.

Whether corporate or personal, imposed or intentional, a wilderness journey thrusts us into the unknown. A spiritual desert exposes us to forces beyond our control.

A wilderness challenges us to lose the baggage of the false self we’ve constructed out of self-interest. To grow in solidarity with others whose wilderness journey is being imposed upon them.

Today, we are experiencing this solidarity with terrified Ukrainians, who are fleeing across borders into unfamiliar landscapes.

This Lent, join me in praying an ancient prayer that is very familiar to Ukrainian Christians. Let’s pray in solidarity with them, by repeating the Jesus Prayer. First prayed by one of their Eastern Orthodox desert fathers, a holy staretz, this simple, meditative prayer is based on scripture. It goes like this:

“Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”

Joining in solidarity with the Ukrainian people, let us repeat this prayer in our hearts like a mantra, eyes closed, with the rhythm of our breath:

“Jesus Christ, have mercy on us.” Amen.

LR+ 3-6-22