Welcome to the Wilderness

a sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, Year C

“After his baptism, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.” Luke 4:1

I personally love the written word.  I love the opportunity it affords, the escape it offers, the creative wandering accessible at my fingertips.  I love the smell while hanging out at a place like Barnes & Noble, of perusing section after section, author after author, title after title.  And I especially love the feeling of opening up one of those crisp, new books, of flipping quickly through the pages; them buzzing in my hands.  And then finally sitting down in a chair ready to dive right into a new adventure.  Opening up something fresh, something untrodden, something unspoiled, something yet untouched.

The season of Lent—which we began this past snowy Ash Wednesday, as we repented and returned to our God—, these weeks leading up to our celebration of Easter remind me of one of these new books—of new beginnings about to unfold.  These forty days are an open wilderness laid out before us: untrodden, unspoiled, untouched.  And us hearty mountain people, we love the wilderness for such reasons.  We appreciate the wilderness for its untamed beauty.  We bask in the majesty of the wilderness, because we know it is a place where we meet the Divine and to where we are led by the Spirit.

It is the wilderness Jesus enters into in today’s Gospel account from Luke.  Once Jesus steps out of the River Jordan—soaked with water streaming down his face—, after he is baptized by his cousin, John, Jesus enters into a new chapter.  He commences a new journey.  He turns the page on his old life as a carpenter in that country town of Nazareth and begins his work and ministry as the Son of God here on earth—healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and giving new life to everyone he encounters.  For Jesus the wilderness is a drastic shift in what has come before: it is something fresh.  It is something untrodden, unspoiled, untouched.

Yet the wilderness, in all of its glory and beauty and majesty, well… it is wild.  It is harsh.  It is uneasy.  It is difficult.  Jesus discovers this for himself as he turns the page on his old life and wanders in the wilderness of Palestine for forty days—forty long days, forty thirsty days, forty hungry days, forty sun-burnt days.  It is an uneasy entry into his earthly ministry.  And on top of that he has the Devil on his back, tempting him left, right, and center.  True the wilderness is untrodden, unspoiled, untouched, but it never ceases to be untamed.

Yet it is in the wilderness that Jesus is able to enter something new and turns the page on what has gone before.  It is through this wilderness that Jesus comes to terms with the most difficult news he has ever heard: the voice from above echoing forth at his baptism saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased” (Lk 3:22).  Jesus wrestles in the wilderness with his inherit identity—that he is a man who is actually more than human: that he is the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed, the Son of God.  For Jesus the wilderness is full of growing pains, full of pushing and pulling, full of stretching sorting out this new understanding of self.

And like Jesus, the wilderness encourages us to work out who we are.  It helps us to grapple with our own identity as God’s children.  It allows us the sacred space to tear off all the masks we have laid upon our hearts over the years, and repent of our transgressions, return our focus, and redirect our gaze upon our God.

Instead of being a burden, a drought, a desolation, if we slightly shift our perspective the wilderness could be an opportunity for us to turn a new page and begin something fresh—something untrodden, unspoiled, untouched.  It is the opportunity to open ourselves up more fully to the Divine, so that God can do a new thing within us.  Within the vast expanse of the wilderness we are taught to make room in our own hearts, room for our God that we maybe had put aside or forgotten.

Now is the opportune time!  Now is the day of salvation!  Now is the moment of transformation!  We do not have to wait any longer!  The wilderness is laid out before us.  The path of grace is in front of us.  Christ is wandering right beside us.  The seed is planted, and even in this desert landscape, slowly it will grow if we nourish it, if we recommit to Christ and continue to renew our spiritual practices—like the three markers of Lent: praying, fasting, and giving.

My friends, where is the Holy Spirit leading you this Lent?  Where is God giving you the opportunity to grow?  What demons are you wrestling with this season and are ready to finally put aside?

You may find that you’ve read this book before; that you’ve turned this page before; that you’ve written notes in this margin before; that there is that coffee stained ring on the cover from before.  You may recall that you’ve heard a similar sermon before; that you’ve been on the brink of such transformation before; that you’ve returned from this misdirection before.  Yet no matter if this is your first time entering the wilderness of Lent, or your thirtieth, or your eightieth, God can do a new thing in you today.  God can write a new page, a new chapter, a new book even for you today.  God can offer you a fresh start today.

And like Jesus, who although he indeed started something fresh while he was wandering in the wilderness, he was still just working out something that had been there all along—that he was God’s beloved Son.  And we, the followers of Jesus, although we are offered the opportunity to start something fresh while we are wandering in the wilderness, I promise you know matter how many times you’ve tried and failed, you have had it in you all along to live into your own identity as a beloved child of God.

So my friends, whether this is the first time you are opening this book, or whether it is the hundredth time, I invite you to return to our God.  I invite you to renew your spiritual practices.  I invite you to ask God to revive you mind, body, and soul so we may celebrate together on the day of resurrection in six weeks time.

Come and experience that landscape untrodden, unspoiled, untouched, and yes, untamed.  My friends, my sisters and brothers in Christ, my fellow children of God: welcome to the wilderness.

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