Lent begins, as it always does, in the rocky wilderness. So we brought the wilderness into our sanctuary this year. If you can look past the carpet and the wooden floors and the pews, you can see it, I think. Not a desert, not a jungle or a forest; it is rugged and rocky and far from home. And those rocks tell a story—lots of stories, in fact. I used to tell the high school graduates in Northfield that if they weren’t taking a Bible to college, they could just take a rock instead. Just think of all the rocks in scripture …
When Moses was leading the Hebrew people out of Egypt, and they were thirsty, he struck a rock with his staff and water poured out. They were refreshed and continued their journey to the Promised Land. After forty years, when they were ready to enter the Promised Land, they made a pile of stones to mark the spot where they crossed the Jordan. And to remind them to tell the story to their children and their grandchildren and their great-grandchildren. The Israelites laughed when David, the little shepherd, went out to attack Goliath, the giant. He took his sling and a rock, and the rest is history. And it may have been that same David who wrote Psalm 19, which is the source of the prayer Jane often offers at the start of her sermons: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”
When Jesus chose the fisherman who would be his disciples, he gave one of them a new nickname: Simon became Peter—the Greek version is Petra, or approximately, “Rocky.” And so when Jesus finally asks the disciples who they think he is, it is Peter who has the right answer. And it is Peter to which he speaks these words: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells another architectural story—about houses built on sand that are blown away, and houses built on rocks, which are sturdy and robust. Once in a while, rocks are not building materials, but weapons. A woman, accused of adultery, was sentenced to be stoned. (And by the way, in some parts of the world, she still could be so sentenced.) And Jesus stepped in front of the crowd and said, “Let the one without sin cast the first stone.” Nobody threw anything. There was one more stone, too—the one rolled in front of the tomb in which Jesus was laid after he was executed. The one that was rolled away on Easter morning.
But most of those events are still ahead of us; for now we are back in the wilderness, where there will be tests. It is helpful to know that the word usually translated as “temptation” can also be translated a “test.” The word temptation has, in our time, come to be connected with sex and chocolate (especially today!) in ways that may confuse our understanding of what is happening in this text. So “test” it is. And here is an interesting thing about this passage. When we hear other stories from the Gospels, we usually imagine ourselves as the disciples, or the people in the crowd, or maybe (if we are honest) as scribes or Pharisees. But when we hear this story, most of us imagine ourselves as Jesus, being tempted by the devil. And mostly we are discouraged, because we know that we are not nearly as able to turn aside the opportunity to feed our hungers or be powerful or invincible as Jesus seems to be.
So this morning, let us take just a moment to pause, and listen for ways in which we might sound more like the devil than we are like Jesus. The devil (and we are not talking about a guy in a red suit with a pitchfork here) frames his words this way: “If you are really… then you should …” And that is a sentence structure that we can all recognize. Listen:
“If you really loved me, you would…”
“If you really care about our country you would vote for…”
“If you know what’s good for you, you will…”
These are tests of a particular (dare I say “diabolical”) sort—they may grammatically sound like choices, but they are really attempts to manage and control someone else’s behavior. When we test one another with statements like this, we are really just trying to get our own way. And sometimes, perhaps without meaning to, we do the same thing to God: we set up a question or a doubt or a prayer that is really a negotiation with God about what we think God ought to do. Just like the devil. And it is not surprising that God—this time in the human form of Jesus—will have nothing to do with it. We learn again and again (as Job did before us) that God is not always accountable to us.
Jesus is not the only one who wandered in the wilderness. The ancient Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. As that journey neared its end, Moses prepared the people for the celebration of their entry into the land they had been promised. The passage we heard is a kind of liturgy. First they were to bring an offering of the first fruits of their harvest to God. Then they were to recite the story of how they came to this place, a story that begins with “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor,” and ends with a feast that includes the Levites (the priestly clan) and the aliens who reside among them.
We might remember, though, that this is the end of the long journey through the wilderness. At the beginning of this journey those same Israelites complained bitterly about not having enough food or water, and cursed Moses for taking them away from the fleshpots of Egypt. Along the way they worshipped the statue of a golden calf and got into all sorts of scrapes. Through it all they were led by a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night.
And, as we are told in Luke’s gospel, Jesus “was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.” I find myself lingering over the word “in.” He was not just led “to” the wilderness and left to his own devices. And (at least in this text) he was not led “out” of the wilderness. He was led in the wilderness. Sometimes when we are in the wilderness of our own lives—in places of hardship, sorrow, injustice, or uncertainty—we forget that we are also being accompanied by the Spirit, that we are also being led. Sometimes we forget that there is a great story behind and around us, a story of God’s presence and power in human life. Sometimes we forget to bring the first fruits of our labor as an offering of thanksgiving and hope. Sometimes we forget to invite everyone to the feast of thanksgiving—the Levites and the aliens among us.
Lent is the “sometimes” that we are called back the wilderness, back to the Spirit who leads us, back to telling our true and deepest story, back to acts of gratitude and generosity. Back to the wilderness, back to the rocks; remember the rocks.
- a rock that gives water when we are thirsty
- a rock that reminds us of the story of our deliverance
- a rock that can be used as a weapon against evil
- a rock that testifies to God’s mercy
- a rock that anchors a prayer
- a rock that is Jesus’ nickname for his friends
- a rock that is the underpinning of the church
- a rock that is the foundation of the house
- a rock that reminds us of our own shortcomings and sins
- and a rock that reminds us that God’s love is stronger than those sins, stronger even than death.
Lent begins in the wilderness, but it will not end there.