A sermon preached on The First Sunday of Lent at the Anglican Church of St. Thomas, Kefalas, Crete, Greece, at 11:00 am on March 10, 2019.
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)
A key point in today’s gospel is that Jesus was led into the desert by the Holy Spirit. He did not just accidentally arrive there, it was meant to be.There he prepared for his earthly ministry. There he was tempted by the embodiment of evil and by the power that is wielded in this broken world, a power that appears attractive, quotes authoritatively from scripture, speaks rationally, and seems quite generous. The Holy Spirit leads us into dangerous places, it seems. The wilderness is a place where one is challenged.
Of course, wilderness is a relative concept. An indigenous person on Twitter said, “What you call wilderness is my home and was the home of my ancestors since time immemorial”. And indeed, what might look bleak or foreboding to those of us raised in farmed lands or cities is in fact bursting with life. Even deserts bloom majestically after a great rain.
What is your wilderness? Where is the Spirit leading you, me, us?
It is not always a “nice” place, but perhaps it is the challenging we need.
- It might be a place of promise but with many unknowns. In our reading from Deuteronomy (we heard about how Abraham and Sarah, wandering Arameans, followed the promise of God to a land that would be lived in by their descendant.
- It might be a place of deliverance. The people went down to Egypt in a famine, but were enslaved and oppressed, and the people cried out and were led into the wilderness of Sinai.
- It might be a place of great fruitfulness, a Promised Land, that once achieved becomes taken for granted, so that it becomes all too easy to forget how you got to where you are, all too easy to forget to give thanks.
- It may be a place where you confront evil. A place where there are temptations. A place where people authoritatively quote scripture to justify betraying God.
So where is the Spirit leading us?
- Perhaps the Spirit is leading us into the wilderness to confront evil. It might be the evil of poverty, or of war, of racism, of bigotry.
- Perhaps the Spirit is leading us into the wilderness to refine us, to test us, to make us stronger. To be tempted by external things so as to return to that which is most valuable.
- The Spirit may be leading us into the desert to be taught, even as the people of Israel were taught through the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, in the Ten Commandments and the other instructions.
- The Spirit may keep us in the wilderness to learn patience, even as the people of Israel spent forty years, and being transformed from the mentality of slaves to a people of deliverance.
Well, my impression is that we have been in a few wildernesses.
- Those of us who are British may feel that we are in the wilderness of Brexit, not knowing what is going to happen. Some of us are fine with the current uncertainty, others less so. “What do I have to do with my dog?” said one concerned person.
- Perhaps as we look at the politicians and get frustrated with the whole lot of them, whether in Athens, Brussels, London, Washington, or Ottawa. We might feel quite alienated from the whole bunch, just wishing they had the common sense to sort it out. If only we were in charge, eh?
- As Christians, watching the decline of the faith at home and elsewhere in Europe and North America, we may feel thrust out into a deserted place, where no one sees you or hears us.
- Perhaps the people of this chaplaincy of St. Thomas, Kefalas feel as if we’ve been in a bit of a wilderness in this chaplaincy, as we had a long eighteen month interim. Are we on the verge of entering a Promised Land? Perhaps, if we are faithful.
But the point of the wilderness is that it is unknown, there are wild beasts, there are temptations, there is not always certainty. It forces us to turn inwards and to work on ourselves.
My hope and prayer in this season of Lent is that we have just the kind of wilderness experience that the people of Israel had, and that Jesus had – that we emerge re-created, ready for ministry, firmly grounded in prayer and scripture, and thankful.