Sermon for 1 Lent (A), February 26, 2023: Into the Wilderness (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)
Updated: Mar 7
On the summer break, while I was in my first year at University, a group of fellow students and I devised a scheme to make a lot of money over the summer. We decided to go to the far northern part of California and southern Oregon and hire on as lumberjacks. Logging was still active then, and we saw no reason a logging company wouldn't hire a group of five young men immediately.
As it turned out, there were no jobs available, and the few logging companies we applied for had no place for someone inexperienced. The fourpersons we talked to told us to keep returning because of constant openings because of on-the-job injuries. On hearing this, we decided we should look elsewhere for employment. We were running out of money. After eating out of cans last evening and sleeping on the park benches, we decided to go into the Forest Service Ranger Station at Happy Camp and apply as a summer forest firefighter.
After training, I and two others in our group were assigned to a remote guard station, and I became a tanker truck driver. I also applied for an internship on a helicopter response team.
I was on a team that got flown into a fire caused by a lightning strike in the Siskiyou wilderness area. No roads are allowed in wilderness areas, so to get to the hotspot, we had to be flown in. This occasion was my first time in the wilderness, and because of the laws governing wilderness areas, Our team had to hike 80 miles out of the area to get picked up. Our hike was long, so I saw the wilderness up close and personal. It was much easier to go into the wilderness than it was to get out.
There are 803 designated wilderness areas in the United States. Most of them are forests and mountains, and some are deserts. A wilderness is a tract or region uncultivated and uninhabited by human beings. Or an area essentially undisturbed by human activity together with its naturally developed life community. Wilderness areas are valuable for their historical, scientific, educational, geologic, and ecological benefits. They help the environment and the economy.
Wilderness can mean a place to escape, recharge, learn, teach, and find oneself. It connects you to your environment and shows you are a tiny piece of our world's colossal puzzle. Wilderness is a world in balance with the freedom for all its inhabitants to develop naturally. But perhaps one of the greatest benefits is what wilderness areas can do for a person. For those who travel into wilderness areas, the experience can be awe-inspiring and life-changing. Those treks are what made great novels and critically acclaimed essays. Many who venture onto wilderness areas come back out changed with a deeper understanding of why these lands are set aside. Each person has their own story.
While many people view the wilderness as a place for recreation and renewal, wilderness in the Bible is nearly always a place of danger and struggle. In first-century Palestine, as today, the wilderness consists of desert. Nothing illustrates the danger more than the fate of Bishop James Pike, who became lost and perished in the Judean desert.
The wilderness or desert plays a vital role in the Bible. God spoke to Abraham while he was in the wilderness. God brought the Israelites into the wilderness to speak to them at Mount Sinai. This is where He spoke to Moses. In the wilderness, God met with Elijah. God spoke to John the Baptist in the desert, who spent most of his life in these rough conditions. He became known as the Voice Calling in the wilderness.
Each of these stories is filled with miracles. God used these difficult times for something meaningful and powerful. God was present in the wilderness and made Herself known in the desert.
The Hebrew word for the desert is MIDBAR. But because there are no vowels in Hebrew, the letters that spell it out are M-D-B-R. Coincidentally, this is also how you spell another Hebrew word, MEDABER – to speak.
Remarkably, Jesus follows the leading Spirit into wilderness solitude "to MEDABER – to speak with the Father and be tempted by the devil." This objective statement, not in Mark or Luke, suggests that Matthew considered Jesus' intentional confrontation with evil instructive. Indeed, Jesus will later teach his disciples to pray that God may not lead them into temptation (6:13), but that does not mean God should spare them from all testing.
Temptations are not intrinsically evil, but what we do with them can help us turn to God or away from God. Do we see temptations as ways to turn to God rather than rely on our own resources?
All the temptations of Jesus are the invitation of Satan to deny his identity as the Son of God. Are not our temptations an invitation to reject the kind of person God wants us to be and turn to unhealthy ways and idolatry to satisfy ourselves instead?
By resisting the temptations of the accuser, Jesus chose to depend on his Father to satisfy his deepest hunger, to relate with others in an ordinary way, and not rely on reputation, power, and possessions. How do we meet our deepest pangs of hunger? Do we depend on prestige and power to make ourselves acceptable to others?
The temptations we all face daily and at critical moments of decision and vocation in our lives may differ from those of Jesus, but they have the same point. They are not simply trying to entice us into committing this or that sin. They are trying to distract us, to turn us aside, from the path of servanthood to which our baptism has commissioned us, and we have promised in our baptismal covenant. God has a costly but wonderfully glorious vocation for each one of us. The enemy will do everything possible to distract us and thwart God's purpose. If we have heard God's Voice welcoming us as his children, we will also hear the whispered suggestions of the enemy.
But, as God's children, we are entitled to use the same defense as the son of God himself. Store scripture in your heart, and know how to use it. Keep your eyes on God, and trust him for everything. Remember your Calling to bring God's light into the world. And say a firm 'no' to the voices that lure you back into the darkness.
Jesus likely fasted to prepare himself for ministry by drawing closer to God. One of the reasons people fast is to get their body into a weakened state where they can focus on the basics of life and hear God's Voice better without all the so-called creature comforts that can both soothe and distract us.
Jesus knew he had hard work ahead of him and needed to get his mind straight before he began performing miracles. Having just been declared the Son of God at his baptism, he needed to regain his humility and cling to God so he could truly fulfill his Father's work, which was ultimately the cross.
So, this place, this desert, whether the physical place or that place deep within where Jesus understood his connection to God and humanity, is a holy place. We learn from examining this place in Jesus' life because we can connect it to that place in our lives where we struggle with our relationship with God and humankind.
God supports us in that struggle through her ever presence. It helps us put things in order. It helps us remember that when tempted to put something in our lives before faithfulness to God's law, we cannot forget that God is our help and salvation. God resides in all the places of our lives and makes them holy. Amen.