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First Sunday in Lent
Genesis 24b-9, 15-17, 25-3:7; Psalm 51 or 51:1-13; Romans 5:12-19 (20-21); Matthew 4:1-11
Finding a Way Out of the Wilderness
Our 40-day Lenten journey began on Ash Wednesday. In many churches, the people of God were marked with ashes as a sign of penitence and mortality. In words, we are told, "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return." (BCP, p. 265) And forever mindful of the horror of September 11, 2001, we should require no further token of the finite state of our being, and furthermore, that whenever we personally or corporately fall into the hands of sin, we are called to repent and seek forgiveness.
This is the matter of our spiritual nature, of our soul, which is the essence of life. It is to this aspect of our human nature, which marks our relationship with our Creator, the Eternal One, that we honor and strive to keep alive. But there will be many occasions when body and soul make a journey into the wilderness. From birth to the time of our return to God, we will have ample opportunities to experience a journey that will lead us into and, hopefully, out of life's wilderness. We should view our journeys into the wilderness, or wilderness wanderings, as times of testing, as times in which God prepares us for a task. We may also view the wilderness as a place where the spiritual strength and stamina of our souls is refined and strengthened.
In particular, life's wilderness experiences test our faith. We are exhorted to resist temptation from the power of sin and evil forces that seek to dominate our lives. More to the point, our faith is tested to see if we are anchored in God's authority and ultimate power. And as Christians, in the wilderness, we recognize the triumph of Jesus Christ over the power of sin and death-Jesus Christ who in human form experienced times of testing and temptation just like us.
In his play Lady Windermere's Fan, Oscar Wilde wrote, "I can resist everything except temptation." There is a cartoon that has two characters saying: "How come opportunity knocks only once, but temptation beats down the door every day?" St. Augustine of Hippo, an African Doctor of the Church, knew something about temptation, too. In his autobiography entitled Confessions, a young Augustine was in the wilderness struggling with life's carnal temptations. St. Augustine wrote, "Give me chastity and continence, but not just now."
Let's face it, temptation is part of everyone's life. The test to overcome temptation toward evil will always be an inescapable part of our earthly sojourn. Throughout this particular dance with life, we may be strengthened by St. Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 10:13: "No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and [God] will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing [God] will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it." Today, our Old and New Testament readings provide a golden window of opportunity toward our finding a way out of the wilderness.
In the Old Testament Book of Genesis, we witness how temptation toward evil led Adam and Eve to an act of faithlessness and sin. In contrast, our Gospel from St. Matthew shows how Jesus Christ relied on faith in God's Word and authority. And we witness Christ's deliverance from the evil temptations that lead to sin. At the root of today's readings is our willingness to be faithful and obedient to God. The question before us today is this: What kind of Christians are we going to be -- faithful or faithless?
Now life for Adam and Eve would have been "a piece of cake" if God had planted only one tree in the Garden of Eden. Why did God plant two? Why did God give Adam and Eve a choice between one, over and against the other? It was God's way of testing them. God needed to see if they were willing and able to be responsible tenants and trustees of God's vineyard. The choice was simple. Adam and Eve had to choose between God's authority and their own, self-appointed authority. What God offered is what theologians call "free will." They could choose freely between life and death.
Unfortunately, they chose poorly -- they chose a life that led to death. Furthermore, because Adam and Eve symbolize the way in which God has entrusted the earth to our care, we are expected to make wise management decisions rooted in God's Word. The two trees are metaphors representing faithfulness versus faithlessness, conservation versus exploitation, saying "yes" to God versus saying "no" to God, affirming a life of relationship with God versus a life estranged from God.
This lesson also teaches us that evil and sin are primordial, which means that they have been with us since the beginning of time. And the atrocity of September 11, the scandalous collapse of the Enron corporation (or should we say "End-Run"), the subsequent financial loss incurred by so many people who had invested their employment years and their life savings in the corporation, the admission by State Troopers of racial profiling, the notion of offering "concierge" medical care to the rich, instead of affordable healthcare for all, continue to remind us that we struggle with an evil nature and an impulse to oppose the divine will. Carl Gustav Jung, the great psychoanalyst and philosopher, once said, "All the old primitive sins are not dead, but are crouching in the...corners of our modern hearts." For the contemporary mind, the story of Adam and Eve symbolizes the belief that God's authority will overrule any authority we choose to bestow upon ourselves.
So in wilderness moments, what do we do? During our Lenten journeys -- and for the rest of our lives -- how do we prepare ourselves to overcome any inclination toward sinfulness and selfishness? How do we find our way out of the wilderness?
Jesus' experience in the wilderness is the key. Our Lord's experience demonstrates that there are three spiritual tools required for finding our way out of the wilderness. These tools are prayer, fasting, and faith in the Word of God. First of all, Jesus prayed. We need to remember that whenever we enter into life's wilderness we need to be in conversation with God. Prayer and meditative reflection -- listening for God's voice -- will always guide us through life's most difficult moments. Secondly, Jesus fasted. Like a foundry worker purifying metal in the refining fire of the smelter, he purified himself -- body, mind, and soul -- of everything that obscured his life-link to God. In other words. Jesus fasted from the world and feasted on the Word of God. Third, Jesus relied on the foundation of faith. Standing on the promises of God, Jesus relied on the promise that his Heavenly Parent would save him, would deliver him from the time of trial, from the snare and pit of Satan's cunning allure. We need to understand these tools for our own wilderness journeys in life and for the righteousness the world expects from us as we witness for our Lord.
This year, during our Lenten journey and for the rest of our lives, may prayer, fasting, and faith be the hallmarks of our earthly journey. Let us view trial and temptation as useful. Temptation is not meant to make us sin. It is meant to raise us to a clearer vision of God's eternal goodness. Temptation is not meant to weaken or enfeeble us. It is meant to empower and strengthen us for service. Temptation is not a penalty we receive from a mysterious or mischievous god. It is a privilege we receive from a gracious God to see if we are prepared to tell others the story of God's glory.
Immediately after Jesus came out of the wilderness, he began his ministry. Whenever we emerge from our wilderness experience, we are called to do the same. Finding our way out of the wilderness means that we have accomplished our trial, leaning on the Lord. And we have passed the test of trial and temptation through faith in him who died and rose from the grave on Easter Day. To God be the Glory! through Jesus Christ our risen Lord. Have a blessed Lenten journey. AMEN.
-- The Rev. Gerald S. Collins is rector of St. John's Episcopal Church, Springfield Gardens, in the Diocese of Long Island. He serves on Diocesan Council, is a George Freeman Bragg Fellow, and a Brother of St. Andrew.