SPRINGTIME OF THE SOUL
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. (Matthew 4:1-11, NRSV)
Before coming to this church in 1994, Colleen and I worked together in a United Methodist Church in Somerville, Massachusetts where we shared Communion once a month. Usually the congregation came forward and kneeled around the altar rail. The pastor, Ed Deyton, Colleen, and I would distribute the bread and the little individual cups like the ones we use in this church.
One particular Communion Sunday Ed decided to mix it up a little and serve Communion by intinction, meaning that people would take their bread and dip it in a chalice of grape juice prior to eating. To further mix things up, Ed decided that instead of using the kneelers, that congregants would line up in the center aisle and come one at a time to dip their bread in the chalice. As you can guess, this led to people waiting in the aisle much longer than they were used to for their turn to take, dip, and eat. Having taken Communion, people would pass by an offering plate that collected money for a homeless shelter housed in the church.
One unhappy participant had lost all patience with this new method of Communion. When he took a piece of bread from me, I noticed his grim expression. I also noticed that he was holding a dollar bill. How nice I thought, even unhappy, he wants to help the homeless. When he approached Colleen, holding the chalice, his anger boiled over as he demanded in an angry voice—“New system!” He then mistakenly put his dollar in the chalice and walked off in disgust. With a look of disbelief, Colleen held the chalice for me to see the dollar bill floating in the purple juice. Fortunately all was not lost. We had an extra chalice on the altar and quickly made the switch. The unhappy camper was right, we needed a new system to keep impatient parishioners with short fuses from dropping their germ infested dollar bills in the chalice. Every now and then when something is not going as planned, Colleen and I will look at each other and say, “New system!”
There is sometimes a price to be paid for trying something new, something we’ve never done before, a door we’ve never opened not knowing where it might lead. Such was the case when Jesus was baptized by his cousin John the Baptizer in the River Jordan. Jesus stepped in the river perhaps expecting nothing more than water as a symbol of new life. As we know from the story, he got something unimaginable—the opening of the heavens with the Spirit descending in the form of a dove and the voice of God saying, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”
And then what? Was Jesus led by the Spirit to start teaching and healing with his new God given authority? Did the Spirit lead him to hug the outcasts and bless the children? Not yet. The next thing that happened was also new and unexpected. Matthew 4:1 says, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted.” It was as if Jesus needed to get away to try to make sense of the life altering experience of the water and the dove and the voice.
After days of fasting and praying, Jesus was in a weakened state, more vulnerable to temptation, more vulnerable to second guessing his divine experience. Did it really happen the way he remembered it? Was there really a dove from heaven or was he seeing things? Did God really speak to him or was it all in his head? And then the temptations started—to turn stones into bread, to leap off the temple, and to acquire all the kingdoms of the world.
UCC minister, Rev. Kathryn Matthews, writes, “The way Matthew tells the story, Jesus experienced not only hunger and loneliness and perhaps doubt but also the temptation to relieve his suffering by turning stones into bread (just for himself, of course), and by testing God (just to make sure what he had heard down by the river was really true), and by grabbing power and glory even if it cost him his loyalty to the one true God whose Child he was…So the test is about Jesus’ faithfulness to who he is and what God is calling him to do: not to ask for special privileges or place or relief, but to enter fully into this human condition of want and need and pain. The temptations attack him in those places.”
Like Jesus in the desert, we are all tempted by something. Unlike Jesus, we are not tempted to change stones to bread or swan dive from the top of the steeple hoping angels would break our fall. These days, many of us face temptations of a more personal nature.
Some of us are tempted by disillusionment. In the upheaval of the world from America to Syria, North Korea to Sudan, it is easy to be disillusioned—disillusioned by war in a world desperate for peace, disillusioned by violence in a world desperate for safety, disillusioned by climate change in a world desperate for stability? Disillusioned, we believe the lie that we can’t make a difference, so why try?
Another temptation some of us face is the temptation to demonize those with whom we disagree. Nuance and understanding are lost in a culture that insists every issue is black and white. With this mindset, there is no room for constructive dialogue or the search for common ground. In our church we know we can disagree on issues without demonizing those who hold different views. The vitriol and bitterness that have affected politicians the world over need not trickle down to people like us at the grassroots.
Feeling overwhelmed in an age of apprehension and constant conflict opens us up to the temptation of despair. When we are burdened with worries about loved ones and fears of an uncertain future, when the problems of the world seem unsolvable and our personal problems seem unending, despair may be just around the corner.
So how do we keep the wolves of anxiety and gloom at bay? How do we counter the temptation to give up and give in? To counter these temptations, we can choose to do the right thing, no matter how small. In times like these I turn to one of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott, who says, “We try to help where we can, and try to survive our own trials and stresses and illnesses… We work hard…We endure…We try to be more present and less petty…We look for solace in nature and art and maybe, if we are lucky, the quiet satisfaction of our homes…Most of us do the best we can…Every time we choose the good action or response, the decent, the valuable, it builds, incrementally, to renewal, resurrection, the place of newness, freedom, and justice.”
In the face of temptation, another good strategy is to stay close with people we love. Lamott writes, “Maybe we don’t find a lot of answers to life’s tougher questions, but if we find a few true friends, that’s even better…Only together do we somehow keep coming through…[immense] loss, the stress of never knowing how things will shake down, to the biggest miracle of all, that against all odds, we come through the end of the world, again and again — changed but intact (more or less).”
We can counter the temptations of despair and disillusionment with the faith that some way somehow, we will come out on the other side of suffering and sadness. According to Anne Lamott, “Our lives and humanity are untidy: disorganized and careworn…Sometimes we feel that we are barely pulling ourselves forward through a tight tunnel on badly scraped-up elbows. But we do come out the other side, exhausted and changed…The bad news is that after the suffering, we wait [like Mary Magdalene] at the empty tomb for a while, the body of our beloved gone, grieving an unsurvivable loss….But the good news is that then there is [resurrection] and new life.”
So here we are on the Second Sunday in Lent. The English word Lent comes from an Old English word meaning spring. Episcopal priest, Barbara Brown Taylor, suggests that the 40 days of Lent can lead to a “springtime of the soul.”
As we wait and work for a springtime of the soul, we acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers for the problems in the world or in our own lives, but here in this sacred space we do have a place to come to find hope and to find community. Here in this quiet sanctuary we can find meaning and the strength to keep putting one foot in front of the other. As we gather week in and week out, we find a reason to believe that even after the darkest of nights the sun still rises, sometimes too slow for our liking, but it comes nonetheless.
It’s sort of like waiting for spring. Yes, Tuesday’s blizzard will bury all the crocus who’ve had the audacity to bloom while it is still winter. Yet, we know for a fact that the snow will melt and water the seeds and bulbs hiding in the ground waiting to burst forth in the glory of spring. May this be true for us as well—that hard cold despair and disillusionment will give way to the warmth and myriad colors of the springtime of the soul. And who knows, maybe even a new system! AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
March 12, 2017
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
God of wilderness and water, your Son was baptized and tempted as we are. Guide us through this Lenten season, that we may not avoid struggle, but open ourselves to blessing, through the cleansing depths of repentance and the heaven-rending words of the Spirit. Fill us with your strength to resist the temptation of our foolish desires, that we may walk in obedience and righteousness, rejoicing in you with an upright heart.
Through Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.
This prayer was adapted from HYPERLINK "http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/ prayers.php?id=24" http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/ prayers.php?id=24.