Sojourning Toward God
The Rev. Dr. Andrew R. Guffey
March 10, 2019 (The First Sunday in Lent)
Deuteronomy 26:1-11 Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 Romans 10:8b-13 Luke 4 :1-13
In the Name of the One, Holy, and Everliving God. + AMEN.
One of my favorite tales of an epic journey is The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien. I recommend it to you, in part because throughout the story Sam and Frodo especially embark on their own Lenten sort of journey. They endure trials, temptations, and hardship, betrayal and failure. And, I won’t spoil the ending, but let’s say there is a similar anti-climactic moment as in the story of Jesus—several actually—in which all hope seems lost, and when all that is good has gone from the world. But that’s later.
Early in the story, Frodo and his companions have just left the Shire, which is as quaint and comfortable a place as one could ever wish for, not so different, perhaps, from the sleepy and hardy communities around Lake Orion. They embark on a journey that will take them far beyond what even they can conceive as the most perilous of places, and they will encounter others who are very unlike them. In their conversation early on in what they think will really be a sort of jaunt, but ends up taking them to the ends of the world, Frodo recalls something that his uncle Bilbo once said: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step onto the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no telling where you might be swept off to.”
It’s a dangerous business, Beloved, embarking on our Lenten journey. You step onto the Way of Jesus, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no telling where you might be swept off to.
Our Lenten journey has begun in earnest. It is a journey, not a fixed time. This season, the Forty Days of Lent, are not standing still. They lead us somewhere. Lent is not a place; it is a path. It is a journey we enter into, and it’s not even ours. It’s Jesus’s journey. We are on pilgrimage with Jesus to the Cross, and beyond that, well, who knows? But we are only just at the beginning, and in some ways that is when we need to take the most care.
Where is Jesus taking us today? The desert of all places! What is he doing in the desert! And why do we have to go, too? The desert is dangerous, Jesus! The desert has all kinds of things I don’t know much about, and can’t get my Starbucks there, and how am I going to watch Golden Girls every Sunday night? And, besides, there might be people there that aren’t like me. Am I going to have to, you know, love them?
But the desert is where we must start. Jesus dares us to go into the desert with him, to leave behind what we thought we know about ourselves and God and society, and follow him. Just as the story of God’s people, the Israelites, began in the desert, so does our turning to God. The Israelites were tested in the wilderness for forty years, unable to enter the promised Land of Rest. The lesson from Deuteronomy reminds us, “A wandering Aramean was our ancestor.” Jesus going off into the desert is no accident. It is where God’s people have always found God, in surprising ways. In the wildness of the wilderness, where everything is bare and strange, where there are less distractions and we have no choice but to come to know ourselves. God is not tame, and so Jesus leads us beyond the threshold of our own sense of security and well-being.
And that is when we are most likely to be tempted. Did you notice that line from Gospel lesson: the devil went away from him “until an opportune time”? And so we must keep focused on where Jesus is leading us. In the wilderness, Jesus is led by the Spirit, as the text tells us, not by his own resources, a point emphasized by the first exchange between Jesus and the devil. And this is the first preparation for our Lenten way: rely on God, not on ourselves. Do we think we cannot possibly find more time for prayer, or take up a new spiritual practice, or, for God’s sake, slow down? Do we think we cannot possibly honor and care for the neighbor who voted differently in the last election, and be reconciled? Do we think we cannot possibly forgive that person who betrayed us, or that loved one who broke our heart, or those actions which have lodged bitterness behind our ribs? If think all these things and we are unwilling to be led by God, then we are right. What might it take for us to trust where God is leading us, rather than where we think we would rather be?
But that is, again, only the beginning, because once we learn to trust God we might be tempted to think we have the BEST way of loving God, the BEST way of being Christian (and since we’re Anglicans, we do!), the BEST way of thinking about our community and our country, and what they, or we, need. And we may be tempted to exert that power unfairly, and unilaterally, to MAKE people understand that we are right and they are wrong, to produce ultimatums or exclude. But that was Jesus’s second temptation. And we must avoid it, and carry ourselves rather with the humility of Jesus. When we find ourselves in a position to lead, how can we do so in a way that shows care even for those we consider enemies?
Finally, as Jesus draws us out into the desert to be guided by the Spirit, and as we encounter strange sights and even stranger neighbors, our love for them—for the stranger and alien among us, as the Bible consistently says, for we were once strangers in a strange land—our love for those to whom Jesus has called us must be sustained by our own knowledge of who and how God has created us to be. If the first temptation is to leave God out of our lives, or to relegate God to Sundays or churchy things, and if the second is to wield power without humility and imagine ourselves rulers, the third temptation is to think we are worthless or disposable, to cast ourselves down too far until the life inside us is barely even an ember. We might well wonder whether the devil was hoping, since he couldn’t get Jesus’s allegiance, that he might just convince Jesus to take himself out of the picture by doing something so foolish as self-destruction. But God does not want that from you. God does not want you to run away from your own heart, only to examine it, and improve upon it. God wants you to be you. We can all be a better version of ourselves, more in tune with how God has created us, what affection we need, and what each of us has to offer to each other, this wayfaring people sent into the world to spread the Good News of God’s Love in Christ.
We are a people on the Way. Lent prompts us to strap on our packs and our boots, and keep an eye on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, and steady on! We must keep our eyes fixed on where Jesus wants to lead us, what new thing Jesus wants to show us. And we need to be willing to be surprised by what that might be. As Auden put it at the close of his Christmas Oratorio:
He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikenss;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.
And remember, this is only the beginning. And our travels with Jesus may be risky. It’s a dangerous business. But it is a right, and a good, and a joyful road that we dare to walk together. Before recalling his uncle Bilbo’s words, Frodo found himself improvising a rhyme, one that I think tells us something about being on this Lenten road with Jesus:
The Road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began. Now far ahead the Road has gone, And I must follow, if I can, Pursuing it with weary feet, Until it joins some larger way, Where many paths and errands meet. And whither then? I cannot say.
How are the many paths and errands of your life leading you back to the Way of Jesus? Who might Jesus be calling you to? How might Jesus be calling us to become better than we are? What are we willing to dare?