Wilderness Days

We come together this morning on the precipice of yet another Lent. Lent is a forty-day season of preparation for the celebration of Easter. During this time, we are called to reflect, repent, examine our souls, and take God’s call to discipleship very, very seriously.

If I’m honest, there have been seasons in my life where I have been wearied by Lent. The call to fast from things that distract me from God has sometimes felt like a call to abstain from joy. Even the music for Lent is written in a minor key! Of course Lent isn’t a call to abstain from joy, as we all know, but it still has a spirit of solemness and silence which needs to be respected. Lent appeals to the Eeyores among us. I, unfortunately, am a Tigger.

Lent is an invitation to return to the practices of worship, prayer, self-examination, repentance, fasting, Scripture study, and service. Each of these things are designed to draw us closer to Jesus’ heart, where our joy is made complete.

We start this journey on Ash Wednesday, and so today we get ready by remembering a forty-day period where Jesus experienced a wilderness of temptation as he was challenged by Satan:

Luke 4 (The Message)

1-2 Now Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wild. For forty wilderness days and nights he was tested by the Devil. He ate nothing during those days, and when the time was up he was hungry.

This is the difference between me and Jesus. I can guarantee that after forty days of not eating, I wouldn’t just be hungry … I would be hangry. I love how Peterson calls this time ”forty wilderness days and nights.” Just as Jesus was in a physical wilderness, he was in an emotional-support wilderness as well. There were no friends to listen to him, no disciples to offer comfort, no followers who would come along to mop his brow, and no one to bring him food. Have you ever been there? With no one nearby to console you, talk you through a rough time, hold your hand, or offer a tissue until you felt better? If you have experienced that, you know how Jesus felt. Just think of it: Jesus chose these wilderness days for our sake.

The Devil, playing on his hunger, gave the first test: “Since you’re God’s Son, command this stone to turn into a loaf of bread.”

Jesus answered by quoting Deuteronomy: “It takes more than bread to really live.”

This is a striking reminder of why we need to be in God’s word every day. Jesus rebuked the Devil with Scripture. You can, too … if you know it.

5-7 For the second test he led him up and spread out all the kingdoms of the earth on display at once. Then the Devil said, “They’re yours in all their splendor to serve your pleasure. I’m in charge of them all and can turn them over to whomever I wish. Worship me and they’re yours, the whole works.”

Jesus refused, again backing his refusal with Deuteronomy: “Worship the Lord your God and only the Lord your God. Serve him with absolute single-heartedness.”

If you could distill the purpose of Lent into one sentence, it might just be verse 8. Lent is a time to return to serving God with “absolute single-heartedness.”

9-11 For the third test the Devil took him to Jerusalem and put him on top of the Temple. He said, “If you are God’s Son, jump. It’s written, isn’t it, that ‘he has placed you in the care of angels to protect you; they will catch you; you won’t so much as stub your toe on a stone’?”

12 “Yes,” said Jesus, “and it’s also written, ‘Don’t you dare tempt the Lord your God.’”

13 That completed the testing. The Devil retreated temporarily, lying in wait for another opportunity.

And of course that opportunity came on the night that Jesus gathered his friends in the Upper Room and one of them betrayed him. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet. For now, may we commit to making this a holy, transformative, and significant Lent season by giving God our single-hearted attention, obedience, and love.

All Their Splendor by David Jones

Joseph’s Son

I am the daughter of Fred. Fred was a hard working cost-control accountant for Owens Corning Fiberglass. He was an excellent bean-counting number-cruncher. I am also the daughter of Nancy. Nancy began a career as a front office clerk in a high school and eventually became the school’s chief financial officer, managing a multi-million dollar budget and overseeing contracts, building projects, and the like. The daughter of Fred and Nancy should have an affinity for math, yes? No. I recently saw a meme that explains exactly who I am. It was two monkeys having a thoughtful conversation. The first one said, ”Name a book that made you cry.” The second one responded, ”Algebra.” Yep. The daughter of Fred and Nancy is the second monkey.

Jesus had the same problem. People tried to judge him as the son of Joseph and Mary. Unfortunately, their preconceived notions of who he should be did not match up to the reality of being the Son of God, and their disappointment was tangible … and violent.

Luke 4 (Common English Bible)

21 He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”

22 Everyone was raving about Jesus, so impressed were they by the gracious words flowing from his lips. They said, “This is Joseph’s son, isn’t it?”

How often do we put each other in a box? How often do we think we know someone by simply observing very tangential bits of information? Do we continue to make assessments based on gender, color, age, appearance, and socio-economic circumstances? You betcha.

Jesus went on to do exactly what Jesus was meant to do. He schooled them.

23 Then Jesus said to them, “Undoubtedly, you will quote this saying to me: ‘Doctor, heal yourself. Do here in your hometown what we’ve heard you did in Capernaum.’” 24 He said, “I assure you that no prophet is welcome in the prophet’s hometown. 25 And I can assure you that there were many widows in Israel during Elijah’s time, when it didn’t rain for three and a half years and there was a great food shortage in the land. 26 Yet Elijah was sent to none of them but only to a widow in the city of Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 There were also many persons with skin diseases in Israel during the time of the prophet Elisha, but none of them were cleansed. Instead, Naaman the Syrian was cleansed.”

Jesus points out that their rejection of him was more about them than it was about him. Their unspoken ”demand for a sign” was met with his reminder that prophets, healers, and even the Son of God don’t respond to that. In referencing Naaman, Jesus reminds them of the humility of the gentile Naaman, who approached Elisha in faith and did exactly as Elisha instructed, setting aside pride and cultural divisions as he put himself completely under the prophet’s authority. Obviously there was none of that in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth, where Jesus’ ability of speak with grace was immediately suspect.

28 When they heard this, everyone in the synagogue was filled with anger. 29 They rose up and ran him out of town. They led him to the crest of the hill on which their town had been built so that they could throw him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the crowd and went on his way.

This is a great reminder to us today to look beyond labels. The challenge is to reconsider someone whom you dislike. Are your feelings based on true experience, or prejudice? Have you made assumptions? Have you given them a fair chance? Do your preconceived notions of their heritage prevent you from seeing them as they truly are?

Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamt of time when people would assess each other by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. We still have a long way to go.

God calls us to accept our brothers and sisters without judgement or bias. I bet you know someone who deserves a second look. Go, and make amends.

Recycled Trees by Michelle Robertson

Restoring the Desert Places

Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming
From tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming,
As men of old have sung.
It came, a flow’ret bright,
Amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.

Isaiah ’twas foretold it,
The Rose I have in mind;

These beautiful words from the traditional German carol “Lo, How a Rose ‘Ere Blooming” set the stage for the Old Testament prophecies that take us straight to the manger. Jesse’s lineage was indeed sung of men of old, recounting the family line from Ruth and Boaz to Jesse, then to King David, and finally to Jesus. And so this “rose” is firmly established as Israelite royalty….of a kind.

It was Isaiah who foretold it. We pause the beautiful hymn at just this spot to consider this: what exactly did Isaiah foretell about the Messiah? Would he be a conquering hero who would deliver his nation from the grip of Roman tyranny? Would he establish his rightful throne and rule with power and might? What did God anoint the Messiah to do when he came to reign?

Isaiah 61 (Common English Bible)

The Lord God’s spirit is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me
    to bring good news to the poor,
    to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim release for captives,
        and liberation for prisoners,

It must have been startling to the original hearers of this passage to see their anticipated anointed-one described in such a way. He will come to speak to the poor? Tend to the broken-hearted? Liberate the captives?

Where are the royal power and might here?

    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
        and a day of vindication for our God,
    to comfort all who mourn,
    to provide for Zion’s mourners,
    to give them a crown in place of ashes,
    oil of joy in place of mourning,
    a mantle of praise in place of discouragement.

Isaiah continues to paint a very different picture of what the Savior will be like. This description was not in keeping with Israel’s expectations. And yet, Jesus looked just like this. Jesus came to comfort those who mourn. He came to uplift the discouraged and vindicate God. Those who wore the sackcloth and ashes would be rebuilt…from the inside out.

They will be called Oaks of Righteousness,
    planted by the Lord to glorify himself.
They will rebuild the ancient ruins;
    they will restore formerly deserted places;
    they will renew ruined cities,
    places deserted in generations past.

The promise that the formerly deserted places would be restored really alludes to spiritual landscapes rather than physical ones, wouldn’t you agree? Jesus came to renew people with justice, peace, unity, and goodwill. The deserts he came to fill were the empty hearts, the cold attitudes, the lack of humanity, and the absence of compassion that were prevalent in his time…and in ours.

Oh, how we need him now!

In Luke 4, we see that this passage from Isaiah is the very one that Jesus quoted in his first sermon. That day, he stood up in the temple and read it aloud. He closed the scroll and said, “Today, these words are fulfilled in your hearing.“

May these words be fulfilled in our hearing as well.

This Flow’r, whose fragrance tender
With sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor
The darkness everywhere.
True man, yet very God,
From sin and death He saves us,
And lightens every load.

Lo, How a Rose by Jan Wilson