Sermon 2.26.23

2601 54th Avenue South  St. Petersburg, FL  33712
On land originally inhabited by the Tocabaga

Date:  Feb. 26, 2023
Scripture Lesson: Matthew 4:1-11
Sermon: The Desert
Pastor:  Rev. Kim P. Wells

Many of us are here, as in here in Florida, because we love the lush, tropical environment.  We are captivated by the greenery – the trees, shrubs, vines, flowers, and other plants of so many different kinds!  I came to Florida for the first time when I was twenty and I was so taken with the vegetation that I was determined not to wait until I retired to move here.  The warm and wet surroundings along with the humidity, mold, mildew, and all the rest, produce tropical foliage that is enchanting.  

But this morning we heard about a much different natural environment.  So what is this about the desert?  About going out into the desert?  For centuries people of many different cultural traditions have headed to the desert for spiritual growth and enlightenment.   

The deserted, dry, apparently barren, landscape is free of human constructs, customs, and culture that can shape and mold us (the other kind of mold) in ways that are not consistent with the purposes of Divine Love.  

In the desert, there can be the opportunity to leave much behind. To get away from the constraints of power systems and expectations that limit us.  It is an opportunity, apart, alone, to explore the geography of the soul.  

In the book, The Forgotten Desert Mothers:  Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women, Laura Swan describes how the process of spiritual transformation unfolded for early Christians who sought out the desert experience.  Swan tells us:

“The desert ascetics began by fasting from food, possessions, and social relationships.  They then progressed to fasting from interior attachments, such as anger, jealousy, envy, or possessiveness.  The desert ascetics understood that fasting creates the space in our bodies, minds, and spirits for God to be within us, for new things to grow.”  [p.45]   Sounds pretty lush.  The desert clearly has its own fecundity when it comes to matters of the spirit.  

Without the distractions of culture, society, customs, pressures, and power arrangements, the desert provided a setting for a  transformational experience with the God/Love at the core of your being.  Jesus stands in a long tradition of people who went to the desert to remove themselves from the social order in order to become more pure in heart; more completely focussed on God, Love.

So Jesus goes to the desert, not just to get away from things but to see more clearly and confront whatever it is that may be pulling him away from being completely and wholeheartedly devoted to the purposes of Love.  

And we notice that Jesus was sent to the desert.  He was directed to go to the desert so that he could have this experience of growing his spirit and rooting himself completely in Divine Love.  He needs this experience, this challenge to prepare him for his ministry in which he will be continually confronting the power of evil with the power of love.  

Let’s take a moment to reflect on the three temptations that are mentioned in the gospel:  Food.  Trusting God to help you.  And doing the most good you can.  These things don’t seem ‘bad’ in and of themselves like  –  kill this person who doesn’t agree with you to get them to stop thwarting the gospel.  Or steal from this person and you’ll be rich, rich, rich.  Or have sex with this person’s wife.  There is nothing clearly morally, ethically wrong in this story.  Nothing like that. 

These temptations all have the potential of doing good.  Food.  Taking care of the body.  Drawing attention to Jesus and the gospel so that more people learn of God’s love.  Amassing power to be used for justice.  These are not bad things.  Yet because they are not of God, not done out of love, Jesus must resist them and learn to depend on God, on love, and love alone.  Often things that distract us from growing in our spiritual life are not bad in and of themselves, but they are not the things that we need to grow stronger in our devotion to Love.

It is also interesting to note that the way Jesus resists these three temptations puts Jesus in solidarity with those made poor, with those who are being taken advantage of, and with those who are being manipulated.  Jesus is told to make stones into bread.  Food.  Yet he chooses to stay hungry, remaining in solidarity with those who have no food, or not enough food, and there were many in his day.

Jesus is offered the chance to be part of a spectacle that could call attention to the saving power of God.  But then where is the spectacle to save others who are perishing?  Jesus stays in solidarity with those who do not get magically plucked out of harm’s way.

And then there is the offer of political power.  Power and wealth that could be used to do much good.  But Jesus remains in solidarity with those who do not have access to worldly power.  

Jesus stays in solidarity with those who are without food, without power, and who are not getting rescued. He does not cave in to the devil’s offerings.  

And interestingly, later in his ministry, God gives Jesus the power to feed the hungry, to empower those who are oppressed and abused, and through his death and resurrection, he is able to draw attention to the power of the saving love of God.  So Jesus ends up doing all the things that the devil suggests but he does them when they are ordered by God not the devil.  He does them to help others not to help himself.  It is not about his acquiring power and glory and comfort, but about offering the saving power of Love to others, especially those who are made poor, those who are in the underclass, those who are marginalized, sidelined, and forgotten.  

Jesus does feed the poor, save and rescue people, and does use his power for the good of others trying to develop new social systems, relationships, and systems of power that provide for everyone.  He does those things out of his grounding in the heart of God not because he is tempted to do them for personal acclaim.  He does them in a way that does not enmesh and entangle him with motives other than love.  He does not do them out of a desire for self preservation or self promotion.

In the desert, Jesus engages challenges that prepare him, make him stronger, help him stay focussed, so that he can live his life of meaning and purpose and service driven by Divine Love and that Love alone. 

So the intent of the time in the desert is not necessarily to make Jesus suffer but the intent is for him to become more grounded and focussed in the abundance of Love. 

For many of us we look at the desert and it looks dry and barren.  But there is more to the desert as we see in this story.

Kay Rencken from our congregation has lived in the desert in Tucson, Arizona for many, many years. And while the desert may look bleak to an outsider, or a Floridian, there is much going on in the desert.  So I have asked Kay to say something to us this morning about the desert and how she finds beauty in the desert.

Comments from Kay.

So we often look at the season of Lent as a bleak time.  Maybe a time of suffering.  We may be giving something up — like single use plastics, or maybe we are living more simply in some way, maybe it is no meat on Friday, the origination of the Friday fish fry, maybe we’re fasting from social media, or patterns of behavior that distract us from being our full loving selves.  In Lent the sanctuary may seem bare.  We use the penitential color purple.  Things are more subdued.  We don’t use the word ‘alleluia.’  This season may seem a bit stark and bare.  

But let’s remember that the point of the Lenten season is not to endure suffering.  It is to grow in Love, to deepen our spiritual journey into our heart of Love.  We enter the lenten journey to find the beauty of life in God, in the reality of God, that can be found no where else.  And what we find is all that we need for the living of our days.  

Desert Mother Anna Syncletica from Egypt puts it this way:  

“In the beginning there are a great many battles and a good deal of suffering for those who are advancing towards God and afterwards, ineffable joy.  It is like those who wish to light a fire; at first they are choked by the smoke and cry, and by this means they obtain what they seek: so we also must kindle the divine fire in ourselves through tears and hard work.” [p.43] May this Lenten season bring us to the ineffable joy of life lived more fully in the reality of God.  Amen.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

Author: Rev. Wells

Pastor of Lakewood United Church of Christ since 1991. Graduate of Wellesley College and Union Theological Seminary of New York.

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