Gracious God, as we enter into this season of Lenten wilderness wandering, help us trust in your presence and your guidance. May we listen for your Holy Spirit’s leading to us. And may we open our hearts to be cleansed and renewed in your love. Amen.
Welcome to the season of Lent, this season of reflection and preparation as we journey towards Holy Week and Easter. Today, we begin our Lenten sermon series, Walk this Way, in which we’ll be taking a look at some of the ways Jesus walked through his life and consider how we can follow in his footsteps; how we might apply his ways of being and living to our ways of being and living.
Following Jesus – it’s at the heart of our calling to faith. And Lent is a good time to get back to basics.
So today we begin by stepping out into the wilderness with Jesus, that desert beyond the Jordan River where people who wandered found themselves exposed, at the whim of the wild, at the mercy of the elements; that place where Jesus fasted, prayed, faced temptation, and ultimately found trust.
How in that place and time of uncertainty, of raw vulnerability, did Jesus find the ability to trust in God?
For forty days and forty nights Jesus fasted, the gospel writer tells us. And at the end of his fast, he was famished. Of course, he was! And it was at that moment, at the end of his fast, that he became the target of temptation, that moment when he was most weakened by deep hunger. That’s when the tempter enters in and starts asking Jesus to sabotage his own mission, to compromise his faith, and to abandon his trust in God.
The Gospel of Matthew externalizes and dramatizes this exchange of temptation between the devil and Jesus. But we can also just as easily imagine it as an inner dialogue. As hunger and delirium creep in, so does doubt, so does the temptation to put God to the test. Couldn’t you turn these stones to bread? What would happen if you jumped off the top of the temple? Surely, God would send angels to catch you, right? Couldn’t the riches and power of this world be yours? All you have to do is abandon the way of selflessness and servanthood. All you have to do is give up; all you have to do is give in.
He won’t do it, of course. And, at every turn, Jesus rejects the tempter.
Bread alone won’t satiate one’s deepest hunger. There’s more to life. We need spiritual nourishment too.
And no, putting God to the test is not the way of trust. Demanding that God swoop in and save us from ourselves or eliminate life’s challenges in exchange for our loyalty is not the same as faith.
And selling one’s soul to pursue the power and wealth of this world is antithetical to worshiping God and working toward the vision of God’s Kingdom.
So, of course, Jesus won’t do it. He won’t give in. He won’t abandon his path, his values, and his faith.
But the question remains how did Jesus find the strength and ability to trust in God in this time of temptation, in this moment of vulnerability? Surely, he felt weak, tired, and worn out. But somehow his fatigue didn’t get the better of him. He carried on anyway. And he was ultimately able to banish the tempter.
His trust in God was deeper and stronger than his temptation to give up. Perhaps he had to dig deep to find it. Perhaps he chose to trust, even if he wasn’t feeling particularly trustful in the moment. Regardless, his faith carried him through.
Trust is faith, after all. Trust is carrying on even when we don’t know the outcome, even when we don’t know what the future might hold. Trust is taking it one day at a time. Trust is stepping out in a new direction even if we might face failure or have to regroup along the way.
But to have trust we have to have someone who is trustworthy. And, of course, Jesus proclaimed, as did those who came before him, that God is the most trustworthy. And, in his life, Jesus demonstrated God’s trustworthy character; God’s grace, compassion, forgiveness, and love. His life refuted the idea that God is out to get us, to control us, to punish us. God wants to love us. And God wants us to love.
Perhaps faith, at a basic level, is trusting in that love of God in all circumstances. Sometimes that is easy. Sometimes that is more challenging.
There are things that make trust difficult. The rough stuff of life – illness and grief, circumstances we don’t understand, tragedy, violence, damaged relationships, disappointment, dissatisfaction, disillusionment. When we’ve been burned. When things have not turned out the way we’d planned, or hoped, or needed them to turn out. These kinds of things can throw us right out into the wilderness without warning.
And it can be tempting in those wilderness moments to abandon the path of faith. It can be tempting to abandon trust in God or in anyone else. It can be tempting to say, “forget it; I give up. I guess I’ll just numb myself to my own pain and the world’s pain, and stop hoping, and stop trying, and stop thinking there is anything I can do about any of it and stop believing in something bigger and better.”
It can be tempting sometimes to listen to those disparaging voices within that creep up in our tough moments and say: you’re not good enough, or strong enough, or loved enough; you’re all alone.
That’s often what the bad guy wants, isn’t it? Whether it’s the Gospel of Matthew, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or plenty of other epic tales, the villain often wants the hero to be weakened by doubt and isolation because someone who has succumb to doubt and isolation is easier to defeat.
But that’s not what God wants for us.
And perhaps choosing to place our trust in God, even in those tough wilderness moments, might actually give us the boost we need to keep going. Choosing trust might actually help us shift our perspective and turn things around.
It’s telling that in the gospel story the moment Jesus rejects the final temptation and banishes the devil, angels show up and tend to him. To me, that is symbolic of the experience of liberation and the reminder of God’s presence that can show up when we choose to trust, when we choose to carry on. It doesn’t mean all our challenges will magically disappear. But by choosing to trust we may very well have a renewed sense of God’s sustaining love in the middle of it.
But trust in God is only part of the picture. The other piece of this is how we place our trust in others, how we strive to be people in whom others can trust, and how we build trustworthy community together.
After this time of temptation and fasting, Jesus didn’t stay in the wilderness all alone. He went back into society. He went back home to Galilee. And the first thing he did was gather some disciples to join him in his ministry. He didn’t go it alone. He started a movement.
Sometimes thinking that we have to go it alone might be the biggest temptation we face. But we don’t.
And so maybe part of trusting God is trusting that God has surrounded us with trustworthy people who are here to support us and help us.
But trust can be a little scary sometimes because it means being vulnerable and letting go of some control.
How many of you out there have done a trust fall before? At the summer camp I went to as a kid, they had a platform that was secured to a tree that was about 5 feet off of the ground. As part of our team building time, we would do trust falls from that platform where a group of about 10 or 12 people would form two rows and zipper up their arms below to catch the person who was falling.
The first time I did this as a camper (probably in middle school) I was bit nervous. I don’t particularly like heights. And five feet doesn’t sound very high, but it feels a lot higher when you’re falling backwards, not able to see where you are going, and hoping that you’ll be caught.
But several people in my group had already gone. And I had no reason to think anything would go wrong. And so, I took my turn. And yes, it was a bit scary. But it was also exhilarating. And it was actually a really cool feeling to be caught and held up by a group of people. It was like crowd surfing at a concert (which I’ve never actually done), but in a safer and more controlled environment.
And so, when I went back to that same camp to be a counselor in college, I knew that I would be able to encourage and support any camper who was a little nervous to try a trust fall for the first time. And I knew, of course, we wouldn’t force anyone to do anything they didn’t want to do. Everyone gets to choose.
But what I hadn’t really thought about ahead of time was that I might get more than a little nervous when it came time for college size me to trust that a group of fifth and sixth graders (who seemed tiny and shrinking before my very eyes) would be able to catch me. And so, I’m standing there, up on that platform praying, “please let these kids not drop me.” As I reflect back on it, I hope I wasn’t putting God to an unreasonable test (not quite like pitching myself of the pinnacle of the temple, but still…)
But the kids caught me (with a little more effort than it took for some of their friends, but they solidly caught me).
And I actually learned some valuable things about trust that day:
One, sometimes we have to give people the benefit of the doubt. We have to give them the chance to follow through, to show what they can do. We have to trust that they can get the job done. And don’t doubt those who are younger or smaller; they’re stronger than you might realize.
Two, trust also does need to be earned and built over time. You don’t start with trust falls when you do a team-building course. You start with less risky activities to build communication skills and learn to listen and rely on each other. It takes some time, investment in relationship, and give and take to build trust.
Three, we have to be gentle with ourselves and others. Trust doesn’t always come easy for everyone, especially if we’ve been let down or burned before. And perhaps the best response to another’s wariness and hesitancy to trust is compassion rather than judgment or defensiveness.
When it comes to building trusting community, I think it gets built over time, little by little, step by step. It takes encouragement and support. It takes a willingness to give others the benefit of the doubt. It takes following through on our commitments. It takes checking in and showing up, especially in critical moments. It takes nurturing our relationships in the good times, so we know we have each other’s backs in the tough times.
And hopefully, in doing so, we’ll learn to trust. We’ll learn to trust both our loving God and the people with whom God has surrounded us (because they too bear God’s light and love into our lives and into the world). And we won’t need to be tempted to put God to the test because we’ll trust that even if we fall, someone will be there to catch us and to help us get back on our feet again.