A Thriving Spiritual Community

Annisquam Village Church Logo

Annisquam
Village Church

820 Washington St.
Gloucester, MA

Annisquam Village Church Logo

Annisquam
Village Church

820 Washington St.
Gloucester, MA

A Thriving Spiritual Community

photo of AVC sanctuary
Sermon: “Even in the Wilderness” – A Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent

“Even in the Wilderness” – A Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent

February 18, 2024

come-share-in-god's-joy

Imagine that you are living in the time of Jesus.  To take a break from the stress and strain of everyday life, for a time of spiritual renewal, you have traveled out into the countryside to the beautiful river Jordan.  There you are surrounded by a community where you feel perfectly at home, as your spiritual leader, John, performs the most meaningful ritual: baptism.  You watch in awe as people make a commitment to leave behind ways that no longer serve them, to lead lives of spiritual freedom. 

If that wasn’t enough, on this particular day, something truly amazing occurs.  You watch as Jesus – Jesus! – the person everyone keeps telling you might be even greater than John – joins with the crowd in such humility to be baptized.  Astonishing!

Then something happens you could never have expected – something you will never forget.  As Jesus comes out of the water, it’s as if the heavens themselves open – and what was that? A spirit – like a dove – descends on Jesus.  And that voice.  That VOICE! 

“You are my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.” 

You could have stayed there forever. For a moment in time, it was as if heaven and earth were one. If only life could always be like that. 

But, before you knew it, Jesus was gone. 

In the days that follow, the memory of that moment becomes distant and faded.  

In our lives we sometimes experience similar fleeting moments, when it feels like everything has fallen into place. We may be gazing out at the ocean from a favorite beach or sailing with loved ones.  We may be in this sanctuary, perhaps on a Sunday morning or at a wedding or baptism, or one of Scott’s concerts. Any time we feel caught up in wonder and awe, it can be easy to believe that God’s presence is with us. 

But, let’s face it, that’s not where we spend all of our time or most of our time. Our days are more likely to unfold among the ordinary than the extraordinary;   in the valley rather than on the mountain top;  more often in the world rather than away on vacation or retreat. And there are times when our struggles feel more persistent than our joys. 

We are given the season of Lent to help us recognize that God is present not only in the peak moments of our lives, but in the wilderness, too.

If we think that God is only with us when everything is going the way we want it to go, we have seriously misunderstood the witness of Jesus; we have seriously misunderstood who God is, who we are, and what our relationship with God can be.

The story of Jesus’ temptation in the Gospel of Mark calls our attention to this spiritual truth: our greatest temptation is to think that God is not present in the wilderness of our lives.  (Karoline Lewis)

The good news that Jesus proclaims  might only be called “so-so” news if the story of God’s presence in his life culminated in his baptism or in the Transfiguration. 

But, what Jesus offers is something more profound – the witness of God’s presence in the wilderness,  even as he came face to face with Satan, the Father of Lies, even as he was surrounded by wild beasts.    

Before Jesus launches his public ministry,  he learns that God can not only be found in peak moments, but that God never leaves us to face our trials alone.  Jesus shows us that even when we have been driven out  into the wilderness, when we have been cast out  from all that we know and appreciate, angels show up. 

And he not only survives the wilderness,  but is made stronger and wiser through experiencing it, giving him rock-solid confidence and trust in the One who calls him to Jerusalem, to his death. 

When Jesus returns to the world, he is again confronted by evil, by worldly evil. His beloved cousin, John, has been arrested, likely facing death at the hands of a corrupt leader, Herod. (I can’t help but think of what happened to Alexei Navalny. May his spirit rise up in the Russian people.)

In spite of John’s arrest, Jesus is able to proclaim “good news.” Having come face to face with Satan and wild beasts, with the threat of death, Jesus knows in the depth of his being that God’s grace is never absent. 

Our wilderness experiences – divorce, job loss, addiction, mental health challenges, homelessness, terminal diagnoses, a pandemic and more – experiences that leave us feeling alone, isolated, vulnerable, perhaps without meaning or purpose – test us to the very core. 

When we find ourselves driven into the wilderness, we can be tempted to think that God has abandoned us; that through our own fault or the fault of someone else, we are no longer in God’s good graces. 

That, my friends, is the greatest temptation.

I think of my friend, Stan, who lost his job when the tech company he was working for, like many others at the time,  was cutting thousands of positions. As weeks of unemployment turned into months, Stan could only see himself as a failure.  Though there were angels around him – people trying to give him help, he refused to take their suggestions, thinking that he and only he – could get himself out of the mess of his life that was beginning to snowball. 

Trust in God? Turn to God for help? From his point of view, if there was a God, he wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place. Stan ended up believing a lie about himself – that his situation was hopeless. 

Then, I think of my friend, Sherry, who through no fault of her own, lost a job in the midst of a company scandal.  She was devastated when she was fired; brokenhearted to be leaving the work and colleagues that meant the world to her, that gave her life meaning, purpose, and joy.

But, Sherry’s response was totally different than Stan’s. She examined her role in what happened, insignificant as it was.  She took responsibility for what she could have done differently. She did not blame those whose actions triggered the scandal.  She did not allow herself to be cut off from the colleagues who had become her friends.

And she prayed.  Sherry prayed that she would learn from what happened. She prayed that she could find another way to use her skills.   She trusted that somehow God would use the painful experience she was having to help someone else. 

And God did. Sherry ended up helping me. 

Not long after Sherry left the organization we had both been working for in New York, Hospice, the C-Suite, the “higher ups”  decided to bring in new supervisors known for towing the line and  “doing more, with less.”  No longer would Hospice teams begin our days together, with a spiritual centering and face to face consultation. Instead, we were given computers and told to begin our work days from home. A collaborative, compassionate, high touch culture was driven out for a hierarchical, “bottom line,”  tech driven culture. As you might imagine, I wasn’t happy with the changes. 

I will never forget when one of the newer supervisors said to me, “Sue, watch out.  The boss has a list of targets and you’re next.” Gulp.  Sure enough, I was.

I had never imagined that I would be driven out of a job I not only loved, but was known to have mastered. I was doing God’s work. I was making a difference. 

When I was driven out, something inside me sensed that there were larger forces at work. I had long thought I would be a Hospice chaplain till the end of my career.  I had found my niche; I wouldn’t have left voluntarily. 

As David often reminds me, the boss who seemed out to get me – and did – gave me a great gift.  Cast into the wilderness, I trusted that the Spirit was at work.  I grieved and cried and stomped my feet some, but I also opened myself  to the possibility that God was going to do something new in my life… and that something new eventually led me here. Rather than curse the boss who sent me on my way, I thank her.. 

As much of a blessing as my work with Hospice was, all that has come since has been even more meaningful and joyful than I could have ever imagined. 

Sherry was someone who made a difference in my wilderness days.  She understood better than anyone else what it meant to be driven out of a community and vocation you loved. She called and visited – helping me know that I wasn’t alone. She reminded me of all the good we did together. She showed me that there could be new life.  Most importantly, she shared the faith in God that got her through her darkest hours and enabled her to begin a new adventure. She was one of my most important angels in the wilderness.

All of us – at one time or another – will find ourselves driven into the wilderness of life. This is one reason Jesus had to experience it before he took on his ministry.  Only in knowing God in the darkness can you proclaim “good news” in the world as it is – with all of the injustice, unfairness, violence, and tragedy that happen every single day. 

How we understand and approach our wilderness experiences matter. We can be tempted to believe that God has abandoned us and that we must figure out everything on our own.  Or we can trust the God who sends angels, like Sherry, on our paths. 

If you are in the wilderness of life right now, take heart. This is the good news: You need not face your challenges alone. You need not be afraid.  There is nowhere you can go, there is nothing you can do, that is outside of God’s presence. Our God is worthy of trust. Our God will see you through. 

And if you are not in the wilderness right now?  This Lent, you can be an angel for someone else. Amen. 

***

Source consulted: Karoline Lewis, “The Greatest Temptation