The Reverend E. F. Michael Morgan, Ph.D.
Third Sunday of Lent
March 24, 2019
Trinity Episcopal Church
Morgantown, West Virginia
As I’ve indicated several times before; the task of the preacher on any occasion is to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ. Good news is dependent upon, and requires good preaching. Yet good preaching in the midst of friends is one thing; good preaching to strangers or unknown individuals is quite another thing that often creates its own set of anxieties. But most worrisome of all is that good, effective preaching to parishioners right here at Trinity Church, many of whom I have come to know, appreciate, and respect over the past few months, is perhaps the toughest priestly duty of all. So despite a keen awareness of my own human fallibility, I need to –“ Get over it!”
Focus instead on … (1) What is the message that needs to be spoken this morning?
(2) How should it be presented? and
(3) How should it be heard?
One cleric said this:
Every Lent we talk about this penitential season as a journey that we take together with God for the 40 days before Easter. The number 40 isn’t arbitrary. It clearly states in the Bible that Jesus goes out into the wilderness for 40 days, where he wrestles with faith and doubt. The Gospels suggest that Jesus is even “tempted by Satan,” and must undergo the rigors of theological testing. In fact, evil is personified in beguiling terms.
That’s the story which haunts us, and will continue to do so as we approach the liturgical days ahead, emphasizing this year the drama of Holy week, beginning auspiciously with Luke’s Gospel narrative on Palm Sunday.
Here’s the point. Lent is forty days of being tested and tempted in the wilderness. At the end of it, Jesus emerges relatively unscathed; but it doesn’t really get any easier for him, or for us. The greatest challenges are still to come. In fact, Lent in some deeply religious ways never ends.
You and I both know how the story goes from here. In fact, we all know what’s happening, and what lies ahead. We are journeying toward Easter. But getting to Easter you first have to go through the cross and the tomb. Theological scholars typically look to the past and debate how much Jesus actually knew regarding his fate at this early point in the story. Still ahead is the entrance to Jerusalem, and a procession marked by hosannas, waving palms, and a hero’s welcome on Palm Sunday. At this point I admit I don’t possess any inside information on what all this means. I don’t know if Jesus understood exactly how it would all-go-down. Nor do I know whether Jesus thought about anything bigger than himself, or for that matter, anything larger than his own ministry. Yet I do know all this begs the question of what scholars like to call the “Messianic Secret” – (a strange co-conspiracy, if you will) comprised of information that only Jesus and God were privy to. Did the two of them know something epic was about to happen? And if so, did it really matter? Would it test Jesus’ will? Would it change God’s resolve; and ultimately would it affect the church’s faithfulness? While there may be a divine or messianic secret at stake, the Biblical saga is very clear on several basic points.
Though it is symbolically portrayed in stark terms and uses coded language, the wilderness Jesus is driven into by the Spirit is in some ways a literal wilderness, a uniquely primal dimension. Jesus actually goes out to a physical place where few people go. But he is out there nonetheless in a spiritual way, and this is peculiar because a “spiritual” wilderness is barren and deadly; it’s a psychological and religious paradox; it’s a place where few people ever dare to go by themselves.
Think about it for a moment. Who joyfully wants to go into the unknown; into a vapid empty space - wilderness? I’m not talking about camping and hiking; I’m talking about real wilderness where we wrestle with ourselves, confront the ambiguities of our spirit, and question at the deepest level our relationship with God. What good is that? Where should we really go for answers? You can’t put ”wilderness experience” on a résumé. It doesn’t earn you any money. It doesn’t really make your life easier; in fact, it may even make it harder and more difficult. So why would you do it?
Well, that’s exactly what Lent asks of us. For 40 days we are asked to go into a wilderness-place in order to prepare ourselves for the journey of discipleship. Lent asks us to wrestle with the hard stuff of religion: to pray, to fast, to do something new. Our faith asks us to face temptation, and to choose to follow the way of Christ no matter what. And that’s not popular.
Sure, crowds will show up at church on Easter, but few will have spent the previous 40 days getting ready. Everyone likes a party; not everyone likes setting-up for it. Yet those of us who choose to take this 40-day wilderness-journey may discover something meaningful along the way: Christ is there too, and we’ve found we’re not alone at all. That’s Good News.
It’s good news because the reality of our lives is that we spend a lot of time, maybe too much time, lost; lost in our studies, lost in academics, lost in business, lost in our professions, and lost in our dysfunctional and broken families. We spend a lot of time mad at God; a lot of time alone with our demons. Jesus knew what that was like. So in Lent we have the opportunity to spend 40 days not alone, but with one who has been there before.
Lent is that period when we acknowledge we’ve had a hard time with our faith, and Jesus knew what that was like. Do you struggle to make hard choices? So did Jesus. Are you grieving? Jesus grieved, too. Are you preparing yourself for something new, something you’re not sure you can endure, or convinced that you’re going to survive? Jesus also knew what that was like,
I’m inclined to believe that when we go through these wilderness times, God looks at us with nothing less than total compassion and love. After all, God watched God’s own son go through such a time. So hold on.
Here’s the unexpected yet ultimately redeeming good news. Sometimes the wilderness places can do more than just challenge us. They can change us. Sometimes we have to get lost before we find the beauty that surrounds us. It can take going to the hard places, the desolate places, the painful places, in order for us to find joy. Sometimes we have to hit rock bottom before we can find the solid ground of our being.
I encourage you therefore to embrace Lent as a season for discoveries like that. I also think church is the place to do it. It may be one of the only places in our culture where we can say to one another; we cherish God’s spirit and God’s presence. We are traveling up a wilderness path right now and we need help, so let’s do it together. And even if it means going further into the wilderness, even if we feel more lost than ever, let’s follow the one who has been here before; the one we ultimately trust: Jesus, the Christ. He might not lead us down easy paths, but he will never lead us astray.
We ask all this in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
CREDITS, NOTES, & REFERENCES: available on request