Sermon: “The Journey Begins: Wilderness” (February 17, 2013)

Do you know who you are?  Do you know who you are to your family?  To yourself?   To your church community?  Do you know who you are to God?  Would you like to?

It’s Lent.  Lent sends some people to the hills or to the beach or to Starbucks…to any place but church.  The purple paraments are pretty, I guess.  But the songs seem sad and there are no Alleluias and, well, even if you don’t know much about Lent—or even that it’s called Lent—you do at least know that Jesus’ crucifixion is coming…and let’s be honest.  That’s a real downer of a story.

So, lots of people take a break from church during Lent and don’t return until the story turns happy again on Easter. Then we’ll sing happy songs (with Alleluias!), and hear the trumpets, and wear pretty clothes, and break out the lilies and azaleas.  Easter is the biggest party day of the church year! 

I’m not knocking Easter.  (You’re glad to hear that, I’m sure.)  Easter is great…but Easter can mean so much more if we commit ourselves to the work of Lent beforehand.  What meaning can resurrection possibly have if we don’t have anything to resurrect from, right?

So, the fact that you’re here and aren’t in the hills or at the beach or at Starbucks suggests that you might be up for the work of Lent.  Before you commit yourself, though, perhaps we should talk about what the work of Lent entails. 

In a nutshell, the work of Lent is self-reflection.  We spend so much of our lives trying to be what other people need us to be—spouse, parent, co-worker, boss, happy person, smart person, holy person…We spend so much time trying to be who other people need us to be that we sometimes lose track of who we are for ourselves, who we are for and to God.

Lent gives us the chance to get back to ourselves, to slowly peel away the layers of who we are to everyone else and remember who we are at our most authentic.  Lent gives us the chance to locate our true selves—wherever and however we are on our life’s journey—and, as our true selves, to experience God’s unconditional love and acceptance. 

The sermons and services during Lent are designed to help us do just that.  Each week we’ll look at another aspect of the reflection process that can help us get more honest with ourselves about who we are and help us connect more deeply with God.  If we do this hard work of Lent, if we take the time to figure out what parts of us are feeling flat or weak or even dead, then just imagine how joyful we’ll feel when we experience resurrection in those parts!  We might even feel like throwing a party come Easter!

Nobody’s left the building yet.  That’s a good sign…a sign that you really might be up for the self-reflective work of Lent.  If we are up for this work, where might we begin?  A good place to start is where Jesus did—in the wilderness.

He’s just been baptized and has committed himself to doing God’s work when the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness.  Strange.  You’d expect here at the beginning of his ministry for God to send Jesus out on the road, evangelizing, sharing the good news, healing people, all that Messiah stuff.  After all, at his baptism just a few verses before, God had told Jesus, “You are my child, the beloved.  With you I am well-pleased.”  I mean, if that wouldn’t fill you up with passion for doing God’s work, I don’t know what would.

So, why doesn’t God immediately send Jesus out on the road?  Why does God send Jesus, instead into the wilderness?  Maybe we should look at what happens to him there. 

Luke tells us that in the wilderness Jesus was tempted for 40 days, this, while he fasted.  (Kind of puts giving up chocolate or ice cream in perspective, doesn’t it?)   Then after the 40 days, when Jesus is his weakest, the temptations become even more intense—the temptation to turn a stone into bread (which must have been truly tempting after 40 days with no food)….the temptation to worship something other than God (which also might have been tempting, considering God was the one who’d driven him into the wilderness)….the temptation to test God, to dare God to perform supernatural miracles (who wouldn’t want to do that?). 

Why this testing?  And why does it come before Jesus has even gotten started with his ministry?  Perhaps the story of a woman who called herself Peace Pilgrim will shed some light.

At the 1953 Rose Bowl Parade, Peace Pilgrim began walking for peace.  She said she would keep walking until world peace had been achieved.  Peace walked until–ironically–she was killed in a car wreck in 1981.   She was on her 7th trip across the US.

I find Peace Pilgrim’s story fascinating.  When I read her writings, she sounds like a very wise person, another Gandhi, even.  When I think about what she did, though—walking for nearly 30 years with nothing but the clothes her back, taking no food until it was offered, using no lodging until it was offered… sometimes I find myself wondering if she was, well, crazy.

Whether crazy or enlightened, this much is clear:  Peace Pilgrim was very certain about her calling…and she lived that calling until her death.

But the idea to spend the rest of her life walking the US didn’t come to Peace all at once. In fact, it took her 15 years–15 years!–to figure it out.  She knew it involved simplifying her life; she knew it involved being of service to others.  But beyond that, she didn’t have a clue.  So, for 15 years, she prayed, she slowly got rid of her possessions, she engaged in service to others, she worked for peace politically.

It wasn’t until a trip to the wilderness at the end of her 15 years of reflection that Peace’s calling solidified.  In 1952, Peace hiked the entire length of the Appalachian Trail in one season.   (She was the first woman to do so.)  Peace’s time on the Trail was difficult; wilderness treks usually are.  But the clarity she gained, the certainty that she was on the right track with her calling, was worth all the difficulty.  

The austerity of the Trail gave Peace the time and space and separation from distractions she needed to clarify her calling.  The trials of the Trail showed Peace that she had the strength to fulfill it.  As she said later, nothing about the next 30 years was ever as hard as hiking the Appalachian Trail.  If she had done that, she knew she could do anything.

Maybe the austerity and trials of Jesus’ wilderness experience were exactly what he needed, too, to get clear about his ministry and to learn just how capable he was of withstanding any trial.  A couple of weeks ago, we looked at the scene that comes after Jesus’ time in the wilderness.  Do you remember the one where he went home, taught in the synagogue and so enraged the homefolk they tried to kill him?  I wonder if Jesus would have preached so prophetically had he not gained clarity in his time in the wilderness?  I wonder if Jesus even would have survived his trip home if he hadn’t gotten clear during his time in the wilderness that he really was strong enough to withstand any trial.

How clear are you about what work God has called you to do?  Are you engaging that work with passion and confidence and a sense of purpose?  If so, great!  You are released from your obligation of listening to the rest of the sermon.

If you’re not clear about the work God has for you to do, if you’re not clear about who you are, especially to yourself and to God, you might like to follow Jesus’ or Peace’s example and take a trip to the wilderness.  Find an austere place with few distractions, a place where you will be tried and tested, a place where you can learn who you are and what you’re made of.  It could be a place of no chocolate or alcohol or TV or French fries or whatever you’ve decided to give up for Lent.  Giving something up for Lent is a way of creating a little wilderness for ourselves.  Giving something up removes a distraction from our lives.  Released from that distraction, we have the chance to gain clarity about ourselves.  The trial of giving up something we love, perhaps even something we feel we need, also toughens us up.  It—eventually—convinces us that we can overcome most trials that are set before us.

Of course, some of you might not need to find or create a wilderness at all—you’ve already taken up residence there.  In fact, you’ve been in the wilderness so long you’ve started paying taxes and are thinking about running for mayor.  Maybe you’re in a place where you feel deprived of the things you really like, perhaps even need.  You find yourself in a place where the trials are unrelenting. 

If you feel like the wilderness is your new address, if you feel like you don’t know how you got there or if you’ll ever find your way out, you also might take a page from Jesus’ and Peace Pilgrim’s book:  Perhaps you can learn from your time in the wilderness, even though you might not have chosen it.  When you miss something you want or need, ask yourself why you miss it—What role does that thing play in your life?  When a trial comes, do everything you can to overcome that trial….then celebrate the fact that you did.  If you are able to attend to what’s going on in the wilderness, uncomfortable though it might be, the payoff in terms of self-knowledge and strength for the spiritual journey is potentially significant. 

So, do you know who you are?  Do you know who you are to yourself?  Do you know who you are to God?  Would you like to know?  Would you like Easter to have real meaning this year?  If so, a good place to start your journey is the wilderness.  Peace Pilgrim learned a lot in the wilderness.  Jesus also learned a lot in the wilderness.  Who knows?  You might, too.


In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.

Kimberleigh Buchanan  ©  2013


Hear a story about Peace Pilgrim—and actually hear Peace herself!—that aired on NPR last month:

Luke 4:1-13   (NRSV)

The Temptation of Jesus

4Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.  3The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’  4Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’

5 Then the devil* led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.  6And the devil* said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.  7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’  8Jesus answered him, ‘It is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.” ’

9 Then the devil* took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here,10for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you,
to protect you”,
“On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’
12Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

 Intro to Communion

In Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts of Jesus’ time in the wilderness, after the temptations are over we’re told that angels came and ministered to Jesus.  Isn’t that a comforting image?  That after all the privation, after all the temptation, after all the testing, there was rest, there was ministry, there was nourishment.


As we begin our Lenten journey, as we find ourselves in or just emerging from the wilderness, this meal can remind us—it does remind us—that regardless of any trial, God always stands ready to minister to us, to help us rest, to nourish us.  May we be so nourished today.


 Random sentence that I liked, but didn’t make it into the sermon 

What true meaning does resurrection have if you don’t have anything to resurrect from, right?  We can’t know the true joy of Easter until we experience the stark reality of the dark parts of life, the dark parts of ourselves.


About reallifepastor

I'm a pastor who's working out her faith...just like everyone else.
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