Psalm 32

1Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.

2Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

3While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.

4For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah

5Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah

6Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them.

7You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. Selah

8I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.

9Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you.

10Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord.

11Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.

Matthew 4:1-11

4Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

John Buchanan, the former pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church -Chicago, Illinois states: “In an age of quick-fixes, fast food, instant gratification, and Internet communication, the Lenten tradition seems like an ancient practice that is out of step with the age. Lent promises no immediate result, no instant answer, no dazzling communication from on high. Rather Lent is a call to disciplined inquiry and patient searching after the presence of God”.

At no time do I feel more out of step with the culture around me than during Lent.

This church and many other Protestant churches these days have rediscovered and reestablished the ancient church custom of the imposition of ashes on the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday. The ashes come from the burned palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration. They symbolize Jesus’ suffering and death and our own mortality. As they are placed on your forehead, in the image of the cross, the person doing the imposing looks you in the eye and says, “From dust you have come and to dust you will return.” It is, to say the least, sobering. “From dust you have come and to dust you will return.” You don’t hear that kind of talk much along Broad Street or many places in Gloucester County.

Lent is a time of intentional introspection and self-examination, a time to take a look at the lives we are living and gain some self-awareness about where we are, where we are going, about where we may be compromising, or not living up to our best selves, or taking the easy way. Lent is a time to change–repent is the church word for it–and to allow the gift of God’s forgiveness and grace to recreate us. It’s a time that looks forward to the Sunday morning forty days from now when we will crowd into our pews again to sing and hear and affirm our trust in the boldest notion in the history of the world: that Jesus of Nazareth was God’s only Son, that he lived and died for us and for our salvation, and that God raised him from the dead, and, therefore, death no longer has any power over us.

That’s not an affirmation one can make lightly, casually. Easter requires some preparation, some homework. That’s what Lent is, and Lent begins every year with the same story, the peculiar story of Jesus and the forty days in the wilderness and the appearance of Satan and the three tests, or temptations, as they are traditionally called.

Jesus is about thirty years old, just about the age when many people begin to have second thoughts about career, life direction, meaning, and vocation. He has a powerful experience of self-awareness when his cousin, John, baptizes him in the Jordan River, and in that baptism experience he suddenly knows the road ahead is different now–that he needs to be different. In his baptism, standing waist deep in the waters of the river, he experiences God’s claim on his life. He hears a voice and he knows that he is God’s Son, God’s beloved. Now he must decide what to do, how to live out his new sense of God’s claim. And it is precisely at that point that the story says he is led by the Spirit–the Spirit of God, that is–into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. That’s important. It’s not his idea to go on a wilderness trek to find himself. The Spirit leads him. This is part of whatever God has in mind, an important part of the whole process.

Wilderness. I think of the mountains of West Virginia where I grew up, thickly wooded, underbrush so dense you have to hack your way through, so easy to become disoriented, lost, that you need a compass. I think of the wilderness of Virginia where the Union Army disappeared from sight for a long time. I think of Lewis and Clark looking out across vast stretches of terrain no white man had ever seen before.

Forty days Jesus was there–in the wilderness- fasting. That’s a very long time for those of us whose temperament is affected negatively by just a touch of hunger, those of us who in the middle of lunch find ourselves wondering what’s for dinner. After forty days, he is famished and the tempter comes. Medieval art has created an image of Satan that is monstrous, foul, terrifying. Ancient literature portrays him as the Father of Lies, the essence of evil. Our brand of modern Christianity understands mostly that Satan is not so much a being, a person with horns, tail and pitchfork, as a symbol of the reality of evil.

In this story, he is not frightening so much as smooth, clever. In his fine novel The Gospel According to the Son, Norman Mailer has an intriguing retelling of the incident.

Jesus’ hunger has become a “solemn emptiness of spirit.” On the fortieth day, the visitor arrives.

And he was as handsome as a prince. He had a gold ornament on a gold chain about his neck . . . and the hair of this prince was as long as my own and lustrous. He was dressed in robes of velvet that were as purple as late evening and he wore a crown as golden as the sun. . . . He introduced himself. I said to myself, “The Devil is the most beautiful creature God ever made.”

He looked at me fondly. His eyes were black marbles but there were lights within. He said, “Are you hungry? Are you in need of a drink?” And he brought forth a jug of wine and a leg of lamb, well cooked. . . . I refused his food . . . and [he] said, “But, of course, you have no need of food. Being the Son of God, you can easily command these stones to be bread.”

Norman Mailer captures the ambiguity that surrounds the decisions you and I have to make every day, decisions Jesus made. Turning stones into bread isn’t a bad idea. Accumulating political influence in order to implement your program is not bad. Nor is engaging in good public relations and marketing–which is what the Devil suggests Jesus try, by leaping from the pinnacle of the temple.

The temptations themselves are not to do terrible things–rob, cheat, steal, do public violence to innocent people. If there are crimes here, they are victimless crimes. What Jesus is tempted to do, as I understand it, is to take the easy way out, take the shortcuts, persuade by novelty rather than content, by sensation rather than the substance of his teaching and his life. Jesus’ great temptation was a familiar one: to be less than God created him to be and wanted him to be, to compromise his own integrity and authenticity as God’s man.

That struggle is what Lent turns out to be for us.

And it ought, in some way, take us to the wilderness, the place where we encounter uncertainty and doubt. There are, someone noted, no paths in the wilderness. To be there is to know what it means to be without direction.

That’s a powerful image. That’s what life feels like sometimes, a dry wilderness of ambiguity and uncertainty. As we look at the world, we want things to be simple, black and white, good and evil, right and wrong. And sometimes in our own need for certainty, we make bad choices. Jesus, in the wilderness, had to live with ambiguity and, at the end, make choices, based not on proof or guarantees but based on his best instincts, his integrity, and his trust in God.

My favorite part of the story about Jesus in the wilderness, the ambiguity and doubt, the hunger and the hard decisions, is in the very last verse. This is what is says: “The devil left him and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”

It was a difficult time, a lonely time, a time of doubt and uncertainty, a time not unlike periods of life through which we must walk, a wilderness in which we suddenly and unexpectedly find ourselves.

I am cheered by the suggestion that the Spirit of God leads us into those wildernesses and after the struggle–the promise that angels come and minister to him, that God does come to us at the end of the day, the end of the wilderness.

Today it begins, a new Lenten journey. God bless us on our way. Amen.

Commentary provided by Norman Mailer, John Buchanan, David Lose, Bruce Epperly, Audrey West, W. Scott Haldeman, and Mikael C. Parsons.