The Rev’d Ann J. Broomell
February 14, 2016
How many times have we seen an adult trying to comfort a screaming baby? Have you ever been mystified and at the same time frustrated when regardless of what you tried, you had no success? For a new parent it is a relief when one can finally begin to understand what a baby needs by the sound of their cry.
I don't think anything could have prepared me for my first weeks of motherhood. Overnight I changed from someone whose daily schedule revolved around my needs and those of my husband, and the way in which I wanted to use my time, to a person whose life revolved around the needs of Sarah, our long awaited baby. I tried to sleep when Sarah slept, to get enough food and liquid to nurse her successfully, to be relaxed enough that the nursing would work and still to have enough perspective to be able to recognize her needs by the way she cried or held her body.
As I look back on those years, I realize how very helpful it was for me to be able to pull out of my interaction with each of my children long enough to be able to see what need might be at the base of a conversation or argument. I wish it could have happened more often, I would have been a better parent. I remember the joy of those times when the light clicked and I realized what was really going on.
Babies, young children teach us that we humans have basic needs at each stage of life. By the time they are six months old, the emotional life of a baby clusters around their basic needs for survival and security, for affection and esteem, and for power and control. These are basic needs that are always with us even when we become adults.
From the time we are babies we look to the world around us to meet those basic needs. As we enter adulthood, we are no longer dependent on someone else to meet those needs. We decide how to meet those basic needs of our lives for ourselves.
Today's story of Jesus in the wilderness is at its base the story of an adult deciding how he will meet those basic needs we all have. The same Holy Spirit that has just descended upon him at his baptism and revealed that he is divine, now leads him into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. The devil tempts him three times. Through his responses we see his identity, the person who will go out from the desert into ministry and ultimately to death on a cross.
The first temptation rested in the need we all have for security and survival. Jesus must have been incredibly hungry. He was tempted to use the power he had to satisfy his bodily hunger. He was tempted to seek security in magic rather than in God. But Jesus decided that he wouldn't be exempt from hardship, but would take human suffering upon himself. He would live the life you and I live, suffering as we suffer. Jesus decided that in spite of his hunger he would uphold the fundamental importance of God to our lives.
The second temptation rested in the need we all have for affection and esteem. The devil tempted him to jump off the pinnacle of the temple in order to make a name for himself as a wonder-worker. But Jesus decided that he wouldn't show the world that he was the Son of God through the power he had, even though everyone would then have known who he was and bow down to him in worship. He chose to use the power he had for healing and conversion. He chose to set the example for us, to live a human life letting God's light shine in the world through the life he led.
The third temptation rested in our need for power and control. The devil offered him absolute power over the nations of the world if Jesus would fall down and worship him. But Jesus chose not to control us, but to be our servant.(1)
After those forty days in the wilderness, Jesus emerged with one focus, one purpose in life, one identity. You and I each have these needs, for security and esteem and control. From the time we were babies, you and I have looked for happiness seeking to meet those needs. Lent offers you and me the chance to see where the programs for happiness we have developed over time in each of these areas, actually overlap with God's call to us, and where they are destructive to us. With focus and commitment we can emerge with a new perspective and new hope for our future.
During these weeks of Lent we are called to a time of repenting, of changing direction. Lent offers you and me the chance to bring the two parts of ourselves, the person we want to be and the one we really are—the person grounded in our desire to follow Jesus Christ, and the person focused on our own recipes for happiness, together into one. Lent offers the chance to change the place where we look for happiness, so that we seek to find happiness in our relationship with God.
The rewards are understandably vast—transformation of our life, of our way of being in the world. When we spend these days, in some way, in the wilderness, Easter is transformed as well. It becomes more than a happy day with music we love. As we emerge from the wilderness, Easter offers each of us the deep joy of our own resurrection.
To take advantage of Lent, we need to know where the wilderness is. In his book, Season of the Spirit, Martin Smith tells the story of his search as a teenager in England for a holy spring near his home where he’d read that pilgrims in the Middle Ages had sought healing for eye diseases. He was inspired by the story of a failed expedition to find the spring that took place in the late 1800s, and decided to give it a try himself.
He spent hours digging with a spade in the fields where the spring was supposed to be located without success. Eventually, he writes, he realized that the cows standing in a stinking mud patch might be guarding the secret. So he used his spade to move the cows out of the way and dug in what was just dung covered with flies. After twenty minutes he had unearthed a carved stone platform with a wooden pipe. Out of that pipe there was a steady flow of clear water, the holy spring, the place of healing so long ago.
The ladies and gentlemen who mounted the first search had stayed away from the stinking mud patch. Smith writes that he came to see this spring as being like the place where the Holy Spirit dwells within each of us. The place deep in our core where our passions lie, is the source of the Holy Spirit. This place of conflict, confusion, vulnerability and desire is also the place of God. (2)
This is our wilderness. Not somewhere outside of us where we may be uncomfortable. Our wilderness may be a far more frightening place. This is where we do battle with the devil during these forty days. The place where our happiness lies. This is the place where we define and redefine who we are throughout our lives.
Searching to find and clear the spring of the Spirit inside ourselves can be a lonely time. Our search can be threatening to friends and families. We can know the pain of being abandoned and even opposed on our spiritual journey. This is why we join together in worshiping communities like this one, to find others who search where we search for happiness, to support each other, to ease the pain and the loneliness, and to share the joy. Because there is great joy to be shared. There is great happiness to be shared.
After the Roman Empire had become Christian, some Christians found the life too easy. They went out into the desert, away from the cities and even away from the growing Christian culture, to find God within themselves during the season of Lent. You might think that the desert would be at its most harsh and bleak at that time.
During Lent the desert blooms. Of all the seasons of the year there, it is the most beautiful. Those men and women went away to search their souls into a place that surrounded them with the beauty of creation, with the beauty of God.
The beauty of the desert is like the consolation and joy Jesus offers us during Lent. Jesus invites us into the desert, into the wilderness within ourselves, and promises that there we can find God. And as we go, we know that Jesus has gone there before us to struggle with every demon that would confront us.
It's in the wilderness that you and I can find God. It's in the wilderness that you and I can find our true selves. It's in the wilderness that you and I can find a new way of being--that rare beauty God offers us as the desert blooms, as desolation turns into Spring.
(1) Barclay, William, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 1 Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1956, pp. 54-64.
(2) Smith, Martin L., A Season for the Spirit. New York: Seabury Books, 2004, pp. 15-17.