A sermon by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo.
The First Sunday of Lent
Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13
A few years back, two priests who were friends of mine and who served at our neighborhood Catholic Church decided they would help their church raise money for the development of a new community center. Their goal was to raise $100,000 in cash so the church could jumpstart its plan to open the athletic fields ahead of schedule. They tossed around the traditional ideas for fund-raising and came up with something totally bold and unexpected: They decided each of them would climb into a large wooden box made of plywood secured at the top of a 25’ utility pole. They vowed they would not come down until each had raised $50,000. They quickly became known in the community as “Two priests on a pole.” A few days into it, I walked over to visit my two comrades in ministry to give them some encouragement. To be honest, they were a pitiful sight. Father Jimmy, the younger of the two priests, wore a bandana on his head and some cool shades because of the bright sunshine. Father Dennis, the senior Padre, looked like he had spent a week in a deer blind.
I went over one morning when there weren’t many people there and Father Dennis invited me to join him in his aerie perch to talk. I asked him what it was like to maintain his vigil from inside a plywood box precariously attached to a utility pole. He said there were plenty of folks who stopped by to give money and to offer their encouragement. Television news crews occasionally came by to help them spread the story of their project. Folks from all over the city heard about their efforts and came by to wave or honk at them and to offer a donation. While people came by at all times of the day and night, he told me he actually had lots of time for prayer and reading. It was like a spiritual retreat elevated above the ground. The hard part, he said, was the middle part of the week after they had been up there for 3 or 4 days.
What kind of state of mind would you be in after a few days of that kind of craziness? To be honest, I worried they would be a little goofy after awhile. I worried they might have an out of the body experience or they might hallucinate or start hearing voices. How long would you last in a plywood box perched atop a utility pole?
So we can begin to think about what it must have been like to spend day after day and night after night in the seclusion of the wilderness near the Dead Sea, the lowest place on the face of the planet. Jesus spent 40 days and 40 nights fasting in preparation for the journey of his calling. True, during his time of testing, there weren’t cars driving by and honking and there weren’t people of all kinds standing at the base of his box talking with him out of curiosity. It was a time of severe isolation and testing that made him take a long look at the inward things of his life. It was a time when he was forced to see what he was made of and how he might respond when the true tests of his calling came. And the Bible tells us it was during this time the Tempter appeared.
Maybe testing is the way of all things. Almost any tough situation can be a test of sorts:
- Perhaps it comes in the form of a failure that sets us back in life
- Maybe you lose a job or a friend or a significant relationship
- Or it comes in the form of a death or a grief experience where a piece of you is cut off and you are wounded and broken
- Maybe you’ve spent a long day or night waiting in a hospital while doctors hold your loved one’s life in their hands in some medical emergency
Know that in those moments, you are experiencing something of what Jesus experienced in that desert.
Barbara Brown Taylor recognizes this is a Lenten story. Our text today is the mainframe upon which the season of Lent is conceived because it’s based on the 40 days in the wilderness. It’s sometimes called “the Lenten journey,” because it’s a hero’s journey of self-denial willing to go deep within to test what’s there. The season of Lent is thus the 40 days that precede our Easter celebration of Jesus’ victory over death. We celebrate his resurrection as that defining victory over death. Rev. Taylor reminds us that it’s “forty days to cleanse the system and open the eyes to what remains when all comfort is gone. (It’s) forty days to remember what it is like to live by the grace of God alone and not by what we can supply for ourselves.”
In this story, we see Jesus denying himself of what he had in abundance in order to discover just how much he had in reserve. This is an austere image of the one who was vitally connected to all the rich resources of the entire creation. This is a stark image of one who was on a journey. Jesus followed the voice that beckoned him to the wilderness where there were no comforts and no amenities to make life easier. Jesus did what persons of faith have always been drawn to do … to find a way to strip away all the distractions so even the quietest prompting of the Spirit can be heard. I suppose all of us have heard the siren’s call at one time or another to spend more time in quietness and self-denial.
The problem comes whenever we try to shut down the noise that fills our souls. Whenever we try to create an inner silence, we become aware of the cacophony of sounds that drown out the silence. It’s a noise both within and without. In fact, it’s rather startling how much we have come to depend on the noise to fill the silence.
I challenge you sometime this week to try to shut down the outward sounds and then try to still your soul.
- Try to find a room in your house that you can control most of the external noises and make an effort to create silence. When you’ve done your best to silence all outside sounds, try to still yourself
- Try to quiet all the inner noises of your mind and then notice how frenetic you are inside your thoughts
- Try then to calm and quiet your mind from having any thoughts so you can be more attentive your own heartbeat or so that you can focus on the simple act of drawing your breath and releasing the impurities back into the atmosphere.
What you will find in your “wilderness retreat” is an inner noise that refuses to be silent. The more concerted your efforts to still the inner noise, the more you will find you are really a noisy mess within.
Jesus went through the efforts to silence his thoughts so that he could hear the voice of the Father who was calling him to a more focused life. He refused his body’s demands for food. He took himself away from the comforts of the city so he could pay closer attention to what God might have to say to him. And while he was in seclusion, the tempter came to visit. And how will you know when you are being tempted? It will be that which comes searching for you to keep you from listening to the voice of God. It will be that which becomes irresistible to you whenever you strip your life down to the bare essentials.
Barbara Brown Taylor goes on to claim that all of us are addicted to something. She says a simple definition of an addiction is anything we use to fill the empty places inside us that belong to God alone. In your wilderness experiences you will find out just what it is that you are afraid of. You may find yourself obsessed with your favorite food or you may crave a snack you didn’t realize had such a hold over you. That which has become your domineering pacifier will take charge in the void you have created within. It will take over the silence you are attempting to create and keep you from hearing what God may wish to say to you.
She warns that, “Chances are you will hear a voice in your head warning you of what will happen if you give up your pacifier: ‘You’ll starve. You’ll go nuts. You won’t be you anymore. If that does not work, the voice will move to level two: ‘That’s not a pacifier. That’s a power tool. Can’t you tell the difference? If you do not fall for that one, there is always level three: ‘If God really loves you, you can do whatever you want. Why waste your time on this dumb exercise? (What do you think it will prove?)’”
When the tempter seems to have you cornered, do what Jesus did. Take hold of the spiritual truth that you have hidden away in your heart and cling to it with all your might. Let the power of the word of God keep you and protect you. Determine in your heart that you have entered the silence of the wilderness because it is out there the word of God will want to speak to you.
Some of you are in your wilderness experience right now. Or you can remember being there at some time in the past. You remember it as a time of severe testing and you weren’t sure whether you would endure it. You remember it as a time when you faced terrible loneliness. You may even recall it as a time when you prayed your most honest prayers and when the harsh winds blew so hard you couldn’t hear the replies of God. But through it all, you came out of it stronger. The times of testing help us know our selves and our God in a deeper way than before. We come out of it, like Jesus, better prepared for the next stage of our journey.
When Jesus emerged from the wilderness where he was tested, he was tired and he was hungry. So he rested and he fed himself. You see, the time of testing comes only for a season and then we are released to resume our journeys. So Jesus headed back to the needs of the world. He had survived and he understood that what he had was enough. He found out that while his life was to be given on behalf of the sins of the world, he knew he had the strength to endure. Jesus learned the lesson all of us need to learn … namely, there is strength to be gained from denying ourselves. In other words, we can say “No” to the world in order to say “Yes” to God.
After our season of testing, we will have power … but it’s the kind of power that only comes from above so we can do great things for God.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, “Settling for Less,” The Christian Century, 2/18/98, 169
 Barbara Brown Taylor, Ibid.,169