A sermon delivered by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, Farmville Baptist Church, Farmville, Va., on February 26, 2012.
First Sunday in Lent
I. Hate. Camping. OK, that might be too strong of a statement. I dislike camping. If given the choice between camping and cleaning all the toilets in this church, I might just choose cleaning the toilets! In the summer, Beth and the kids have occasionally camped in our backyard or in the woods behind our house – pitching a tent, making a fire, and spending the night in sleeping bags under the stars. They’ve tried to get me to join them, and most of the time I’ve refused. But the one time I relented and joined my family sleeping out in a tent, I was awakened at midnight by earth-shaking rumblings and periodic flashes of light. At first, I thought I was having an apocalyptic nightmare! When I finally woke up and poked my head outside the tent, I saw a helicopter with searchlights flying overhead crisscrossing the sky right above us every couple of minutes! My first thought was, “The Russians are coming!” After I was relatively sure that we were not being invaded, I stumbled out of the tent, stomped back to the house, went up to my bedroom, closed the windows, drew down all the shades, pulled the covers over my head, and finally drifted off to sleep. It was not until the next morning that I found out that a patient had wandered out from Trinity Mission Rehab Center that night, and a full-fledged search party was called to retrieve that confused poor soul. Now, if that isn’t a sign from God that I shouldn’t be camping, I don’t know what is!
I don’t know why camping is not my thing. Maybe it’s because I grew up a city boy in Hong Kong. Maybe I’m just not a MANLY man. More likely, it’s because I like the conveniences of modern civilized society. My ideal way to camp is to have air-conditioning, a nice bed, a roof over my head, wi-fi for my laptop, and pizza delivered. Oh, and don’t forget indoor plumbing!
My most extended camping experience took place when I was in the ninth grade, and my school class had a five-day wilderness experience at a ranch out in the middle of Texas. We hiked and camped out for a couple of nights, and we had to carry our own hiking packs, including our clothes, our food and water, sleeping bag, tents, toiletries . . . everything that we would need for those two days. I remember being very intentional and spare about what I packed, because I didn’t want to carry any extra weight. We followed our guide as we walked through the hot, dry Texas landscape. At the end of the day, while we were all sweaty, tired and hungry, we still had to set up camp, collect firewood, make a fire and cook dinner. And while that was the best canned pork and beans and Vienna sausage I’ve ever had, I still longed for a good hamburger!
I know I’m a wimp, but it is hard for me to imagine what it was like for Jesus to be sent out into the desert for forty days. Jesus had just been baptized, and as He came out of the water, the heavens ripped apart, the Spirit came down like a dove, and a voice spoke to Jesus, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” What an amazing, affirming experience it must have been for Jesus! One of the ultimate questions of life is “Who am I?” and who among us wouldn’t want to hear a divine voice affirming us “You are my child, whom I love; with you I am well pleased”?
Alas, it is one thing to hear such an affirmation, but it is a totally different thing to actually believe it. And there is no better place to test who we really are than by the way of the desert. For immediately after Jesus’ baptism, at once the Spirit sent Jesus out into the desert, and he was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark does not give the details of the temptations. Mark does not report the debates between Jesus and Satan, the challenges to turn stones into bread, to jump off the Temple or to bow down to Satan. It seems that Mark is less concerned about the temptations themselves than with the meaning of Jesus’ time in the desert. According to Stanley Saunders, “Jesus is retracing the steps of Israel’s history in order to rewrite her story. Whereas Israel in the wilderness stumbled and wandered for forty years in sin, rebellion, and distrust, longing again for the chains of slavery, Jesus withstands Satan’s tests in the wilderness for forty days.” Remember back in the Exodus, the Lord God brought His people out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery, basically telling them: “You are no longer slaves; you are a free people.” And yet, in the desert, God’s people didn’t actually believe that they were free. Exodus 16:2-3 records, “In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.’” To the question, “Who are we?” the Israelites answered, “We are still slaves. We would rather be slaves in Egypt than be free in this desert.”
Because of their unbelief, the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years. We often think those years in the desert as a punishment, but I think it was more a time of preparation. You see, the Israelites couldn’t enter the Promised Land still believing themselves as slaves. If they did, they would just fall back into slavery, but this time under the inhabitants of Jericho. No, they had to prepare to enter the Promised Land as God’s free people, by letting go of all the things that they thought defined them, and trusting only in God to provide and to lead. Only then would they have the courage to defeat the giants in the Promised Land in order to remain free. But it is a long and arduous journey from slavery to freedom, a journey that many of the Israelites were not willing to make. They preferred the pain of slavery to the pain of transformation into a free people, because slavery was what they knew and trusting in God was the unknown.
Jesus, on the other hand, became the new Israel who trusted the divine voice that affirmed His identity as the beloved Son of God. In the desert, Jesus trusted that His heavenly Father would protect Him from wild animals. Perhaps Jesus even lived peaceably with them as a foretaste of the coming “peaceable kingdom” as envisioned by the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 65). In the desert, without food, water or shelter, Jesus trusted in His heavenly Father’s angels to attend to him. In the desert, Jesus was able to withstand Satan’s temptations to allow things or persons other than God to define who He was. So the forty days in the desert became the time for Jesus to prepare for His public ministry by fully trusting in God and fully living into His identity as the beloved Son of God. And Jesus emerged out of that desert ready to launch His ministry by proclaiming the good news with confidence and authority that the Kingdom of God was near.
Today is the first Sunday in the season of Lent. Lent is a forty-day season of preparation for Easter. The forty days represent the time Jesus spent in the desert. Just as I would not voluntarily choose to go camping, I hazard to guess that most of us would not voluntarily choose to be sent into the way of the desert. And yet, that’s what the season of Lent invites us to do. Lent is so much more than just fasting from certain foods or giving up certain things during these forty days. Lent is the way of the desert that invites us to identify those things and persons other than our heavenly Father that define our identity. Sure, we acknowledge intellectually that we are “the beloved children of God,” but do we really believe it in our hearts? What do we ultimately believe . . . the words of our heavenly Father who tells us we are beloved, or the sometimes questionable affirmations of other people?
In our society, we eat not just to provide nourishment for our bodies. Oftentimes, we eat to mask and deaden the pain in our souls. In our society, we buy things not just because we really need them, but because the accumulation of things – a nice house, a new car, fashionable clothes – is the main way our society defines success and happiness. Jesus’ time in the desert challenges us to look at the pain in our souls or the ways we measure our success and frame our identity. As followers of Jesus, we fast, whether literally or metaphorically, to train ourselves to “give up” or “let go” of certain things, such as these fears or these insecurities that tempt us to see ourselves as someone other than the children of God.
As we journey in the way of the desert, we will encounter wild animals . . . wild animals like loneliness, rejection, the unmasking of our insecurities, the loss of our youth and vitality, and the anxieties about our future. But instead of running away from those wild animals in fear, can we face our fears and arrive at a place of peace so that we just stay with those wild animals, like Jesus? Instead of anxiously worrying about the future and frantically trying to secure and control, can we allow the angels of God to attend to us with God’s daily bread? What kinds of truth can God teach us? In the way of the desert, we are invited to echo the words of Psalm 25: “To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul; in you I trust. . . . Show me your ways, O LORD, teach me your paths; guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior.”
Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that as we begin this journey in the way of the desert, we picture ourselves going on a solo camping trip, paying special attention to the Lenten challenges posed by such a journey. There is first of all the decision of what to take and what to leave. What is essential to life, and what is not? When you have to carry them on your back, so-called necessities can become discarded baggage. There is also the matter of having quite a lot of time to think. Can you handle the silence, in which thoughts and feelings you have outrun will have time to catch up with you? Should you encounter some wild animals of your own, will you stay or will you pack up? How will you tell the difference between Satan’s voice and those of angels? Do you trust that everything comes from God?
On the last morning of my camping hike in Texas, I woke up early in the morning when it was still dark, and I got out of my tent and walked a short distance to a ridge facing east. As I look out for miles into the horizon, I watched the rising of the sun, its crimson rays reaching up and filling the canvas of the sky with wild brushstrokes of color. In that moment, I was alone basking in the presence of God. Sunrises take place every day, if I had the eyes to see and the heart to experience. But it took a hike in the desert to distance me from the conveniences of modern civilized society and my daily distractions to prepare my eyes to see and experience the beauty of that unforgettable morning.
The beauty of Easter morning is coming, but right now, we are invited to walk the Lenten way of the desert. As we go, may we hear the voice of God and follow the steps of Christ. Amen.
 Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2, Lent through Eastertide.
 Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2, Lent through Eastertide.