Today's gospel lesson is one that many of us know in one form or another. This story of temptation in the wilderness is the middle of a three-part series of events that sets up Jesus's public ministry. These events ultimately led to Jesus answering his call and fulfilling his mission. We may be tempted to skip over this series of events and get to the ministry because we have inherited an understanding of Jesus, a theology of Jesus that has been developed over hundreds and hundreds of years, and so we know what happens, and we want to get to the point. But this series is incredibly important to all of us because this sequence of events shaped Jesus as a person. Jesus was called by the Spirit in baptism, tempted away from God in the wilderness, and finally chose to remain faithful to his mission and ministry. This series of steps can give us all a glimpse into how we, too, can answer the call God puts inside each one of us.
These three steps, call, temptation, and ministry, are critical to Jesus's story. It might be easy for us to discount the necessity of Jesus's call and temptation because we believe that Jesus was made to do the ministry he did; but without the call and temptation, Jesus's human journey would have been incomplete. Jesus, fully human, had to wrestle with the same fear and insecurity that we all wrestle with, and his trust in God can be our inspiration.
You see, for me, and I believe for all of us, the story of Jesus's temptation in the wilderness is not about sinfulness or divine strength. Jesus's temptation in the wilderness is about our human relationship with God, our human relationship with the truth that we are not alone in the world and are not alone to face the troubles and fears and heartbreaks and temptations of the world on our own. We are not alone now, nor will we ever be; we just might not be confident about that. We might not be confident in the truth that we never travel the road of life alone; we might not be able to trust the truth that God's love and presence with us is real. That is what the story of the wilderness is all about.
We all walk through a significant wilderness at one time or another, and thinking about a true wilderness experience makes me think of my grandfather. My grandfather had a significant impact on my life. He was a very good man, a child of the Great Depression who served courageously in World War II. And after returning from the war, he met a feisty young lady who would become his wife of over 60 years, and together, they had three daughters. My grandfather was a typically quiet man, a very hard worker who became a successful business owner at a young age. He had all the things he was supposed to have and lived the kind of life people work hard to build. Life was good.
Then one day, as his oldest daughter, just a teenager at the time, was riding in a car with some friends, the driver lost control. As the car flipped off the road, all four passengers were thrown out. Three of them walked away from the accident, but the car rolled over my Aunt Nancy. Nancy was rushed to the hospital where she lay in critical condition for a few days before my grandfather and grandmother made the impossible decision to end life-support. In an instant, the life they had built changed forever.
My mother, who was barely a teenager when her older sister died, said that my grandfather never really talked about the accident. He simply got quieter and worked harder. Years ago, as I was beginning my life as a priest, I asked my grandfather how it felt to lose a child in such a tragic way. He was quiet for a few minutes and then told me about the years that followed Nancy's death. He said that losing Nancy was the worst experience of his life and made him question everything. He had always been a church-going man, but when he lost Nancy, he didn't want to go back to church. He said he realized that his faith wasn't much deeper than obligation--that he had been going to church and being kind and good and charitable only because he was supposed to be, not because of any real, deep faith. He spent years questioning God, angry with God for taking his child. He was confused and hurt and the anger was overwhelming--he was truly in his personal wilderness.
Then one day, he said, something changed--changed inside him. One day, he realized that his anger and hurt were all because he thought he knew how life was supposed to work. He thought that if he lived a good life, an upstanding life, and if he worked hard, then he should expect, even deserved, good things in return. He finally realized that he had been cutting a deal with God, rather than trusting God. He told me that he realized he had a choice--either he could ignore God's presence in his life and let anger control him, or he could accept that God was there, that God was always there, and trust that God's presence with him was all he really needed. My grandfather had been in the greatest wilderness of his life, walking a journey that was raw and exposed, and he was tempted with the most significant of all temptations--that God cannot be trusted.
The truth is that there is a direct link between trust and temptation. To the degree that we can trust God for our daily needs, our sense of purpose, our identity as a beloved child of God, the temptations of the world will have little appeal. But to the degree that we allow our natural insecurity to lead us to mistrust God, we become open to the deception and temptation that life is all up to us, that God is nothing more than a figment of our cultural imagination and so we had better take things into our own hands. ("Trust and Temptation," David Lose, accessed February 12, 2013, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2089.)
For my grandfather, he came to a point when he knew he could continue living in spite of God, or he could open himself up to trust that God was with him, that God loved him, and that God would never leave him alone. And he said he made the choice to trust God again, even though he knew that building that trust would take time and would take work and that he would have to remain faithful not to God, but to the choice to live with God. And so he did. Years after losing his oldest child, my grandfather said he would wake up every day and choose to trust God again. Each day, he chose to live life with God, and his life was rich in ministry because of that choice. He went on to help support and develop lasting ministries in my hometown, including the formation of the Habitat for Humanity chapter there, as well as becoming a living example of kindness and generosity to everyone around him, especially to me.
Choosing to trust God is never easy, and that choice is never made in a simple moment. But making that choice each and every day will create a good habit of faith and will give us the strength we need to travel through the wilderness periods in our own lives. Answering the call to trust God, to live with God, will develop the core we need to resist life's greatest temptations so that we can fulfill our purpose, our true calling.
Today is the first Sunday in Lent, the first Sunday in a journey toward the cross. Our journey in this sacred season of Lent does not end at the cross; our journey begins as we go forth from the empty tomb. But we before we get to the empty tomb, we have the opportunity to pay attention to what God is doing in our lives and in our world. If we're willing, we have a few weeks to sit in the calm, in the quiet of Lent.
This past Wednesday, many of us received a mark of ash on our foreheads, a mark that can mean many different things. But for me, a mark of ash means that I openly acknowledge that life will not always be easy or that life will not always be just as I would have hoped or dreamed. Instead, I have made a choice and to remake that choice every day to trust God. I trust that I have a purpose in this world and that I am never alone, that God walks with me every step of the way. When we make the choice to trust God, our lives can be lived with the confidence that God is always with us, even to the end.
Lent is a challenging period, and we are, most of us, comfortable in our own lives and don't' like those challenges. We lead relatively predictable, secure lives, and we like that. But if we are open to the Spirit's movement in the world, if we're open to listening for God, we might be surprised to see where God shows up. As we begin this Lenten journey, we are challenged to live into the unknown, to sit in the unpredictable presence of God and pay attention.
God only knows what this Lenten journey will bring for each of us, but God makes each one of us a promise: God promises to sit with us, to walk with us, to even carry us when life seems too hard and we don't think we can go on. God promises never to leave us.
It is true. The temptations of life are all around us. We will walk through the wilderness, and when we do, remember the truth that we are not alone--we are not alone to face the troubles and fears and heartbreaks and temptations of our world on our own. We are not alone now, nor will we ever be. God's love, God's presence, and God's faith in us is real. The journey is just beginning, and I, for one, am thankful that we never walk alone.