Faith United Methodist Church

February 14, 2016

First Sunday of Lent

Rev. Kristabeth E. Atwood

Scripture: Luke 4:1-13, Deuteronomy 26:5-10a

Sermon: Pilgrimage

This month several of our New England Conference folks are joining the Bishop for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. According to Wikipedia (that trustworthy source) a pilgrimage is a journey or search of moral or spiritual significance. A pilgrimage is not your average vacation. Typically, it is a journey to a shrine or other location of importance to a person’s beliefs and faith. I haven’t, yet, had the opportunity to go to the Holy Land, but I can image that our New England Conference pilgrims will have their faith strengthened, and tested, as they visit the locations where Jesus taught and healed and journeyed on this earth.

A geographical pilgrimage, though, is not the only kind of pilgrimage. We can pilgrimage without even leaving our living rooms.   Sometimes a pilgrimage is a metaphorical journey into our own beliefs, motivations and actions.   And this is where we find Jesus this morning. Jesus, in entering the wilderness, embarked on a pilgrimage. An inward pilgrimage that would test him and prepare him for the way ahead.

Frederick Buechner, theologian and Vermonter, said that in the wilderness Jesus was trying to figure out “what it meant to be Jesus.” And maybe this is what Lent is for us as well. A forty-day journey of trying to figure out who we are. As Lent strips us of our illusions of invincibility and reminds or our mortality, we can embark on our own pilgrimage of sorts. A pilgrimage inward to our own wilderness to examine beliefs, motivations and actions. A pilgrimage which will prepare us for the way of the cross.

The Scriptures tell us that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, so we might wonder how willingly he went. Did he wander into the wilderness, unsure what he would find? Did the devil surprise him? Was he prepared to fast for forty-days, be tempted and that, ultimately, his way would lead to the cross?

Personally I don’t think Jesus knew what awaited him in the wilderness. I don’t think he willingly stepped into the path of temptation. Who would? Just like our wilderness wanderings surprise us and catch us off guard, Jesus had to muster his courage and strength in the moment. Alone in the wilderness, where no one would see him, he had to make a choice. Famished, disoriented, he remembered his baptism and what it meant to be God’s son, God’s beloved. He didn’t fall prey to the devils enticements. He didn’t turn stones into bread, but instead became himself the bread of life. He didn’t take authority over the kingdoms of the world, but instead became a servant. He didn’t throw himself from the pinnacle of the temple, but instead accepted death so we could have life.

But what about us? The wilderness question for us becomes, will we remember who we are? When surprised by what we find in our wilderness wanderings, will we be tempted by magic or rescue or fame or comfort or security or fleeting pleasures? In the wilderness, will we deny our identity? Let our fears rule? Forget our baptism?

Or will we run from the wilderness and go on with business as usual? Will we decide to skip this Lenten journey and coast from the high of Christmas right into the joy of Easter, forgetting that it is the valley that makes the mountain top experience so incredible? As Thomas Merton wrote, “The biggest human temptation is to settle for too little.” Too little vision. Too little creativity. Too little hope. When we skip the valley way, when we skirt around the wilderness, we miss the opportunity to grow, to find the strength within that is necessary to get to the other side.

A few years ago Gary and I were at my family home, the campground where I grew up. I love the woods and the pine trees and the rocks around the campground and I spent much of my childhood exploring them. Also, my Dad cut trees for firewood for the campers, so there were woods roads cutting through the 99 acres I called home. So, on this day, I convinced Gary to go for a walk in the woods with me. And I convinced him I knew the way! Well, a couple hours later, with dusk approaching, I had no idea how to get back. The woods kept turning on me and different paths looked familiar, and then not so much. The wilderness that I had known so well was playing tricks on me. The old roads my father had logged were grown over and new ones crossed in unexpected places.   With our phones left behind, and no one knowing where we had gone, we imagined that we might have to spend the night in the wilderness.

Sometimes God’s Spirit leads us into places we would not expect to go, places that are a little bit scary, that are lacking some of our creaturely comforts. Sometimes God leads us into places that are isolated and lonely, where there is not a clear-cut path. But always, always, that Spirit is with us, nudging us to more fully learn what we need to learn, let go of what needs letting go, and become who we are meant to be.

In case you are wondering, Gary and I made it out of the woods and were back in time for supper. Through a parting in the trees we saw the field of a neighbor who borders the campground. We weren’t that lost after all, but isn’t that usually the way? We think we are terribly lost and can never be found until that tap on the shoulder, that nudge, that glimpse of hope in the distance.

Certainly we can skirt the wilderness. We can peek in and decide that the journey isn’t for us… but when we do that, the only one we fool is ourselves. The wilderness is a wild place, a place of preparation… preparation for what, we may not yet know. It may be a little bit scary, but sometimes we have to do the hard stuff in faith. We may discover things about ourselves that are difficult. Yet to follow Jesus to the wilderness is to follow him to the cross. It is there we find out who we really are and, while there might be pain, there is also immeasurable joy. So, welcome to the wilderness. Wander at your own risk.

And let us pray. Lord of all, you set the way before us and we follow you into the wilderness with some fear and trembling. We are not sure what we will find, what we might discover about ourselves, what we might need to change to follow you to the cross. Be with us, we pray. Amen.