A sermon preached by Pastor Robert Schaefer
First & Spring Creek Lutheran Churches
First Sunday in Lent – February 13, 2005
Text: Matthew 4:1-2
Friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
There is a scene in Martin Scorsese’s film “The Last Temptation of Christ” where Jesus and John the Baptist are sharing an intense conversation about the will of God. In the course of their debate, Jesus recognizes that he needs to speak with God, to listen to God, to encounter God so that he can be sure. John nods approvingly and speaks one of the film’s most memorable lines: “The God of Israel is a god of the desert. If you want to speak to Him, then you’ll have to go to the desert…be careful. God isn’t alone out there.”
I’d like to speak with you this week about our God of the desert. As we make our first tentative steps into the wilderness of Lent, it’s important for us to remember how God comes to his people in barren, empty places and meets them there. Next week we’ll take up the question of the Tempter and other dangers of the desert through which we walk.
The Baptist is right when he says that Israel’s God is a god of the desert. The pages of the Bible are filled with desert stories. Over and over again God calls his people out from the safety of their homes and into the wild, and there he guides them, speaks with them, and protects them. There’s a special connection between God and the barren places of this world, and it is often in those bleak, empty places – the places we might call “godforsaken” – that God chooses to make his presence especially known to us.
It was in the wilderness beyond Midian that God called out to Moses. Isolated out in the open country, far from his family and home, Moses was exposed and vulnerable. He had little more than his shepherd’s staff to defend him against animals and enemies. He had little more than the stars and his knowledge of the land by which to guide his flock. He had no one to speak to, no one to pray with, no one to encourage him. In the desert, Moses was utterly alone. And in the midst of that vast emptiness that crept even into a man’s heart, the Lord appeared to Moses in a burning bush, speaking words to him that inspired him and changed his life. Our God – Israel’s God – is a god of the desert.
Some time later Moses would again venture out into the wilds to speak with God. This time the host of Israel followed behind him. For forty long years the people wandered the desert, following where God led the way. He had brought them out of slavery in Egypt, and was bringing them to their promised homeland, and along the way he was teaching them what it meant to be a chosen people by living among them in their very camp. Day by day the Israelites learned trust from God. Day by day they came to depend on him. Day by day they were made holy by living in his presence. God filled the emptiness of the wilderness and used it to teach his lessons. Our God – Israel’s God – is a god of the desert.
Since the time of Moses, countless people had sought God out and found him in the wilderness. From kings and prophets to peasants and slaves, God has a history of meeting his people in the desert. Of course he is never far from us – God hears our prayers and speaks his counsel whether we are safe in our beds or shivering under the night sky. And yet God continues to choose the empty, dry places of our world to give his best revelations. It made sense for Jesus to go out into the wilderness to fast after having been baptized. He needed to prepare himself. Our God – Israel’s God – Jesus’ God – is a god of the desert.
In Lent we mark the forty days and nights of Jesus’ stay in the desert with forty days and nights of our own, praying and fasting and seeking God’s presence. We seek to simplify our lives, to make them more like the openness of the desert, so that God might fill them up. During Lent we are reminded that though God is always with us, we are easily distracted from him. The call into the desert is not for God’s sake, but for our own; though God can speak to us any time he pleases, the truth is that we hear best when we’re alone and our lives are empty of distractions.
God comes to us especially when we have wandered into deserts of the spirit. When our lives are dry and empty, when we are small and afraid, when the dangers and pains of life threaten to overwhelm us, God is certain to meet us in the midst of all that fear and loneliness. God provided bread for the Israelites, angel guardians for Jesus, and he will provide you with what you need, as well, when your life passes through wild places. Just as he led the Israelites in their wanderings, so he will lead you, too, though you may not be aware of it, until you find yourself in the land of favor he has promised you.
Whatever your troubles, whatever your pains, whatever shape the emptiness of your life takes, know that Our God – Israel’s God – is a god of the desert. You are not alone…he is closer than ever. Listen for him. Watch for him. Wait for him. He will not abandon you in the wilds of life. He will come to you, just as he came to Jesus, to Moses, and to countless others before you.
Comfort and safety make our lives good, but it is our stays in the desert that give them meaning. Thank God for the desert, and for leading us safely through it. Amen.