A sermon preached by Pastor Robert Schaefer
First & Spring Creek Lutheran Churches
Second Sunday in Lent – February 20, 2005
Text: John 3:16-17
Friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“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.”
Those are the words spoken by the John the Baptist to Jesus just before he begins his temptation in the wilderness, according to Martin Scorsese’s film “The Last Temptation of Christ.” As we began our Lenten journey last week, we considered what it means that our God is a desert god, one who meets his people in the lonely, barren places of life. We learned how God uses the emptiness of those places – indeed, of our own spirits – to open us up, to free us from all the distractions that get in the way of our hearing his still, small voice. Whether the desert through which we journey is a physical wilderness, as was the one into which our Lord ventured, or the wild reaches of sinful, broken heart, our God is able to fill those emptinesses with his presence. If we want – or need – to hear a word from God, the desert is often the best place for us.
That’s a very comforting image, and the godforsaken corners of life are in God’s strange goodness the places where we receive our best comfort from God. But we should never forget that the desert, like all places wild, is a dangerous and foreign place to us. When we venture into the wilderness we are out of our element. We are alone and vulnerable. We need to keep our eyes open and our wits about us. God surely is waiting to be found in the desert – but, as the Baptist says, he’s not alone out there.
So since this Lent we are desert-bound, on the trail through wild places that leads to the cross, we do well to consider the dangers that must be faced, and how we might overcome them.
First, there is the danger of starving. Venturing out into the desert without provisions is risky business; Jesus could well have died in the far reaches of Idumea without any food or water to sustain him. When we walk the spiritual deserts of Lent, when our souls are empty and barren like the Palestinian expanses, we must see to it that we receive enough nourishment – it’s a matter of life and death.
What food do we have? The same food Jesus had those forty days and nights – every word that proceeds from God’s mouth is food for our spirit. Carry a Bible in your back pocket and you’ll never find your faith flagging for lack of sustenance. Carry God’s word in your very heart and you’ll have made the best provision possible for the inevitable stretches of scarcity that mark life’s deserts. Just as it’s dangerous and foolish to enter the wilderness without an adequate supply of vittles in your rucksack, it’s no less reckless to brave the spiritual wilderness without the word of God as bread for your heart. Stock up on it – it’s just as light to carry a hundred verses as none, and your life in the desert may depend on how well you have prepared to feed your soul.
What drink do we have? The Holy Spirit, by whose power we were baptized in water and emerged children of God, is heavenly water to quench the deepest thirst. Jesus himself said, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” Scripture tells us that the “living water” he promised is the Spirit himself, who fills us to the brim at our baptism and pours forth from our hearts, an inexhaustible spring to bring life in the desert. Baking under the sun, becoming crisp and dry, we must remember that just as God made water pour from a stone to refresh his wandering people Israel, he has caused the living water of his Spirit to pour forth from each of us, refreshing us in our own parched wanderings.
But there are many other dangers lying in wait where the pavement ends and nature still reigns untamed.
Even with spiritual food and drink, every traveler in the desert runs the very real risk of exposure. It’s wide open out there – when the sun beats down or the wind whips up, a person needs a safe place to take to take refuge from the elements. You simply weren’t made to live without shelter. Your body can’t last long without protection.
As you journey through spiritual emptiness, by day you’ll find the hot beams of sin beating down on your back, burning you with the evils of a past that won’t let you be. And should you venture out by night, hoping to hide from the heat of those sins, the tempting light of the moon will lure you into new ones. By day or by night the winds of pain and loneliness will pound hard against you in such a wide-open place, wearing you down. Without shelter, you will quickly succumb to exposure.
In the Sahara or the Gobi we might settle for whatever little nook or cranny we could find to protect us from swirling windstorms and scorching sun rays. In the deserts of life, God himself will be our shelter; Psalm 121 promises us: “The Lord is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.” Whether we walk in the light of day or the middle of the night, God walks faithfully by our side in the desert, sheltering us from the accusing rays of the sun by his forgiveness, and the tempting rays of the moon by his warnings. When painful winds swirl up and threaten to overwhelm us, God wraps himself around us, bearing the brunt of the assault himself, so that we can breathe freely. All this he does while we are on the move – God is at our right hand wherever we go in the desert. As we journey on to the far side, God journeys with us, sheltering our every step. When we trust him, we need not fear that the elements will take us in the middle of the wilderness.
There is one further danger in life’s barren places, however. It is the danger that John the Baptist hinted at to Jesus in my opening quote – That although God can be found filling up the emptiness of the desert, he is not alone out there. The desert, which seems so devoid of life at first, is actually teaming with it. None of the wild creatures will offer you a hand as you struggle on your way…and some of them may see in you the perfect prey. In the wilderness, it’s good to be watching your back.
There are the usual predators haunting our steps when life is empty – the narrow-eyed people with a kill-or-be-killed, eat-or-be-eaten approach to life. They grow stronger by tearing apart travelers who are weakened by the journey. But there is another foe who stalks us, hunting us so cleverly that we hardly guess our peril until it is too late. This great beast who roams the desert, prowling like a lion, is our adversary, the devil. He is the one against whom John the Baptist speaks his warning. When we are pilgrims in empty places, he is the one we must guard against.
But the devil’s way is cunning and deception, not brute force. He knows who people are seeking when they wander in the desert – he knows they are looking for God. And nothing gives him greater delight than misleading God’s people, leading them astray in the wild with his tricks and lies, until they collapse in death, far from the path of the Lord. Nothing is sweeter to him than impersonating a saint, an angel, or God himself, quoting God’s scripture against God, bringing visions and inspirations that seem divine but mark the path to death. That lion Satan is crafty and patient. Of all the dangers in the desert, of all the ways to be brought down low, he is the worst. How can we recognize his lies when he is stalking us?
The only way is to know the absolute truth of God’s good news, to know it so deeply that it becomes the measure of our world. “God loved the world.” How much? “He gave his only Son.” Why? “That the world, through him, might be saved.” It’s all there in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus. John 3:16-17 are the gospel in a nutshell, in all of its simple, wonderful beauty. God’s love is so great that he gave his Son Jesus to us, so that through faith in Jesus we will be free from sin and the tempter, and have life with him forever. If you know nothing else about God, know this: He loves you, and he sent Jesus to save you.
Whatever words you hear in the desert of the spirit, measure them against this gospel. If the word you seek comes from God, it will measure up perfectly. If the message is more or less than what scripture teaches about God’s love in Jesus, reject it – the fullness of the gospel is always God’s message to us. Anything that doesn’t measure up, no matter how close, is sure to lead you astray.
During Lent we take six weeks to deliberately journey together through the desert of the spirit, seeking God where he may be found. Though there are certainly dangers along the way, God has made provision for us. He has given us the bread of scripture and the living water of the Spirit. He shelters us as we shuffle along, protecting us from the accusations of sin and the allure of temptation, and guarding us from the winds of pain and loneliness. And he provides us a measuring stick with which to protect ourselves from the wiles of the great predator Satan – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
The desert is a place for caution and care, yes. But when we go with God, we may safely travel into the desert, trusting that he will bring us back out again, and better for our travels. God grant us a safe and fruitful stay in this Lenten desert. Amen.