Wilderness, resistance, and unlikely superpowers – a sermon for Lent 1 (Year A)

Reading: Matthew 4.1-11

Here we have Jesus going out into the wilderness.
I wonder what you think of when you hear the word ‘wilderness’?
It’s often translated as ‘desert’,
and that’s the kind of wilderness Jesus would have known.
But wilderness can come in all sorts of varieties.

A place not conformed to the will of humans, not designed for our comfort.
A place untouched by the pervasive sin of shaping our environment to ourselves which has led to such catastrophic damage.
A wild place.

I wonder if you’ve ever been to a place like that?
Or if you can imagine that sort of place?
Sometimes the vast, untamed wildness of it can make us feel small and insignificant.
But sometimes the feeling of connectedness with such a place can make us feel that we are caught up in something so much bigger than ourselves.

Jesus doesn’t just go into the wilderness.
He is led there – led by the Holy Spirit.
And the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness for a purpose.
I love the way the Godly Play version of this story phrases it:
“Jesus went into the wilderness to find out more about who he was, and what his work was going to be.”

The story we have heard today is often called “The Temptation of Christ”
and it’s often been interpreted as a test of Jesus’ goodness,
or a battle between Jesus and the devil.
But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here.
This isn’t show of strength,
it isn’t about winning,
it isn’t about Jesus showing off how great he is
or how powerful he is.

In fact, in many ways it’s the opposite.
This is about Jesus being willingly led into an encounter with self and God
which will profoundly shape his life, and his death.
It is about Jesus coming to know more of who he is and what his work is going to be.
And in doing that, Jesus turns the whole idea of power upside down and inside out.

Each of the temptations Jesus faces in this story is in some way about power.
It seems like in each case he is being invited to exercise a sort of divine superpower:
to turn stones into bread;
to jump off the highest building in the city;
to become king of the whole world.
If this was a superhero film, those are exactly the sort of things you can imagine our hero doing.

But Jesus isn’t that sort of hero.
He makes a different choice, and in each case that choice reveals something important.

When Jesus chooses not to turn stones into bread to feed himself,
he is rejecting the idea that independence and self-sufficiency is the best way to live,
and pointing instead to a radical dependence:
on one another,
on our planet and our non-human neighbours,
and on God.

When Jesus chooses not to jump from the tower of the temple,
he is rejecting the idea that being strong and protected from everything is the most important thing,
and pointing instead to a radical vulnerability,
to an openness which realises that the capacity for pain
is the price we pay for the capacity for love.

When Jesus chooses not to take the power offered to him of ruling the whole world,
he is rejecting the idea that being in power, in control, is worth any cost, to ourselves and others,
and pointing instead to a radical humility,
which brings with it the freedom of not having to have everything under control.

Self-sufficiency, strength, control.
These are the kinds of power that characterise many of the superpowers we see in cartoons and films.
But they aren’t the kind of power Jesus chooses.

Humility, vulnerability, dependence.
These are the unlikely superpowers Jesus models.
These are the kind of superpowers God embraces in choosing to become human.

Lent is a time when we too are invited to be led by the Spirit into the wilderness,
to make choices about what sort of power, what sort of way of living,
we will embrace, and what we will reject and resist.

Lent shouldn’t be a test,
or a competition,
or a demonstration of our own righteousness.
It should be a wilderness space in which we can hone those unlikely superpowers:
humility, vulnerability, dependence on God.

And whatever we give up or take up
should be done with the aim of leading us further into that wild place
to find out more about who God is
and who we are
and what our work is going to be.

Wilderness can be an uncomfortable place to be.
Lent can be an uncomfortable place to inhabit.
That’s ok – stick with it.
This wild place, this place not made for our comfort,
is where we encounter the wild God.
CS Lewis, in the Narnia stories, expresses something of that wildness when he has Mr Beaver say of Aslan:
“Of course he isn’t safe, but he’s good.”
Our God is not a tame lion.

The great temptation which Jesus faces in the wilderness,
and which we all face in all sorts of ways,
is to prize safety over goodness,
to seek the sort of power which we hope will keep us safe and in control,
although in truth it never does.

But Jesus calls us to live a different way,
to choose those unlikely superpowers of humility, vulnerability and dependence,
which acknowledge the truth that we do nothing in our own strength,
but rely on God for everything.
And that truth will set us free.

Jesus offers us a radically different way to live:
A way which does not conform to the power structures, the economy, the expectations of the world.
And at our best we, the church, offer that radically different way of life
to our community and to the world.

In this season of Lent we are called to repentance,
to turning away from the temptations of power and control,
from the temptation to shape our environment to our own comfort,
which has led us to this point of climate catastrophe.

In this wilderness season, God calls us – as individuals and as the church –
to allow ourselves to be re-wilded.
The Spirit calls us to find new ways to resist being tamed by the lure of power.
Jesus calls us to follow him into the wilderness,
to allow our wild God
to remake us in her image,
wild and free.