Message from Rev. Brian Adkins, Sunday April 19, 2020
Epworth UMC, Berkeley
After my dad died, I went out to his workbench in the barn. There was a box with photos of his favorite fishing trip, old pocket knives and fishing lures and zippo lighters. And there were several old cassette tapes. A few of his own sermons preached as an evangelist; a tape of grandma Flo’s neighbor, sister Arlene Diamond- singing her original bluegrass gospel songs; and there was one labeled, “Gospel Singing Jan-19-1980” and it was recorded at Grandma Flo’s church, Dewberry Church of God. I decided I would digitize these cassettes for posterity.
As I listened to the recording of the gospel sing, I heard those old familiar voices: sister Edna Vance, the Abundant Life Gospel Singers, and even my dad’s singing. But I noticed as I listened that over all the amens and hallelujahs one voice stood out among the others. One voice shouting praises in the background louder than all the others. You could probably guess: it was Grandma Flo. It was a comforting and sweet surprise to hear her voice.
Knowing now, as I do, some of the trials and tribulations of her life at that time, I am reminded of something she used to say to me, “You better praise God while you feel like it because there will be days when you don’t feel like it. Praise God for where he brought you from and where you might otherwise have been.”
I’ve been trying to bear that in mind on the days when feeling trapped and isolated. To praise God, anyway.
It is strange to go from resurrection back into the wilderness- but in someway, it feels like that’s where we are. The isolation, uncertainty, angst. As soon as we celebrated Jesus’ resurrection and emergence from the tomb- it may feel like we’ve landed back in the limbo of Lent. A few people have actually described our isolation in terms of the wilderness.
Luke’s story of Jesus’ wilderness experience is very near the beginning of his public ministry; just after his baptism. Full of the Holy Spirit, we are told, Jesus is led out into the wilderness. The wilderness is recurring theme in this old book. It is a mystic place. It is more than a place, it is a condition. The Hebrew children spent their years in the wilderness. The prophets had their wilderness moments. John the Baptist emerged from it to prepare the way for Jesus; and then Jesus goes out into the wilderness himself.
The wilderness places us in the stories of the Israelites coming out of bondage, it aligns us with the prophets and their suffering, and it brings us face-to-face with temptation in the story of Jesus.
So, if we are in the wilderness, we’re in the company of our forebears.
Jesus, led out to the wilderness, we assume by the Spirit, encounters the devil. Now, we don’t tend to spend a lot of time talking about the devil but in progressive and process theology we might understand the devil best as the personification of evil and, here, temptation. Now look at the ways in which the devil tempts Jesus.
The devil twice questions Jesus’ identity, “If you are the Son of God…” If you are who you say you are, show me. Of course the devil already knows who Jesus is or he wouldn’t be so interested in him. (I’m reminded of Glenda, the good witch of the North who says of the ruby slippers, “They must be very powerful or she wouldn’t want them so badly.”) The devil must be very threatened by Jesus, or he wouldn’t pursue him so avidly.
And while the devil tempts and taunts Jesus to perform these party tricks like turning stones into bread, Jesus centers himself in the Word of God. Quoting from Deuteronomy- the book containing the speeches and sermons of Moses just before the Hebrew children come out of their wilderness and into the Promised Land. He’s laying claim to what is not yet, but what will be; the wilderness is not forever.
Howard Thurman preached that the temptations of Jesus were about bread, privilege, and power. Jesus, having been fasting for forty days, is no doubt hungry. The devil chooses his greatest weakness, his hunger, to tempt him. Turn these stones into bread and save yourself. Ain’t it true that we are most often tempted at the place of our greatest weakness, or greatest wounded-ness. Makes me wonder what stones we are being tempted to change into bread these days.
Jesus does not give in to this temptation. He says, “we live by the Word of God and not by the pangs of our hunger, not by the satiation of our hunger, not by the nourishment of the bread. Our strength comes from the unshakeable foundation that is the Word of God.”
When Jesus does not relent, the devil goes for the thing almost no man can resist: the allure of power. Bow down to me, he says, and all the kingdoms you see can be yours. Jesus replies, I will not bow down to you, but I will worship God alone.
And finally, the devil tries to turn his faith against him, using his privileged place as a beloved one of God. And notice here, that the devil is the one who starts quoting scripture. If even the devil tempted Jesus with the Word of God, how can we be surprised when the Word is used against us. The devil says, if you believe that the angels will catch you, prove that belief. Jesus is unpersuaded.
The text ends with, “And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.” Translation: this ain’t over.
But watch as Jesus emerges from the wilderness experience. Just five verses later, in verse 15, Jesus utters that defining phrase, ““The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”
Emerging from the wilderness, he know who he is. And he knows what he is called to do. Perhaps this is the glimmer of hope for those of us in the wilderness: that God brings us out of the wilderness experience transformed, renewed, and for a purpose.
Perhaps in our current isolation, something new is breaking forth in us. A clarity of purpose, a renewal of some kind. I read recently that Chris Cuomo, the CNN anchor who contracted covid-19, went on something of a rant recently saying, “I don’t like what I do professionally.” Sounds like in the midst of his illness and isolation, Chris has gained some clarity on what matters to him and what doesn’t.
I wonder if we are gaining clarity in our current situation. What will be different about us and in us when we emerge from this?
I want to point out that not only does Jesus emerge with a calling and clarity, he also emerges with a theological perspective. When his disciples soon after ask him to teach them to pray. The prayer he teaches seems to be drawn directly from his experience in the wilderness. Having gone through his time of temptation, he tells us to pray- about bread, temptation, the kingdom, and power. The very things that the devil tempted him with:
“Thy kingdom come” (Not the kingdoms this world promises, but the kin-dom of God.)
“Give us our daily bread” (so that we are not tempted to turn stones to bread; reducing the mighty power of the Holy Spirit to a party trick.)
“Forgive us our trespasses” (Jesus calls us to repentance, which is a hallmark of the wilderness experience)
“Lead us not into temptation” (as Jesus was led but deliver us from evil, in all its forms and manifestations.)
“For the power, the glory are yours” (and none other’s.)
What prayer is emerging for you these days? What theological perspective are you gaining, even in isolation? Several months ago in a sermon, I offered an Appalachian re-writing of one of the Psalms. The songs and prayers of the Bible in our own words helps to make the scripture our own. How might we write our own Lord’s Prayer?
We may be in the wilderness now. And we may be stuck here a while. But we are in good company. We know it won’t last forever. May we emerge with a greater sense of purpose and identity, and a deeper understanding of mission; a deeper commitment to community. That the kin-dom of God is made real in our midst.
We know that whatever we’re going through, we know the best is yet to come. Thanks be to God.