Are you ready?
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
At Wit’s End
Good morning, Beloved.
My name is Pr. Tim Brown, and I’m a pastor in the North Carolina Synod, serving in Raleigh. I was a parish pastor for ten years, but these days I work across the denominational aisle for an organization that serves children and families from foster care and adoption to alternatives to juvenile detention and family reunification. At Methodist Home for Children I’m their Director of Special Gifts, though I continue to do pulpit supply and preach and teach in the North Carolina Synod.
Your pastor, the Right Reverend Niketh, and I have been friends for over 20 years now…which is amazing to believe. I’m grateful he asked me to supply the homily today. If there’s one thing this pandemic has allowed us to do, even with all it’s frustrating and maddening harm, is reach across distances previously gapping differences, if just for a bit.
I’ll be quite honest with you, though.
I’m at my wit’s end.
Fundraising virtually is not easy (it’s not easy when it’s in person), even when the cause is so good, and I have two little boys who have been doing Zoom school and, though I was a teacher in my twenties, when you are trying to teach your own young children…well…let’s just say they’ve learned some new words, but not in Phonics.
I’m at my wit’s end.
Which, is exactly where we find Jesus today, actually.
Mirroring that reluctant seafarer Noah in his ark of animals, and mimicking ancient Israel as they wandered the desert, we find Jesus today being driven out into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights.
Now, if you were all my parishioners you’d have heard a few times how I’m big on reminding folks that the number, 40, is not literal. It’s meant to clue you in to a deep truth. Because, see, in the Scriptures, 40 days is meant to remind you of that story of Noah, it’s been to bring you back to that story of Israel wandering in the desert in search of the Promised Land, because 40 days is that numerical sign post that indicates the person wandering is at their breaking point.
40 days and 40 nights stands for that moment when you’re at your wit’s end.
And with this pandemic and, no, not just with the pandemic, with the political posturing and with these four walls and the four people in this house (c’mon, we’re talking about the Gospel here so let’s get real: we’re all tired of our families many days) and not being able to travel and, that mess in Texas?! And all that snow piled high in your driveway which just sits there because we don’t have anywhere to go anyway, right?!
I mean, it may not be you (but I have a hunch it is), I am at my wit’s end.
11 pandemic months is 40 days and 40 nights, it feels like 40 years of wandering in our heads and hearts because we can’t wander with our feet.
And the temptation here, Beloved, is to just give in.
It’s tempting to give in to all the political posturing and paint everyone on this side or that side as bad (or good, depending on where you sit in the stands).
It’s tempting to give in to the cynicism so pervasive in all of this that says, “Why even bother wearing a mask and social distancing anymore because we’re past the point of no return.” We’re not, Beloved…but it is tempting sometimes to behave as if we are, especially if we don’t happen to have co-morbidities or find ourselves in the third act of life.
Oh, spoiler alert: we all have co-morbidities. It’s called being mortal. We just remembered that a few days ago on Ash Wednesday.
It’s tempting to play into power grabs in our communities that are trying to do things virtually, but it just doesn’t feel the same, you know? So you stop connecting and stop engaging and you stop supporting and you…
It’s all so tempting.
I far prefer Mark’s telling of the temptation of Jesus to Matthew and Luke’s more elaborate and detailed version. Matthew and Luke talk about what the Satan tempted Jesus with, but Mark just said, “In the wilderness, Jesus was tempted for 40 days,” which means that maybe Jesus had some of those same temptations that I have in these days.
Maybe he was tempted to turn his back on his calling in life?
Maybe he was tempted to be a revolutionary leader, and not the Prince of Peace?
Maybe he was tempted to deny his baptism, hike up his robe, and head back to Galilee to live out his days in quiet silence.
Maybe he was tempted to just call it quits.
When you’re in the 40 days of life, Beloved, when you’re at your breaking point, temptation is so so, well, tempting.
The bald and beautiful Reverend William Sloane Coffin of Riverside Church in New York City, now sainted, once said that, “Evil is so enticing, and good is so demanding.”
And while I don’t think that temptation is always evil, when it’s the temptation to give up on life, to give up on the neighbor that we’re called to love, to give up seeking out the God who calls out to us in love…well, at our breaking point it’s enticing, but in our baptism we’re reminded that no matter if we’re comfortable in our life or at our breaking point, whether we’re one day old or at our 40 days of existence, we are a Beloved child of God, marked with the cross of Christ forever, who is given the graceful burden of a spirit of wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and love of the Lord, joy, and a call to work for justice in all the world.
It’s no wonder that in Matthew, Mark, and Luke the temptation of Jesus comes directly after his baptism, because it is in the moments of our 40 days of life where we truly get to witness the truth of those baptismal waters and we’re reminded that, like Noah, they won’t overcome us. We are reminded, like Israel, that God makes a way out of no way and the Promised Land will appear. We’re reminded, Beloved, like Jesus, that the 40 days always come to an end in time and angels wait to take care of us.
Angels with vaccine vials. Angels with hot dishes. Angels with postcards of love and Zoom meeting happy hours and…it’s 40 days, but there have been angels all along the way if we’re looking, and I have a feeling that won’t stop.
Because here’s the thing about God: God would rather die than let you feel as if you’re alone forever, you hear me?
God would rather die and be buried than let the 40 days bury you.
And we know that because, in Jesus, that’s exactly what God did.
And in that resurrection moment the world saw that no 40 days, no flood, no desert wandering, no temptation will ever, ever separate us from the love of God…at least not for longer than three days.
I may be at my wit’s end, but hear me, First Lutheran, know this my siblings in Christ: the Kingdom of God has come near so don’t give into the temptation in these desert days, the angels are on their way and some have even arrived, Beloved. The inbreaking of God is in process, the promise still remains, and as we’ll see in six short weeks, our God would rather die than have you trust otherwise.