The Wilderness of Transition

+In the Name of God: who was, and is, and is to come. Amen.

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

Matthew 4:1

Good morning! Before I launch into my maiden preaching voyage at All Saints’, please let me reiterate how delighted I am to be here and how grateful I am to your Wardens and Vestry and to the staff for helping me settle in. Today marks Day 14 of my tenure as your Interim Rector, and it has been a whirlwind to say the least. Beginning with the Africa Bake Auction last Sunday – which, as of Friday morning had raised $32,960 – there has been one thing right after another – Tuesday’s Palm Burning, Ash Wednesday, and then a Thursday meeting of the Interim Clergy of the Diocese followed by Stump the Staff. My head started to spin a little – exactly what I expected would happen, but still . . . . So, when Courtney Reid said in her Ash Wednesday sermon that, even on the day of her ordination to the priesthood, she was looking forward to Lent, I could relate.

So, Lent – a time for a spiritual change of pace, perhaps, as we prepare for Holy Week and Easter when we recall how God showed God’s extraordinary love for us in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The theme for this year’s observance of Lent at All Saints’ is “story,” and it’s hard to imagine a better story for this First Sunday in Lent than the one we just heard about Jesus in the wilderness.

Matthew writes, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil,” The adverb “then” is one of those transitional words in the English language – it’s there in the original Greek of Matthew’s Gospel also, and it reminds us to take a look at what happened just before Jesus was led up into the wilderness.

What happened was his baptism in the Jorden River by John – when the Spirit descended and when God called Jesus The Beloved. So, Jesus’ baptism and his going into the wilderness are closely connected. After such a life-altering experience, Jesus needed to sort out what had happened. We understand this. When something happens to one of us that’s life-changing, we have to process what’s happened – whether it’s something wonderful life falling in love, or something not so wonderful like losing a job or a friend

I think about St. Paul after the Damascus Road incident. Several years after that incident took place, Paul wrote to the Galatians that he immediately had to get away to Arabia so he could have time to think. He had to figure out as much as he could about the experience before he could do anything else. Maybe we haven’t had anything quite that dramatic happen to us, but most of us can relate. I’m still processing some of the key events in my life and making sense of them decades after they happened – how they’ve shaped and formed me – and all the different ways my life has changed as a result of them.

After his baptism, Jesus had a lot to think about and many questions that he needed to have answered: For example, what exactly did it mean to be God’s beloved? What power had been transferred to him or invested in him when the Holy Spirit fell on him? What exactly was the extent of that power – was it this much power, or that much power? And, most importantly, how should he use the power that came with being “my Son, the Beloved?” 

The three temptations Matthew describes in his Gospel give us some insight into the questions Jesus wrestled with – what if he changed stones into bread, was that an appropriate use of his power? Or throwing himself off the pinnacle of the Temple – was that okay? Or gaining control of the world . . . for a price, to be sure, but wouldn’t it be better to have Jesus in charge of the world than having someone else in charge?

None of us has the power that Jesus had, but each of us has at least some power, and the temptation to misuse the power we have is always hovering nearby. And, if our blind spots keep us from seeing how attracted we are to abusing our own power, there are plenty of examples of the abuses of power by others – by those in government or entertainment to name just two examples from the news recently. How hard it is for us human beings not to abuse our power to get an advantage over our rivals, or to satisfy our own desires!

If we need more mundane examples, how hard it is not to abuse our power just to irritate the daylights out of the ones we live with or work with! My grandmother used to call that putting beans up somebody’s nose – a pretty accurate description! Whether you believe that Satan is real person, or just a way to talk about the evil that exists in the world, it’s still devilishly difficult to keep from misusing our power. Would that it were otherwise.

The part of the story I want to focus on this morning is the part about the wilderness – about how Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness. There isn’t a soul who would have heard this story in Jesus’ own time without another story of God’s people reverberating. The story I’m talking about is, of course, the story of how the Hebrew people spent forty years in the wilderness – forty years from the time they were delivered at the Red Sea to their entry into the Promised Land.

Jesus surely knew the significance of the wilderness. His answers to the temptations in his forty-day wilderness experience all emerge from the wilderness scriptures in Deuteronomy. I doubt any of you will be surprised when I tell you that those of us who serve as Interims go back to those stories of the people of God traveling through the wilderness over and over again in our work with congregations. One would have to be blind not to see the connection between the time of transition from one rector to another and the wilderness wanderings of the Hebrew people.

In the Old Testament, the “wilderness” is seen as an interim period between the Exodus from Egypt and the entry into the Promised Land. The wilderness is a time of danger as well as opportunity. Life is unpredictable in the wilderness, and there is always the tendency to take shortcuts to the promised destiny. The people of God complained a lot – even after God split rocks in the wilderness and gave them all they could drink from underground springs. Eugene Petersen translates a few verses of Psalm 78 this way: “[The People of God] tried to get their own way with God, clamored for favors, for special attention./They whined like spoiled children, ‘Why can’t God give us a decent meal in this desert . . . how about some fresh-baked bread? How about a nice cut of meat?’”

I want you to know that while going through this time of transition is not optional, whining, complaining or grumbling during this time of transition is TOTALLY OPTIONAL. It is not a required part of the experience for the people of God here at All Saints’.

I remember when our daughter turned 12, she sat Terry and me down and said, “I’m twelve. I’m an adolescent now. Adolescents often don’t like their parents and they sometimes say bad things to their parents. When that happens, please know that it’s not because I don’t love you anymore. I’m just going through a phase!” Terry and I looked at her and said, “And we want you to know that that part of adolescence is optional. You don’t have to go through that phase.” . . . It didn’t work . . .

Here’s what I want to say as we start moving through this transition wilderness together: You won’t like everything about going through this wilderness. It is, as I said earlier, a time of danger and opportunity. Life is unpredictable in the wilderness. Everything that once was familiar isn’t so familiar anymore. Your Wardens and Vestry found that out a while ago, and so have many others among you who are leaders in this parish. God knows, Andrew and Colin and Andrew have discovered this in spades, especially since I arrived!

But here’s the thing to remember. God is still leading All Saints’. Keep an eye out for the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. Believe and trust that God will give us bread for the journey. We won’t be able to store it up. It will show up every day right on schedule, but we’ll have to trust that God will give us our daily bread. Recall how the prophets looked back at the wilderness as a meaningful time, when Israel discovered its identity and realized its mission. All Saints’ will re-discover its identity and realize its mission anew during this transition and, maybe, even discover some new directions for mission and ministry.

The analogy between a parish transition and the wanderings in the wilderness breaks down in more ways than I can count. I would never claim to be the spiritual equivalent of Moses, although my age might qualify me in some of your minds. Although we may have a mountaintop experience during our time together, don’t plan on any new commandments – at least not from me. And I have no plans to revisit that whole poisonous snake part of the wilderness story. We can’t afford to lose a single parishioner as we journey together.

But there is one significant way in which the analogy between this parish’s transition and Israel’s transition holds up. At the end of this time of transition, your Search Committee will recommend to your Vestry a priest to be your new leader, just as God chose Joshua to lead the people of Israel into the next phase of their life. The Good News is it won’t take forty years. The bad news – at least for those of you who would like this time of transition to have ended yesterday – is that it won’t take forty days either.

It won’t because there are discoveries to be made about the heritage of this place, and things to learn about who All Saints’ is now that Bonnie’s the Bishop of Michigan and not your rector, and a time to reflect on how you will use the incredible power that God has bestowed on this parish.

“Then All Saints’ was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness.” For now, it’s the exact right place for us to be.