Tuesday, February 27, 2007

It's Not About Us: a Sermon for First Lent

As all families have, our family has its collection of personal sayings; and behind each one of them is a story. There’s always a story.

One of our family sayings is, “Marshall is heading off again into the tall grass.” It means that I’ve gone off in a new direction and into uncharted territory, or have decided to wander down a new road just to see where it goes. If I choose to explore a new route, even to a known place, my wife will say it. Even my kids will comment, if I decide to try a different way, “Dad, are you going off into the tall grass?”

And there is, of course, a story behind this. When we were first married, my wife and I lived in the Chicago suburbs. Not far from where we lived was one of those regional parks known in Chicagoland as a “forest preserve.” In the midst of this particular park was a lake, and we loved to go over there and do some fishing. Of course, as a small lake in the midst of the Chicago suburbs, there was only so much bank to fish from, and there were many folks who wanted to fish. It could be hard some days to find a stretch of bank along the lake with enough room to really work the water. So I was always looking for new places to fish, places that other folks hadn’t discovered, or weren’t intrepid enough to find.

One say we were walking along a path around the lake, and I noticed a small stream flowing under the path and down toward the lake. I decided I could follow that stream down to the lake, and perhaps find a new place to fish, one that no one else had discovered. My wife didn’t really want to come with me, but she didn’t want to wait on the path, either; so she followed me, if at a distance.

Well, as I got closer to the lake the undergrowth changed. At first it was low scrub, typical of the understory of a forest. But soon it changed to grass and then to reeds – at first three feet, then five feet, and then eight or nine feet – well over my head. Pretty quickly I couldn’t see for the reeds. I couldn’t see where I was going, and I really couldn’t see where I had come from. If I hadn’t kept the stream at my feet, I wouldn’t have any idea how to find my way in either direction.

Pretty quickly I decided to turn back. I didn’t really know how close I might be to the lake; and I’d been often enough in reeds along streams and lakes to realize that shortly I was likely to be up to my knees in mud. So, I turned around and followed the stream back the way I had come.

Jesus came up out of the waters of his baptism, and he was led by the Spirit – some commentators say “thrown” – into the wilderness.

We have some sense that we know about that “wilderness.” There have been enough photographs or pious paintings of the Holy Land and of the wilderness. We have some sense of desert, dry and arid terrain. But desert isn’t really the chief characteristic of wilderness. It’s really being in a place where you can’t see where you are, where you’ve come from or where you’re going. It’s a place where things aren’t under your control, where you might meet God, and might see angels or devils.

If you live in the country, downtown at night can be wilderness. You can’t see the horizon for the buildings. There are pools of shadow, pools you can’t see past or see through. We think of “wilderness” as being away from things, away from people, out where there’s no one but you. But the chief characteristic is that in the wilderness you can’t see where you’re coming or going, and things are not under your control.

Jesus came up out of the waters of his baptism, and he was led by the Spirit – some commentators say “thrown” – into the wilderness. There he went to be with God; and there he was tended by angels, and he was tempted by the Devil

When we’re in the wilderness, we can also meet angels and devils. And the first devil, often the worst one, is the one we bring with us. Out in the wilderness, out of our control. our first concern is often, “What do I do now? What can I do? How will I survive? What will happen to me?” We know that devil well. It taps into our fear, and it takes us away from encountering God to focusing on ourselves.

If you think about it, that’s what the Devil was doing when he tempted Jesus: he was trying to get Jesus to turn from God and to focus on himself. “You’re hungry. Make these stones bread, and you can eat. You’re powerless. Look at all the power in the world. Worship me and I’ll give it to you. No one knows you, and no one knows why you’ve come. Throw yourself down, and make yourself famous.” He was trying to make Jesus focus on himself.

But each time, Jesus returned to God. “Humans don’t live by bread.” What then? “Every word that comes from God.” Jesus said, “You worship only God.” He said, “You trust God, you don’t test him.” He knew at that point that it wasn’t about him. It was about encountering God.

We need constantly to be reminded of this. That was the point of the instructions Moses gave to Israel. “When you come to the land of promise, and you receive your harvest, and you bring your harvest in thanksgiving, this is what you need to say, and to remember: ‘My ancestor was a nomad, wandering in the wilderness. When he was enslaved in Egypt, God took him again into the wilderness; and it is only by God’s grace that we have come from slavery and through the wilderness to this blessed and fruitful land.” The point was that Israel remember that it wasn’t about them: it was about God.

But it can be particularly hard when we’re in the wilderness. At first we suffer, we struggle in our fear. Then we’re tempted to suffer guilt for failing in our faith. In this season of Lent, when we’re particularly aware of our sins; when we discipline ourselves to turn to God, and are then all the more conscious when we slip and fall, it’s so easy to fall into fear: fear that we’re not worthy, that we’re not good enough.

In that moment, once again, we need to remember that it’s about God, and it’s about what God has done for us in Christ. That’s what Paul is talking about when he said, “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Our salvation is not about our strength or our goodness or our worthiness. It’s about what God has done in Christ. “For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ "

So, when we wander into the wilderness – and sooner or later, we will wander into the wilderness, whether by decision or by circumstance, or just by a need to head into the tall grass – we can trust that we will not be lost. We can seek God there, and perhaps meet angels. And if we meet devils, and even if they tempt us, turning us back to ourselves, we will not be lost. Because salvation is not about us: it’s all about God.


Anonymous said...

Marshall, thank you for your image of "going into the tall grass". I remember that from my childhood. And thank you for your guiding words encouraging us to turn back to God when we find ourselves lost in the wilderness facing devils. It is all about God and the salvation we find through Jesus. Have a blessed Lenten. Peace.

Marshall Scott said...

Thanks, David, for looking in. I'm glad you appreciate the "tall grass" image. I've moved farther west into the Midwest since those days, and I've come to appreciate "tall grass prairie:" stuff you can't see over measured in square miles!