Are We Out of the Woods?

Matthew 4:1-11 NRSV

The 40 days of Lent, for Christians around the world, are an opportunity. Now I don’t know where you are in terms of Christian traditions or Lent. Maybe for you, Lent is a strange word that sounds like the small amount of fuzz in your pants pockets [i.e. lint] or the past tense of a word meaning to borrow. Some of you may have grown up in the Roman Catholic tradition, and so Lent may remind you of giving something up, like candy, alcohol, or meat [on certain days]. I also know that many of you have no history with this thing called Lent whatsoever. So let’s focus on the number 40, shall we? And on the journey story of Jesus of Nazareth, which begins with a 40 day period of self-discovery.

And as a help in our own journey of self-discovery, allow me to introduce another story.

wild
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, a memoir written by Cheryl Strayed that describes her 1,100-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995 as a journey of self-discovery. Her story was made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon. Cheryl Strayed, at the age of 22, saw her mother die of lung cancer at the age of 45. Afterwards, her family was incredibly distant and disconnected and she began a path of self-destruction, leading to broken relationships and heroin addiction. Four years later, Strayed, with no hiking experience, set out to tackle the Pacific Crest Trail that begins in the Mojave Desert and continues through California and Oregon to the Bridge of the Gods into Washington State. Her story recounts Cheryl’s life before and after this hike, describing her physical challenges and spiritual realizations. Let’s watch the trailer:

Cheryl Strayed’s story is an appropriate one for us to look at during this season. It leads us to Jesus’ story in the Gospel of Matthew. This 40 day journey of Jesus is told by Mark, Luke, and Matthew, though today we are focusing on Matthew’s version, and there are some differences that I need to point out.

First, Matthew’s author says that Spirit “takes Jesus up” into the wilderness, he fasts for forty days and only afterward is he hungry. Matthew’s Gospel was written for a primarily Jewish audience, so no surprise that this version of the story makes two connections with Israel. The number 40 refers to the Israelites who wandered in the wilderness for 40 years and the phrase “forty days and forty nights” refers to Moses in the book of Exodus who was on Mt. Sinai for “forty days and forty nights.”  Further, Matthew’s story defines the character of “the tempter” in various ways, calling him devil, Satan, the evil one, the enemy, prince of demons, and even Beelzebul.

Speaking of the temptations. And no, not the Motown group, though they were AMAZING.

temptationsgroupThis is Jesus’ temptation experience and Matthew switches things up. First, Jesus is told to turn stones [plural] into loaves of bread. Then, Jesus is tempted at the pinnacle of the temple [order change], and lastly, Jesus is tempted up on a mountain [see earlier Exodus/Moses references]. The plural of stones and loaves is important because Matthew is making the point that if Jesus is who he says he is, why not feed the world? Why not use his magic power to do something like that? Jesus rebuffs the temptation by retelling the story of the Israelites in the wilderness and waiting for food, and in that waiting and humility, they were finally able to be ready to receive the manna [bread] that Yahweh provided.

The second test is in Jesus exploiting his supposed religious power as God’s son. This is about the religious elite of Jesus’ day, and how they wielded power over the marginalized of society. Jesus, in Matthew’s story, again refers to Moses, this time to a story in which people were thirsty and Moses asked God to make water flow from a rock.

And lastly, when Jesus is up on a high mountain [so high that he not only sees the promised land but the whole cosmos], he is tempted by the question: who is the divine? Is Yahweh God? Is the tempter God? And it follows: how is Jesus really? That last question, of course, has been the crazy controversy of Christianity since probably around the 3-4th century.

The identity question within Jesus’ wilderness story is the point for us. Just like in the story of the Wild, someone is challenged to look deeply at who they are, facing temptations, anger, sadness, the past, and the present.

I will pretty much leave this here for now, because we need to take this journey appropriately—with patience and care. Self-examination /change/personal growth are not quick-fixes. This is more than just learning a new skill, giving up something, or practicing some sort of religious thing. This is a change not just in what you do but in who you are. Each step of your journey is important. And we all must start where we are. Doesn’t matter what mistakes you’ve made or the state of your life currently. This is where you are. Just take the next step, whatever that is. Take the first step.

See the trail, the wilderness, the journey—as an opportunity. Embrace it. What would it be like for you to forgive yourself? What would it be like for you to embrace your own journey? What is your first step to change that will help to make you a healthier, balanced, and whole person?

 

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Josh grew up in Indiana and Iowa before completing a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. He has worked in a variety of settings, including the Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Church of Christ (UCC) in Philadelphia, Hawai’i, Mexico, and Michigan. Currently, he serves as pastor of Love in Action United Church of Christ, a progressive, Christian, LGBTQIA+ affirming and interfaith community in Hatboro, a suburb of Philadelphia. He also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre/Speech from Northwestern College (IA). Josh has worked with youth and young adult programs for 25 years regionally, nationally, and in Latin America. He is also a trained actor and performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, LLC. He has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in worship, youth groups, education, and group-building. Josh is also committed to promoting religious pluralism and partnering with people of all faiths and those who identify as atheist or agnostic to build bridges of shared values and cooperation. He is honored to work with the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia as a Fellow and a Consultant. Focus areas include: University alternative spring break and summer programs that incorporate faith encounters and service-learning for students; workplace diversity programs that promote understanding in organizations, corporations, schools, and hospital settings. Josh also enjoys playing basketball, strumming on the guitar, traveling, learning language, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philadelphia and thinks vegan cheesesteaks are amazingly good.

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