Riding Into The Wilderness

The following is only an excerpt of this sermon. The full sermon can be heard by clicking the audio link below.

Luke 4.1-13.1; Corinthians 1-18

We always begin on this first Sunday of Lent by hearing the story of Jesus’ journey into the wilderness, how he journeyed to the edge of life. How he was famished, how he was thirsty, how he was in the place where the wild animals threatened his life. He went right to the edge. The wilderness was the place of threat, of the margins of life. It is a place we often encounter in the bible.

When Jesus goes to the wilderness on this day after his baptism to begin his ministry, the devil comes and meets him. And there was a confrontation, an attempted seduction. An attempted diversion from the plan of God, and boy, was it clever. Because the devil tempts Jesus as a human being. We believe he was fully God, but also fully human. And as a human being, the devil tempts Jesus with the very same things that we want from God. Food. Material things that sustain us. Power and glory, yeah, we want that on some level. And protection. We want safety.

But Jesus, even though he was at the edge, realized that he had a choice. A choice whether to submit to the plan that God had for him, to become what God created him to be, or on the other hand, to go for the things that we crave, that we hunger for. Provision, power, protection. Apart from God. On our own. We heard the story of Jesus going into the wilderness and choosing faithfully.

Well, now Jesus’ journey invites us as we begin the season of Lent to take our own journey into the wilderness, to take a spiritual journey to the edge. Some of us are already there. Because in the wilderness, when we are on the edge, when we are hungry, when we are famished, when we don’t know where our next meal is coming from, when we don’t know what wild animals threaten us, when we are the margins, when we are at the edge, we discover what we are truly made of.

In the wilderness we meet our devils. But the scriptural truth of Lent is also that we meet not only our devils but also we meet God there.

I just got back from Uganda you may have heard, last Thursday. And while we were there for 10 days we took probably thousands of pictures between the two of us. But I’d like to give you two pictures of Uganda that you can perhaps reflect on this morning. The first is a picture of a bicycle. Now there are a lot of cars there, but the fact is not many people own cars there because it is so expensive. So they use, as a main mode of transportation, bicycles. In the cities, in the countryside, you see them riding their bicycles. And because it’s their only mode of transportation the bicycles carry not only themselves, not only the riders, but everything that they need. So when you’re driving down the street, down a dirt road or a paved road, whether you’re in the city with lots of traffic and cars zooming in and out, you see the bicycles there. You see them carrying all of the stuff that they need for survival.

The traditional Ugandan hut is a circular hut and at the top they have these grass reeds that provide the ceiling, and they’re about 8 feet long. They tie them up in big bundles and they put them on the ends of their bike. So you see them driving down the road on this little skinny bike and on the back is this 8 foot wide bunch of reeds. And they’re kind of driving down the road trying to stay balanced. Sometimes they have these big bags of charcoal, they don’t use power, so they have charcoal for cooking and they have these huge bags that are about this tall, and they tie them up on the back of their bike because they buy the charcoal and they take it home. How are they going to take it home? They take it on their bike. Sometimes they tie all of their dead chickens to their bike to take home and eat. Or to take to the market to sell. Sometimes they take big bags of potatoes or fruit, sometimes they take their big jugs of water. They have these 5 gallon yellow jugs of water, they don’t have running water in their homes, so they have to take it to the center of their village or in town to pump the water and then they take it back home. They don’t want to do that every day so they pile these yellow 5 gallon jugs of water, not one of them, not two of them, not three of them, not four them… but six 5 gallon jugs of water on one bicycle. Isn’t that amazing?

And as I watched them ride through traffic with this accumulated stuff on their bicycles, it occurred to me that it is an apt metaphor for life. Because we ride through our lives and we gradually accumulate all of the stuff that we need to survive. And we accumulate more and more and more stuff, it’s amazing the crap that you can carry on your bike, if you’ll excuse the vulgarity. Some of it is good stuff, some of it is stuff we need: water, stuff to construct our homes, food. But a lot of the stuff that ends up on our bicycles is stuff that we just accumulate along the way: the burdens that we bear, the hurts that we’ve suffered, the cares of our world, the relationships that we struggle with, our own illnesses, our own struggles. And those things get loaded up on our bike and we don’t realize it and we’re riding along and it gets tougher and tougher to pedal and all of the sudden we realize that we’re riding a bike that weighs 350 pounds.

Well, Lent invites us to take the dirt road into the wilderness. To live life on the edge for a little while. Because what we do in the season of Lent is we hop off our bike and we spend some time reflecting and studying and we take an inventory of all the stuff that we have accumulated in our lives.

(To listen to the sermon in full, please click below)

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  • Breakfast Encounter

    Last Friday morning, I stopped by my GP’s office to let them draw some blood for a test and to get my flu vaccine for the year. Because of the blood test, I had to ‘fast,’ arriving for the blood draw without having any food that morning. When the phlebotomist had drawn the blood and given me the shot, I went to a nearby diner to get some breakfast. Little did I know I was about to witness something extraordinary.

    While I was eating my pancake, egg, and piece of sausage and reading a book about Oscar Romero, a young man went up to the counter to pay. I didn’t notice any of this, of course (occupied as I was with not only Oscar Romero’s life and ministry to the poor of El Salvador, but also all that butter and syrup…) until the young man started yelling at the woman behind the counter.

    “Swipe it again!” is what drew my attention.

    She did, and the card must have been denied a second time. She ran it again, and the look on her face told me the same thing happened. Denied.

    The young man was getting more agitated and saying things to her under his breath. I was paying more attention now, and she asked if he had another card she could try.

    “No! I don’t have another bleeping card!” he yelled at her. Except he didn’t say bleeping.

    Now I’m not a stranger to harsh words. I’ve said them myself. Usually when I’m trying to get a rusted bolt off an old machine and it finally comes loose, taking some of my knuckle skin with it. And I think I quietly swore under my breath in January of 1988 when the Washington football team beat my beloved Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl, 42-10. There have been other times too. But never, ever at a person.

    Upon being sworn at, the young woman stared at the man like she didn’t know what to do (how could she?). Tears were about to appear. And the air in the room went real still. Like in the movies. I’m sure the background music was still playing, but it seemed deathly quiet at that moment.

    I was about to get up and walk over to the counter—not exactly sure what I was going to do once I got there—when another man who had been eating nearby wandered up real slow, eyes staring at the young man. He was a tall guy, with white hair under his old IFA ball cap, probably in his sixties. He asked the young woman, “What seems to be the problem here?”

    And that’s when the young man made what I thought was a fatal mistake: he answered when he hadn’t been spoken to. “It’s nothin’. My card won’t work,” he spat back.

    I thought a fight was about to break out, but the older man, his eyes searing into the young disgruntled one’s face, reached for his wallet and said to the cashier, “Aubrey, I’d like to pay for this young man’s meal, if that’s okay with him.” And after getting out some cash, he put his hand on the young man’s shoulder, not one of those friendly pats on the shoulder, but one of those firm grips that, well, made me think he was making sure the lesson was going to stick.

    I’ve had those kinds of hands on my shoulders a few times over the years. Perhaps from a coach, maybe from my dad once or twice; they happen when a boy or young man really needs to start paying attention.

    And after staring at him for what seemed like an eternity, the old guy said, “Be kind.” And then walked away.

    The young man left the restaurant and climbed into an oversize truck that was parked right out front, cranked up the volume on his radio, and left some rubber on the road as he departed.

    I went into the church office sometime later to finish my sermon, but I kept thinking about angry people and hurt people and kind people and people who teach lessons to those who could use them. I also thought about people who have a head full of kind words who refuse to tolerate ugliness.

    I hope I can be someone like that.

    I have a feeling Aubrey earned a whole lot of tips that morning. She deserved them.

    Be kind.

    That’s all for now.

    —Pastor Derek

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