March 5, 2017
Matthew 4:1-11, Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
“Get Out of the Boat”
When I was growing up, I felt sorry for my poor Catholic friends. I didn’t understand why they had to suffer during Lent by giving up something they loved. My church didn’t tell us to do anything like that. In fact, my Methodist church didn’t mention Lent at all. We just coasted along until Easter. Easter was the day where we wore special clothing and got chocolate bunnies. The story of Jesus’ resurrection always seemed supernatural and it wasn’t grounded in any context. The seasons of the church year give us context. Easter does not exist in a vacuum but emerges from Lent, a season of reflection and preparation.
The season of Lent begins with ashes and temptation…every year. We might think we will just skip that part because it’s so repetitive after all. But it seems we need reminders of our mortality as well as the hard questions about what tempts us. We might prefer to make light of temptation because both stories border on the ridiculous – can you imagine having a conversation with a snake? Or would you really go without food alone in the desert for forty days then debate with some figure with a pitchfork? Very unlikely. It’s easy to write off snakes and pitchforks. But that doesn’t mean we should stop looking for the message in these texts today.
Most of us will own that we are tempted by something – sugar, alcohol, television, you name it. After swimming in the shallow water of that admission, we may be ready to step out of the pool and change the subject. But wait, there are deeper waters waiting for us. I haven’t been thinking about snakes and pitchforks this week. I’m trying to swim toward the deeper water and it looks like this…
I will put my toe in the water and admit that I’m very tempted by sugar. In
fact, I have a chocolate drawer in my desk and I learned how many times a day
I reach for this drawer when I gave up sugar for a week for a mindfulness class.
Swimming out a bit farther, I struggle mightily with the temptation to be busy.
I tell myself that I really don’t WANT to fill up my calendar, but I continue to
do it. The only time I DON’T fill up my calendar, is when I am on vacation.
This takes me into deeper waters where I acknowledge the temptation to
pretend that I’ve got my life under control. I fill my calendar as if I don’t
need to make space for God. If I am perfectly honest, I will admit that I am
tempted to believe I don’t need God.
When we read the stories of Adam, Eve, and Jesus, it becomes clear that they are all tempted to believe they don’t need God. Adam and Eve fall for it, but Jesus doesn’t. He may be hungry, but he knows that bread will not fill him if he abandons God.
I wonder if that is the real temptation – to believe that we don’t need God. We may not admit it, but don’t we often live as if we’ve got this life under control? Of course, sooner or later something will come along to remind us that is a lie. The stories we heard today remind us that our lives are to be steeped in God.
At our Ash Wednesday service, we heard a temptation story of Jesus walking on water. In that story, Peter sees him and wants to do that too. He thinks it must be awfully cool so Jesus tells him to get out of the boat and start walking. With his eyes on Jesus, Peter does it. It’s going along just fine until he looks down and realizes he’s walking on water and he has no idea how to do that. In that moment, he sinks. It is when he thinks it is up to him to walk on water that he sinks. I had never thought of this as a temptation story, but the more I reflect on it, the more I think we need to pay attention to the lessons in it.
Eric Elnes says, “Jesus seems to want to build his church on a sinking rock… Sometimes you need to lose your way in order to discover the grandeur, mystery, and freedom of the world that awaits you. Sometimes, even, you need to step away from the security of your boat onto the stormy sea of your own awakening to discover that a sinking stone is a far firmer foundation than you have imagined.” (Gifts of the Dark Wood, p. 5)
Elnes describes the dark wood as something we all wish to avoid, but he maintains that the “Dark Wood is where you meet God… In the Dark Wood you bring all your shortcomings with you, not in order to purge them or be judged by them, but to embrace them in such a way that your struggles contribute meaningfully to the central conversation God is inviting you to have with life.” (p. 7)
Lent is a season to enter that conversation with an open heart. It is why we often give up something or take on something for this season. It can be a vehicle to allow us to more deeply enter the conversation. I can go from saying, “of course I am tempted by sugar” to “my real temptation is believing that I don’t need God.” But all we have to do is look down and realize that we can’t walk on water. It is in that moment of deep vulnerability that we turn to the one who can walk on water and remember that we need to keep our eye on the one we follow.
You don’t have to be a big sports buff to know that trouble begins when we take our eye off the ball. The lesson of discipleship is the lesson of keeping our eye on Jesus who calls us to get out of the boat and walk toward him. It is what we were born to do. From the risky act of leaving the womb, we are called beyond places of comfort. But it is important to remember that we are never alone.
The season of Lent is a season of stepping out and keeping our eyes on the One who will show us the way. This is a time to be reminded yet again, “God is God and we are not.” One of the ways we remember is by coming to the table to taste Christ’s brokenness and in doing so, we remember our own. We taste the cup of blessing and we remember that there is more than enough for all.
In the 4th Century St. Augustine of Hippo said, “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God.” That is what this season is about; stopping to admit that what we are really longing for is God. We give up things or take on things to help us find our way to God. Lent is a time for us to fix our gaze on Jesus and step out of the boat.