Speaker: Michelle Burkholder
Today we, once again, mark the first Sunday of Lent – a forty day journey of reflection and repentance that resembles the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness preparing for his season of public ministry. Lent is a season and a space of intention and preparation. Where we focus our intention and what we find ourselves preparing for may be tangibly different for each of us. Yet, there is commonality in the journey. For those willing to engage with this season it is a space that encourages us to return to and reflect upon our spiritual selves and how those spiritual selves collaborate with our embodied living.
The lenten journey is one that we can take as individuals and it is one that we can also take together. Our communal reflections, here at Hyattsville, during this season will focus around the theme: Creation Revealing Christ. Together we will note the ways creation is present and revealed in the scripture texts each Sunday. We will consider how we are living in relationship with creation and we will explore what it is that creation is revealing to us about the nature of Christ.
What is Christ? Some might be surprised at the phrasing of that question: what is Christ? Many people would instead ask: who is Christ? And the first answer that arises at that question: Jesus. The Anointed One – as the Greek root word Christos would lead us to define it. Yes, I agree that Jesus is the embodiment of the Christ in human form. And, as we go through this season I hope we can also expand our thinking and open ourselves up to the term Christ also being and inviting us in to an unmediated point of connection with God. What does unmediated mean? It is a fancy way of saying: direct. Christ is God’s unfiltered presence.
The writer of John names this presence: the Word.
In the beginning was the Word;
and the Word was in God’s presence,
and the Word was God.
Jesus embodies this presence of God, this Word, and teaches us what that looks like so that we can emulate those teachings and thereby invite Christ into our being and living. In so doing we too can live in connection with the presence of God.
I find the term unmediated to be helpful in thinking about Christ because so much of our experience as human beings is a mediated experience. We learn about and live in the world through and in relationship to things – our bodies and senses, language, nature, technology [particularly screens] – these things are just some of the filters through which we experience and understand life.
Lent is a time for us to be mindful of those filters and how they are at work within us. It is a time for us to attend to them and make choices about which of the filters that we are making use of are life-giving and which might be obscuring that which is life-giving. It is a season that requires intentional effort to attend to our spiritual health.
Jesus too took time to be intentional about his spiritual health before heading into formal ministry. We see it today in the Matthew text:
Then Jesus was led into the desert by the Spirit
The Spirit takes Jesus into the desert – into creation itself – it is a rugged terrain – a rough patch of creation – yet it is a patch that isn’t always dry and harsh – in seasons it bursts forth in life as plants blossom and bloom and then as the sun shines down in the full force of its power it dries up, once again becoming a space of rugged wilderness.
While a rugged place – the Judean desert has long been used as a place of refuge and a space for those seeking solitude. David hid from Saul in this place of wilderness, John the Baptizer lived and began preaching here, fortresses were built in the desert as strongholds in case of revolts, and ancient monasteries abound in the terrain – built by those seeking places of isolation and contemplation for spiritual revelation.
Spiritual revelation can be found in creation because all of creation, is of God’s creation, and is therefore imbued with the possibility of connecting us once again to that life-giving presence of God. Going back to John 1 again for a moment:
Through the Word [the presence of God]
All things came into being,
And apart from the Word
Nothing came into being.
Creation reveals Christ because Christ is present in all that has been, is, and will become.
Now Jesus isn’t simply led into the desert by the Spirit to linger in the presence of God. The first sentence fully reads:
Then Jesus was led into the desert by the Spirit, to be tempted by the Devil.
This is not just a season of self reflection and preparation for Jesus. It is also a time that challenges and tests his filters and identity. When the temptations occur, the tempter says to Jesus: If you are the Only Begotten…then…turn these stones to bread…if you are the Only Begotten, throw yourself off this high place – God will save you. In using this phrasing it is clear that the Devil knows that Jesus is the living Christ. These tests are not questioning that identity, so much as they are exploring what it looks like to be a child of God in this world.
And that makes them insightful for us as well. As followers of Jesus we too should be curious about what it looks like to live life connected to the presence of God in this world. The temptations reveal how Jesus understands and lives into his embodied connection with God. They challenge us to consider how we are living into that connection in our own lives.
The first thing to note is that these questions are not quick to be asked and they are not necessarily easy to receive.
After fasting for forty days and forty nights, Jesus was hungry. Then the tempter approached Jesus
Temptation in this story doesn’t happen until after Jesus has been fasting for 40 days and nights – likely not literally 40 days. Consider instead, a long time – long enough to make us uncomfortable. Hungry. It is then, at a moment of vulnerability, that temptation arrives.
And the first temptation, of three, plays on that hunger and vulnerability:
“If you are the Only Begotten, command these stones to turn into bread.”
This first temptation – presents Jesus with a life giving opportunity. Turn these stones into bread. You are hungry. You have needs and you have the capacity to meet those needs. This, on the surface appears like it could be about self-care. And self-care is something that is important and isn’t something that Jesus is against. When Jesus responds to this test, he isn’t denying the very real needs of the flesh, what he reveals is that life isn’t only about meeting the needs of our bodies. Yes, taking care of ourselves is important – yet taking shortcuts to meet our needs seemingly efficiently doesn’t provide us with lasting life-giving outcomes.
It reminds me of a sign that used to hang in the cubical of the technical director of EMU’s theater department, Jeff Warner. He was in charge of set design, construction, lighting, teaching tech classes – all things stage/tech related. The sign read:
Pick Any Two
If you play with that for a minute you’ll begin to see the conundrum of your choices:
Pick good and cheap – it’s gonna take a while
Pick quick and good – hopefully you have the funds to cover the expense
Pick cheap and quick – high quality is not included as a condition in this equation
How we choose to participate in the unfolding journey of life is an ingredient of what we receive in the outcomes of that journey.
Those that came to the church this past week to start the Lenten season by observing Ash Wednesday had the opportunity to take a journey through a small meditative labyrinth. For those who have not experienced them – a meditative labyrinth is a path that one travels that leads to the center of a circuit and then back out from that center. It is a tool that is used to help one focus their inward thoughts and being while taking a physical journey – a fitting experience for the Lenten season!
If you stay on the path, you cannot get lost in a labyrinth, you only follow it as it leads you to the center, where you pause for deep breath and reflection before taking the path back out. And you let your spirit ponder the path as you take the journey to the center and back out again. Using this tool on Wednesday night I was reminded of an experience I had with a labyrinth while on sabbatical the other year.
At the beginning of that season of reflection and rest, Becky, Simon and I went to Virginia to visit with my parents and extended family. While there we also walked the labyrinth at the JMU arboretum. That labyrinth is a path outlined in stones in a wooded area. As you walk the path you encounter all sorts of moments of creation. On my journey I walked by flowers, I stumbled on fallen twigs and sticks, I had to lean around a prickly bush that was extending into the path from beyond the circle, and I noted free range plants that were growing on the path.
Because I was walking the labyrinth in the company of others I also had interactions with them on the path. While we were taking our own journeys and were at different points on the path, we were also sharing the same path. So there would be times when our places on the path put distance between us, and other moments when our paths aligned side by side for a moment or two. And every now and then, Simon, who was 4 at the time – would just go skipping across all the pathway indicators taking his own freeform journey as was fitting for his season of life.
I remember being aware of the journey being so freeing in moments when I could just sink in and breathe and not think about where I was headed – only being mindful of where I was in each moment. And I remember other moments where the path felt stifling, like it would go on forever – and that it was taunting us by bringing us close to the center of the circle and then shooting us back out to the far edge only to then wrap around and bring us back in towards the center again. There were moments when the journey felt unbearably long. It was sorely tempting to hop the small stone barrier when the path brought me close to the center, which would have shortcut the whole journey but allowed me to reach the goal so quickly.
The whole experience was a balancing act of presence – freeing myself to let go and simply be present while also being intentional and mindful to take care of myself on the journey. This balancing act allowed me the space to experience and connect with something beyond myself – the presence of the Spirit – while also preventing me from stumbling over sticks and stones unexpectedly on the path or getting poked by infiltrating prickly shrubs which were also a very real part of the journey. It was a test of allowing the path to unfold in moments of ease and challenge and taking each step of the journey with intention and care.
We are created and commissioned by God to offer care as we journey in this world – to ourselves, to each other, and to all of creation. From Genesis 2:
God took the earth creature and settled it in the garden of Eden so that it might cultivate and care for the land.
It matters that we cultivate and care-take for all of creation, ourselves included. And it matters how we cultivate and care-take for all of creation. In the current climate crisis, it is being clearly revealed that taking shortcuts for convenience has gotten us in trouble with creation. Or perhaps it is better to say that the shortcuts we have taken for our own convenience and satisfaction have created trouble for creation.
Instead of cultivating and care-taking for creation, we have too often taken advantage of creation; pushing the limits of what we perhaps should be doing because we find we have the skills and abilities to do so. Convenience, luxury, and abundance feed our egos and empower us to lose sight of cultivating justice and caring for all of creation. We have too often sacrificed care for creation for the sake of self-preservation and creation is groaning.
Creation’s groans are revealing what we also learn from Jesus’ experience of temptation in the desert: Christ does not call us to seek or settle for convenient satisfaction; Christ invites us to ground our journeys in the life-creating presence of God. A presence that attends to us, cares for us, and empowers us to join in the on-going work of cultivating and care-taking for creation.
As part of the web of creation, may we have the courage to take this Lenten journey in the presence of Christ – letting the path unfold, pondering its revelations, and taking care.