I had the opportunity to preach in the church where I had been a member of more than 20 years, the First Presbyterian Church of Urbana, IL.


When I was 9 or 10 years old, my brother and I took swimming lessons at the YMCA.  Jim was a year older than I.  I was pretty comfortable in the water as long as I could touch the bottom.  I learned the strokes and could swim from one side to the other without much trouble, as long as I was in the shallow end.  One day the swim instructor told us to get into two lines at the shallow end.  We were to take turns holding onto a little Styrofoam board and dog paddling to the other end of the pool.  I watched with excitement and dread as the guys in front of me in line kicked and paddled their way from the shallow end, through the deep end, and all the way to the other end of the pool.

boy_swimmingAs I watched I tried to psych myself up for my turn.  “You can do it, John.  You have a board, you can kick that far.”  When it came my turn I started out.  I kept saying to myself, “I can do this.”  But when I got to the middle line where I knew I could no longer touch the bottom, another voice chimed in.  “What are you doing!  You shouldn’t be out here!  You can’t do this.  You are literally in over your head!”  Despite my desire to make it to the other end, I gave in to the fearful voice and took a sharp left turn and headed for the side.

I climbed out of the water proud that I had made it that far but a bit ashamed that I hadn’t made it to the other end like the other guys.

I had learned the strokes that would have gotten me to the other end.  I had mastered the rules and the mechanics about being in the water, but those were not enough.  Those things had not become enough of me to help me deal with the fear, or to get me through the inner conflict, or to dispel my preconceived ideas of what would happen if I got in the deep water.  The rules and mechanics were necessary but not sufficient in that moment of crucial decision-making when it seems something big is at stake.

I suspect we could each tell a similar story from childhood or from last week.

New Testament Lesson for the day:

Matthew 4: 1-11.

We have a story here where we find Jesus at the point of deciding whether or not to swim into the deep end.

Jesus grew up a devout Jewish boy.  He had spent his boyhood like every other boy in his town, going to temple, learning from the rabbis about Jewish history and legend, Jewish law, all from the books we now know as the Old Testament.  In short, he learned how to be a good Jew, and he like most boys his age hoped that he would be alive at the time the Messiah would come and liberate his people from the domination of Rome and would once again make God’s chosen people the dominant culture.

But as Jesus grew into his adulthood, as he learned more about himself, his religion, and his world, he began to realize that his life was about something more than being a devout Jew.  He recognized it was his task to proclaim a way of unfettered access to God, a way characterized by inclusion rather than purity, a way characterized by compassion rather than judgment.

He also knew that doing so would put him in the cross hairs of the Roman Empire and the Jewish leaders.  He knew from his history what happened to people who had taken on that role.  If they couldn’t be silenced or marginalized, they were eventually executed for heresy or treason.  It had happened many times.

He was embarking on a mission that he suspected would cost him his life.  Doing so would require much more than being able to simply quote scripture or recite doctrine or mouth the phrases his parents and rabbis taught him.

qumranThis is where we find Jesus, alone in the wilderness.  This is a vast, desolated expanse between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, a place where Jesus truly could be alone, isolated.  We are familiar with the story.  Satan comes to Jesus in the midst of this isolation and offers three tests to Jesus.  If we settle for simply reading this as a story about Jesus resisting some fine offers from the Devil, an unwanted visitor from outside, we miss a great deal.

This is a clearly a story Jesus told his followers about his inner experience, his personal spiritual crisis in the midst of his solitude.  He used visual and highly significant images to convey the intensity of his inner battle.  He portrayed Satan coming to him, he talked of being taken to the temple where many supposed messiahs before him had stood and promised great things, and he talked of being taken to a high mountain where he could view all the nations of the world.  All of this had vivid symbolic meaning to the disciples, but this was all in his solitude in the wilderness.

When we think about our own struggles, we may be tempted from things outside us, but where do the real moral and spiritual conflicts take place?  It is always an inner struggle, and it’s never between a clearly good or bad option, between a clearly right or wrong choice.  The conflict is always more subtle and complicated, and the outcomes are always unpredictable or totally unknowable.

In the wilderness, in the solitude, he considers three ways out of that inevitable end.  Each of them gave him a way to take an easier route, a short cut.  He could stay in shallow water.  He could continue to preach and teach and heal and prophesy, but without the inevitably ugly outcome.

So what does this mean for us on this first day of Lent?

Life has a way to offering some of our most vital lessons when we face a crisis, a tragedy, or something that knocks us completely off our game.  A loved one has a life-threatening diagnosis, we have a serious accident, we experience financial disaster, one of our kids’ lives runs off the tracks.  We experience these as disasters precisely because they contradict our ideas of how life should work.  Life seems to be falling apart because our normal rules and expectations for living simply don’t work in that situation.  When that happens we typically fall into despair, we exercise our strongest forms of denial, or we work and worry like crazy to regain the illusion of control.  Most of us do some of each.

This story of Jesus in the wilderness suggests another way.

Some of you have heard me say that my religious affiliation is that of “a recovering Baptist and an uncommitted Presbyterian.”  I began saying that jokingly, but it has taken on new meaning over the years.

You see, Baptists are good at giving their kids a good base.  I memorized scripture, I can still quote the books of the Bible, we prayed, we learned songs and heard Bible stories all the time.  Growing up the son of a Baptist preacher added to that.  Life, however, and the people I got to know who did not have a similar background, threw me a lot of curve balls and brought a lot of my early assumptions into question.

My Baptist background gave me a good container to hold the experiences of my early life, but that container was not adequate, and at one point, things fell apart.

This is not a commentary on Baptists, because those who grew up in the Presbyterian church and in every other denomination have the same challenge.

It became necessary for me to question, challenge, and in some cases throw out those things which had once made sense and been important in my belief system but were no longer adequate for what life presented.

clay potSeveral writers describe it this way.  The first major spiritual task in our lives is to build a strong container. We build this container through learning the rules, laws, rituals, and values of our parents, our mentors, our churches and communities, and the many other shaping forces in our early lives.  Our container is made stronger through a solid sense of belonging, of being loved and cared for, or being valued.  To the degree that those things are missing, our container is weakened.

The container holds our experiences and helps us make sense of our world and helps us find our place in the world for the first few decades of life.

Jesus had spent the first 30 years building his container.  But the container alone, built out of Jewish law, ritual, and history, and family and community belonging was not enough to contain the life that Jesus foresaw for himself.

In his response to those inner conflicts, we get a glimpse of what else is needed.  He used three verses from Deuteronomy to counter the inner conflicts he had, verses he had no doubt memorized as a child.  But here they were more than mere memory verses.  At this point Jesus moved from “This is what it says” to “This is what it means to me.”

This is when the words became part of him.  The words moved from fact to truth.  When he said later in his ministry, “I have not come to do away with the law, but to fulfill it,” I think this is what he had in mind.  The law is the starting place.  That builds your container.  But there’s more.

If this container is intended to hold the contents of our mature lives, which include the irresolvable contradictions, crushing disappointments and disillusionments, the complexity and paradox that comes with experience, then something more is needed.

Ironically, the container is strengthened and begins filling up with a mature faith only when the things that make up our container are tested.  It is only when we wrestle with the complexities that are not resolved by our well-rehearsed rules, when we doubt those things that seemed certainties, and when we question and start exploring the cracks of those things that at one time seemed so solid.  Then and only then do we begin to strengthen the container and fill it with real substance that helps us deal with what life throws our way.

One of my favorite authors and Biblical scholars, Richard Rohr, writes, “People only come to deeper spiritual consciousness with intentional struggles with contradiction, conflicts, inconsistencies, inner confusions.”

You cannot deal with a mature world if you are only armed with the memorized messages and unexamined values from childhood.  Those messages and values only become useful in a mature world when you bump them up against contradicting messages and values and begin to ask the hard question, “What is true for me now?”

That’s the story of our Old Testament lesson this morning.  In Genesis, we have an epic story of a conflict and collaboration between Adam and Eve, but isn’t this really the classic story of the human race and of inner battle we each face on a daily basis?

It’s interesting to look at God’s words, “You must not eat of that fruit or you will die,” as a warning rather than a prohibition. God knew that once a person discovered that he or she had choices and the freedom to exercise those choices, once they began to pursue their curiosity and to stretch their boundaries, they would move from innocence to awareness.  In fact, they would no longer be content with innocence.

When that happens we become aware not only of our own lives and options, but also we learn that our choices come with consequences.  In the story, the consequence was leaving the garden of innocence and going into a world of responsibility.   Isn’t that what growing up is?  And who among us has not wished to go back to that innocence.  But once we exercise that freedom and establish new boundaries, there is no going back.  We know too much.

With our exercise of freedom eventually comes an awareness of limitations, and one of those limitations is our limited time.  The words of from Genesis are, “If you eat that fruit you will die.”  What that means is that as we become aware of our lives, we realize that we are dying, our life is limited.  The dawning of consciousness is the awareness that we have choices, and those choices are important because we have limited time.

We must move beyond the idea that having a solid container is enough, just like I had to realize that simply knowing the basic strokes did not made me a swimmer.  I still was not ready for deep water.

When we do that we begin to see that doubt is not the sign of a lack of faith.  Doubt is the sign of the beginning of a deeper faith.  Questioning is not an abandonment of values.  It is the beginning of personalizing those values.  Exploring and even trying on other views need not be end of our childhood religion, but perhaps the transforming into an adult spirituality.

So what might that mean for us here at the first Sunday of Lent?

Jesus went out into the wilderness and created the environment for an inner crisis.  He manufactured a “put up or shut up” experience for himself through a prolonged period of solitude and fasting.

The purpose of Lent is to create just such an environment, the opportunity to go deep.  Lenten disciplines give us the chance to still the chatter that keeps our lives artificially intact, and allows us to pay attention.

But beware.  We typically think of stillness and solitude as creating peace.  It does, but usually only after it stirs us up a great deal as it did Jesus.  The truth will make us free, but first it usually makes us miserable.

What do you as an individual need to do to go deep?

I hope that Lent will help us wrestle with that question.