“Whose Story Is It?”
“Whose Party Is It?”
Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
March 6, 2022
My freshman year of high school I attended a fall youth group weekend retreat at a local campground. And on the first evening, following dinner, we all gathered in the main hall to sing songs of worship. At the end of one of those songs an upperclassman, one of the student leaders turned around, looked me in the eye and said, “You have a good voice.”
No one had ever told me I had a good or bad or anything voice. I was shy; I didn’t say anything in response.
But I did sing all the more fully on the next song because what I heard in those words were not just “You have a good voice,” but also “you have a voice. You belong.”
My faith in Jesus was still young, still finding its legs, but that night and really that season of life became one that was wonderfully alive with a love for God, love for people, love for learning about the Bible – all from that most sacred space of simply knowing I had a voice. I belonged.
Where do you point to in your own lives for a season or seasons where your faith in Jesus was so alive? Invigorated? Maybe an early season – but a space you had a deep sense of belonging…and so your gifts, your voice – they played forth all the more? And do you remember any of the songs or hymns or Scriptures that were central to that season?
In Luke 3 Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River, he comes up out of the water, and God speaks: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” It is this joyous moment of grace, of belonging. Jesus has yet to do a thing, and yet there is God saying first things first: “You belong.”
It is always jarring, then, to discover that what begins so strong, so good…inevitably, unavoidably, at some point it is followed by the wilderness. Or even wildernesses.
Luke has arranged his material quite purposely throughout this Gospel, and right after the baptism of Jesus in chapter 3, this pure gift of “You are my beloved…” comes chapter 4.
“Then Jesus “left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness for forty days…” The Spirit who fills with invigorating grace, makes the faith come alive… is the same one now leading into the wilderness.
The wilderness in the Bible is a dry and arid space short on food and water. Largely uninhabited. “Wild” is in the root word for‘ wilderness” because at a fundamental level it is a space understood to be one where things are not under human control.
And “Forty” days. “Forty” is a significant biblical number. To say “40” was to say, “a long time.”
Forty days of wilderness comes in all forms and fashions – it may be a season of relational strife, dark nights of the soul, vocational confusion, grief, congregational searching and aching, pandemics. War sets off immediate wilderness among millions.
Nobody ever chooses the wilderness. Often, it just comes…or sometimes, as in our passage, the Holy Spirit leads us there.
Why, God, cannot we stay on those evenings where we have a voice, and the songs are good, and the spirit full? Why is it that there always seems to be this move from the waters to the desert? From flourishing to drought?
We cannot answer that question satisfactorily in many regards this side of heaven, but if we can briefly walk these three temptations Jesus faced, I think we can see something of the wilderness’s gift.
The devil said to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”
“You are hungry, you have the power of God…take control and fix the problem.” What would be so wrong with a quick fix to the hunger and pain of wilderness?
A few years back I was part of a group in Richmond, VA doing a study around healthy food access in the city – in particular, we focused on ‘food deserts’ as they are sometimes called – areas of the city that did not have anything but convenience stores for miles around.
And one day we are in one of those food desert areas standing in front of a large, urban garden. “Fresh food.” But…it is overgrown with weeds and noticeably under-tended.
I learned that sometimes when well-meaning people start learning about the food discrepancy, they show up from their neighborhood way over here and into this area without a grocery store nearby and they say, “here’s a garden we are going to build you.” And they do. It’s sizable, diverse, nicely done.
And then a year later the whole thing is dead and unkept, and nothing has changed on the food front. And actually, the residents there kind of resent the people who built the garden. Why?
They tried to turn a hard issue into bread (snap). The quick fix is actually a lie.
The quick fix is one group of people taking control of a hard issue and saying “Here, we’ll use our power to do what needs to be done. Done.”
The real truth is, to talk about healthy food and food access is really to then to also be talking about transportation, jobs, housing, education, race, cultural differences around food. The way to address the food issue is to consider all the layers in a long-term, relationship-building, trust-building strategy empowered by everyone in the community. And those kind of relationships and that kind of work can only ever be fed on nourishment of soul-sustaining bread.
And so to the quick-fix lie Jesus responds with a concise clarity: “It is written: ‘One shall not live on bread alone.’” (“but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” as the verse from Deuteronomy that Jesus is quoting has).
5 The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor… If you worship me, it will all be yours.”
Isn’t one of the worst parts about being in the wilderness the lack of control one feels?
What if you could just take the problem, the angst, the doubt, the relationship, the injustice, the diagnosis, the career …and you could just bend it and straighten it and make it right? What if you could just get more control over the situation?
Those of you who’ve raised a teenager – or were a teenager – how well does it work to make the teenager do what they need to do?
I vividly recall when I first learned there is such a thing as a “three-nager.”
I would tell Leo at that time that it’s time for bed, and for the first time ever be began outright refusing. Now there are options at that kind of point, but the easiest one was quite frankly to walk up to him, pick him up, and say, “Leo, it is time for bed,” and then carry him there. He did not like that.
Though I could physically carry him, he quickly learned he could yell and kick and once put into bed he could run out of bed and continue to resist the whole process.
There is a sense in which then and now I regularly feel I’m in the wilderness of parenting…and the common denominator remains this: every time I try and control the outcomes with things like carrying him where he needs to be, forcing the situation the way it needs to go, he needs to go…the more he resists.
And it’s true not only in parenting but marriage and politics, church and life…the more we seek to control and engineer and tighten our will upon something or someone…the more our control is resisted.
As Jesus says elsewhere, “Those who seek to save their life, control their life…will lose it. Those who lose their life for my sake, will find it.”
No wonder Jesus in this particular moment he says to the devil with again a concise clarity: “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”
Worshipping and serving God is fundamentally a loosening of one’s grip, letting oneself be led by God, losing one’s life for God’s sake…
9 The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple (Very public, noticeable space). “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. 10 For it is written:
‘“He will command his angels concerning you
to guard you carefully;
“God will take care of you…”
Henri Nouwen comments on this portion of the passage: “The (third) temptation to which Jesus was exposed was precisely the temptation to do something spectacular, something that could win him great applause….something to prove himself.”
Sometimes it seems…
- The quickest way out of the wilderness for a church is to do a huge event, bring in a renowned speaker, get the press speaking well of a mighty deed of faithfulness that wins approval.
- The quickest way out of the wilderness for a marriage is a huge, expensive, spectacular gift given to the other…
- The quickest way out of our inner wilderness is to do a great thing, a big thing, even a public thing that validates us in the eyes of others…
And surely God will show up, command the angels, and bless that great thing.
“It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
“Don’t think you can manipulate God to show up and carry you out of the wilderness on your spectacular moment timing.” The third temptation is not so different from the first – both are a kind of quick fix – the third temptation just being particularly grand.
The wilderness is full of seemingly wonderful – lies.
And truth be told, who among us when walking the wilderness has not grasped for a quick fix or escape, or more control, or a big validation…if it seemed that it might get us out or at least get a reprieve?
And yet, here is the strange mystery of the wilderness, even gift of the wilderness, that Jesus reveals as he remains in it.
Notice how Jesus responded to each temptation.
He not only responds with Scripture, but he responds specifically with concise, clear verses from Deuteronomy.
Deuteronomy was a book written in a very repetitive, simple, and form so that children could easily learn and memorize the Jewish faith.
Families were to talk about the Torah day and night, coming and going, tie the law as symbols on hands and foreheads, write the law on doorframes of their house. Children were to be immersed in Deuteronomy from an early age. It was their first taste of the lived faith.
“Taste” is quite literal because a common practice for Torah teaching included the fathers giving their children a taste of honey after readings of Torah to help children know in their very body the sweetness and goodness of God’s word.
When Jesus is in the wilderness, he is quoting the concise, sweet-tasting, simple Scriptures of his youth.
“One shall not live on bread alone.“ ”Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.”
The thing about the wilderness is that you run out of options. You hit the end of yourself as a people or a family or a relationship or an individual.
And by the grace of God, the old hymns and Scriptures and promises that first sweetened your heart from the early years of when you came to know Jesus – those are the ones that the soul starts to sing again – because that is all that is left.
We once received the gift of grace in a beautiful, earlier season of life…the wilderness is showing us how to live by that grace.
Those songs, Scriptures, and promises now honed through trials… they sing with a new depth, gravitas, love…
Mary Oliver once wrote,“ Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”
Is it possible the wilderness is a gift? I’m not saying the wilderness is always right – some wildernesses are awful and there it is pure evil that has forced us or them to walk it.
All I am asking…all Mary Oliver is inviting, all Jesus is revealing is this: is it possible the wilderness might be the place where we taste that first grace again?
And is it an accident that Jesus goes from the waters of baptism in Luke 3 (You belong, You have a voice) to the 40 days of wilderness in Luke 4…and out of that the very next thing he does it step very publicly into the world and declare with striking clarity and conviction his purpose (again, quoting the Scriptures of his youth). Listen to what happens in Luke Chapter 5…
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Goodness, out of the wilderness he comes forth with a voice. A holy fire that cannot be stopped. Imagine that…
It is highly doubtful any of us can walk our wilderness days without succumbing at some level to the tempting lies that grow so readily there. But we can walk confident in Jesus whose Spirit has conquered the power of those lies. We can trust in the wilderness that his Spirit abides within us and sustains us more than we know.
And we can walk with confidence that because such grace abides in us and with us and for us… the wilderness season shall be one wherein Jesus will yet sing those old songs through us again, perhaps in a key and context unimaginable to us right now.
Because at the heart of our faith we maintain that the even the bleakest of wildernesses where even it seems “My God why have you forsaken me…”
Even there, especially there, definitely there… that is precisely the space through which a new birth beyond our imagination is at work. Amen.