Preached by Sophia Jackson, seminarian at the Pacific School of Religion and a recovering alcoholic and addict, for our Twelve Step Eucharist at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Berkeley, California.
This amazing woman needs our help! www.gofundme.com/sophias-seminary-support-fund
As I started thinking about this sermon and began contemplating how I wanted to approach the story of my own life and recovery, I had to put in dialogue the purpose of this season as it leads to understanding the resurrection of Jesus, the process of this particular wilderness experience as it related to my own path, and find the meaning of being tempted. I had to question what wilderness and recovery had to do with each other, and I had to sit with what or who it is that is really the source of our being tempted.
In other words, I realized that I had to find a way for all of us to re-think this 40-day period. In his book A Hunger for God John Piper says, “Christian fasting, at its root, is the hunger of a homesickness for God”; “If we don’t feel strong desires for the manifestation of the glory of God, it is not because you have drunk deeply and are satisfied. It is because we have nibbled so long at the table of the world that our soul is stuffed with small things, and there is no room for the great …”.
My name is Sophia, and I am an addict/alcoholic…
More than this being a time for beating ourselves up for the sake of penance, I believe that as we practice this observance we need to remain cognizant of the fact that this is a period in which we come to know God as a resuscitator of life through our submission and humility. In this period we submit our shortcomings; we make amends; we take fearless and moral inventories of our own character so that we can move from our caves into places of serenity.
As I insinuated myself into this story what became clear to me is, I am constantly in awe at how the theatre of life plays out; as we look at Matthew’s interpretation of the temptations of Jesus I find that there seems to be a divine symbolic correlation between preparation and surrender. Today marks the beginning of the Lenten season; a time of letting go; a period of fasting, repentance, moderation, self-denial and spiritual discipline. I find great significance in this being a service dedicated to the 12-step model of recovery and the timing of this liturgical season because in both cases the overarching theme is one of self-examination and cleansing.
I’d like to interject here that I am not speaking from a place of being swept away on some romantic notion of what the traditions of man and mainstream Christianity have determined this period of time to be because there is no amount of fasting, abstaining from physical pleasures or any other form of self-denial that can purify us. We cannot, of and by ourselves, create within us the desire to do God’s will, and while it is true that God created mankind with free moral agency, our carnal and natural mind cannot, will not, and does not easily submit to God. Just as in recovery it is only through a converted mind, actively led by a higher power, or as it says in Philippians 2:13, “for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” that we are able to be transformed.
How Matthew connects the temptations of Jesus with his earlier baptism in the Jordan. More than providing a theological significance for me, this episode in the wilderness helped me to further put into context my own redemption. In looking back at a time that I had no heavenly vision, I realized the import of understanding that God is no less present with me whether I am having an exalted experience like the baptism of Jesus represents, or whether I was caught up in the throes of my own desolate wilderness experiences of addiction and incarceration.
Like the good student that I am, I searched for the meanings of recovery and wilderness. Recovery; is a noun meaning 1) a return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength, and 2) the action or process of regaining possession or control of something stolen or lost. According to Merriam Webster there are five definitions for wilderness, but the two that resonated with me are 1) a wild and uncultivated region, as of forest or desert, uninhabited or inhabited only by wild animals; a tract of wasteland, and 2) a bewildering mass or collection.
Just as there is a progression that occurs when those of us who have come to terms with our own powerlessness as it relates to substance use disorders, there is a similar progression presented in this text; like recovery it is not only in terms of the greater physical heights we must overcome to return to a normal state of health in mind and strength, but also it presents the reality of a greater intensity and scope of maintaining our principles when temptation presents itself.
Matthew tells us that immediately after His public anointing Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted alone. How many of you know that the greatest moments of temptation often follow the greatest moments of exaltation? We see from the start of this chapter that it is not by accident that Jesus finds himself in the wilderness and as the story goes, Jesus encounters Satan. In this encounter Satan attempts to get Jesus to put his own needs and potential concerns above the will of God; it is Satan who wants Jesus to act independently from God; and it is Satan who wants Jesus to sacrifice his promise for momentary short-term gain.
Several questions came up for me in this dialogue between the devil and Jesus; I won’t trouble you with all of them, but I’d like you to consider with me that perhaps this dialogue was a hallucination. I want you to insinuate yourself in that moment and ask yourselves who was speaking. Could this conversation merely have been a projection of Jesus’ own inner thoughts? As you imagine yourself in the place of Jesus, remember the context in this Gospel; remember this is the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. I want you to ask yourselves, “What makes this account relevant today”?
I believe we are being given a glimpse of our own inner struggle as we face the issue of how to accomplish the work of ministry. It is clear to me that God does not lead us into temptation; rather it is because of God that we are led into places to be exposed to ourselves. So often we appreciate that God leads us into good things, but how often are we appreciative for the times that we are led into confrontation of the bad things? While considering these questions for myself, and in considering that perhaps this conversation was simply a manifestation of Jesus’ own fears and doubts, I thought about David in his pivotal wilderness experience in a cave. Picture for a moment David being on the run for his life. While this account in Matthew is not about Jesus running for his life, if we keep in line with the supposition that this could be a hallucination, I believe that there are definite similarities between Jesus, David, and thereby all of us.
So often we think that a wilderness is something that is being imposed on us when in reality a wilderness is something that lives inside of us; it is provoked by our thought; by how we are seen, how we see ourselves, and by how we see our particular situations. David, like Jesus had been called of God and anointed by God; here he was after having experienced amazing victories hiding out in a cave.
For similar reasons David, like Jesus faced an agonizing struggle in this cave; this wilderness, much like the temptations shows us how we have to come to terms with the meaning and intent of God’s mission for us; we have to come to terms with the real fact that we are leaders; no matter what we believe our own condition to be, there are those that will find us even when we are experiencing or living in a wilderness state of being. I discovered in all of this that peace and safety are riding side by side with our own tempting thoughts. The dark times that beset us every once in a while are blessings in disguise; not only do they bring us to a position of having to seek the Lord; they cause us to remember the God that dwells within us.
Whether we look at this as an actual conversation with Satan, or whether we view it as an internal voice, we must see that this voice is one that appeals to the real needs and possible doubts that are common to all humanity. In this moment, like us, Jesus needed food, security, protection, significance in understanding himself and his own achievement. As I look at this from the perspective of my own recovery and ministry, I must understand that there will always be forces set up to attack my pursuit, especially at my most vulnerable points.
From the standpoint of recovery I must always remember that wilderness experiences can easily lead me to escapism, where I look to substances, or work, or school, or technology to dull my senses. I have to remember that the wilderness is not the enemy; rather it is that place where God takes me to be alone with Him. We must all remember that it is the place where there is no one or nothing that can help us fix the problems we have. This story shows us that the wilderness is the place where we are tempted to compromise, to disbelieve, to err in order to resolve our problems apart from God. Wilderness is that hellish place where instead of reaching within and drawing from our own divinity, we are desperately reaching for a savior outside of ourselves.
As I put this into some relevant format for today in looking at the times we are living in I want to let you know this morning that it is not easy to live a consecrated life that fully mirrors the life of Jesus Christ because even in the best of times it’s hard to do. This story illuminates for us that sometimes we walk after what is fleshy in our own thoughts. From the beginning, our consciousness has been disrupted by the agenda that is counter to the purposes of God for us.
As we move forward through this season in the devastatingly obnoxious present that we are witnessing, we would do well to remember that what we are seeing is that counter-agenda. As we move through this season of letting go in order to thrive I want us all to remember that the times we are living in are the inherited constructions of man; the devil in creation is our own psyche devoid of our own Logos in flesh. As I have given you my own testimony I am reminded through this text that my purpose is not based on my past; it’s based on how I recovered from it.
My friend Jessica McFarland put up a post on Facebook the other day that really summed up what this text meant to me as I imagined Jesus’ conversation in this vision; the conversation topic was the ethic of rote self-sacrifice, and she used a quote from Christopher Hitchens, “Letters to a Young Contrarian”; it says, “Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the ‘transcendent’ and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you”.
I’ve come to the end of my share; today, and just for today, I’m just a little clearer in my understanding of my thoughts when I get in my head; it may not be the devil that has whisked me away to entice me with temporal satisfactions and indulgences. I have a clearer understanding of my desires to feel good, to be independent, and to desire to have more. Jesus has shown me a way to through temptation so that I might be able to help those who are tempted in their own wilderness; and I’m clear that ultimately I have the choice to either allow this diversion and seek my own advantage thereby robbing God of glory or I can display to the world an attitude that I have been changed and am willing to be used in service to others.
This call to discipleship is costly but we need to understand something about ourselves; the source of our temptations most times is what we devise in our own minds to test that God is with us and within us. The source of our temptations is almost always our own legitimate, normal, and natural desires; the desire for food, sexual intimacy, approval of others is normal, it’s not the error. We are errant when we find ourselves depending on something or someone other than God for life and satisfaction.
God expects us to live a life that brings forth fruits of righteousness. In other words wherever we are and whatever the situation may be somebody ought to be able to tell that through our experiences we’ve met God. Somebody ought to be able to tell that there is something on the inside that makes us better on the outside. There is no question in my mind that Jesus shows us through this text before we can be anything to somebody else we must first learn to be all things to ourselves by making peace with our wilderness. That’s what recovery is; that’s what this season of Lent represents. Our recovery isn’t complete until all areas of our brokenness are mended and we stop doubting who God says we are. I am not someone because I am smart. I am not someone because I am rich. I am not someone because I’m liked. I am not someone because I am moral. I am not someone because I am in charge. I am someone because God says I AM someone; that’s enough. My journey from the cave to serenity; where the warranty on God’s promises never expires.