You who dwell in the shelter of the Lord, who abide in his shadow for life,
Say to the Lord ‘my refuge, my rock in whom I trust.’
Today’s readings are about trust. In whom, or in what, do you place your trust? When you are in the wilderness, when you are tested, where will you put your trust?
We are being tested in our world today. Are we able, does it still make sense, to place our trust in God?
The psalmist urges us to do so. In the beautiful words of the hymn which we just sang, we are given what is perhaps the greatest promise of our Christian faith: that if we put our trust in God, if we make God our stronghold and our refuge, we will be made safe. If we trust in God, we will be protected and rescued from our troubles, raised up on eagle’s wings. We will, as it were, be held in the hands of the angels, lest we dash our foot against a stone.
It is one of my favourite hymns. Often when I sing it, I feel a depth of emotion well up within me, a feeling that seems to be a gut response to the beauty of the promise that is on offer, a promise that resonates with our deepest longings for assurance and well-being, for a solid place in which we can put our trust.
That’s what my gut is telling me. But at the same time, my head tells me that all is not well. Evil, and pain, and sorrow are a part of our lives. We see that only too well in Ukraine right now, day after day. Those who trust in the Lord do dash their feet against stones, or much worse. So how do we reconcile the promises of the psalmist with the very present reality of pain and suffering in our midst?
The psalmist knows the tension that exists between the promises of God and our present reality. In psalm 91 she speaks of the plagues and pestilence that threaten human existence, something we too know well. She knows that there are times of trouble, times of oppression when we cry out for help. She knows that despite the promise that all will be well, we live our lives in the wilderness.
And yet, the psalmist is able to put her trust in God.
Where do you put your trust? When times are good, it is perhaps easy to say that we place our trust in God. But what happens when you enter the wilderness? When life gets rough, when obstacles get in the way, when there is war. Where then do you put your trust?
Some of us, when put to the test, trust in ourselves, in our own power and abilities. We strive to be self-reliant and independent, people who put their energy into education and self-development. We find ways to increase our power so that we can be in control of our own lives.
Some of us, when put to the test, place our trust in our possessions, in our houses and our bank accounts, in our good jobs and our pensions.
Some of us, when times get tough, place our trust in national borders, in powerful people or institutions that we can align ourselves with, trusting that in return for our allegiance, they will look after us.
Some of us place our trust in drugs or alcohol, in pleasure and distractions, scrolling through our social media feeds, allowing these things to comfort us or to numb us as we make our way through the wilderness of human life.
But there is another way through the wilderness.
Our Gospel today tells us that Jesus was led by the Spirit of God into the wilderness, where he was tempted by the devil. In that wilderness, Jesus had no possessions. He had no companions. He had no power, no fame, no glory, no food. The promise he had just received at his baptism, that he was God’s beloved son, was being put to the test. Was this any way to treat a beloved son?
And so, in this moment of vulnerability, the devil, that personification of the forces of evil and chaos and pain in this life, the devil plays a little of what we might call wedge politics. He tries to insert a wedge between Jesus and the one that Jesus calls Father. He starts by sowing the seed of doubt. “If you are the Son of God . . .” Notice the “if”?
The voice at Jesus’ baptism had said “you are my Son”.
But the devil puts that identity in doubt. “If you are the Son of God . . .” Are you sure? And having sown the seeds of doubt, now he puts Jesus to the test. Why trust God? Why not place your trust in your own power? You can change this stone into bread, not only can you satisfy your own needs, but those of others too. Or, align yourself with me, and you can achieve political power and glory. Or if you still think you can trust God, you need to be sure, so check it out, put God to the test, force his hand and make him save you now in a great display of power.
The journey through the wilderness is one of the central images of our Christian faith. In our first reading today from Deuteronomy, we are reminded that the foundational story of the people of Israel is the Exodus. In the story of the Exodus, God brings the people out of Egypt, liberating them from that which enslaves them. She brings them through the waters of the sea, declares that they are her people and leads them into the wilderness. The wilderness is meant to be the place where the people come to know God and place their trust in her. But the temptation to place their trust elsewhere is too strong. The people complain about the lack of food, they put their trust in idols and false gods, and they put the Lord their God to the test. They tell Moses that they’ll head back to oppression in Egypt unless God starts doing things their way. In the wilderness, there is a great temptation to place one’s trust in the wrong things.
The story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness that we read in our gospel is a deliberate re-telling of the Exodus story. Jesus passes through the waters of baptism and the voice of God declares him to be the Son of God. He is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. In the wilderness he experiences the same hunger and the same temptations that the people of Israel experienced. But in response to each temptation, Jesus re-affirms his trust in God. And he does so by quoting the words of Moses from the book of Deuteronomy, the very words that the people of Israel failed to heed during their time in the desert.
Jesus shows us another way, shows us that there is a way of reconciling the tensions of this world with the promises of God. It is the way of faith, the way that puts its trust in God. Our human journey will take us to difficult places. Our journey will take us to desert places where our experience of evil and suffering will cause us to doubt God’s promises. It will cause us to question our identity as children of God. There are times when we will wonder whether there is indeed a happy ending to our human journey. Lent is the season when we re-enact this journey. And we begin with Jesus and his testing in the wilderness, the story of a human like us who fulfilled his God-given mission in life not by avoiding pain and evil, but by confronting and overcoming them, bringing compassion and healing to those who suffer, and reassurance to those who place their trust in God.
It doesn’t take too much imagination to think of our lives as a journey through the wilderness these days. Can we still put our trust in God, trusting that all who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved? It’s a big question. Don’t try to answer it too quickly, it’s not a question we can answer with just our heads. There’s a reason that Lent lasts for 40 days.
But do know this, that Jesus put his trust in God and came through his time in the wilderness, and so will we.
“You who dwell in the shelter of the Lord, who abide in his shadow for life,
Say to the Lord ‘My refuge, my rock in whom I trust.’
Homily: Yr C Lent 1, March 6 2022, Trinity
Readings: Deut 26:1-11; Ps 91:1-2,9-16; Rom10:8b-13; Lk:4:1-13