Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent offered at St. Mark's, Port Royal (February 26, 2023) and at Porter-Gaud School (March 2, 2023)
One of my favorite memories from our son George’s toddler years was an afternoon when things got very quiet in our house. Now, when things are too quiet and there’s a toddler living with you, that’s not good. So, I went hunting. “George, where are you?” I called. No answer. I ascended the stairs and opened the door into our library. There, sitting on the floor cross legged, buck naked, was George. Scattered around him were tiny silver wrappers. Hershey’s kisses wrappers. A whole bag’s worth. George looked at me, his face and hands covered in chocolate. He said nothing. He looked at me, eyes wide open. He waited to see what would happen next.
Welcome to Lent. Welcome to the wilderness. The place where God sees our moments of abandon, our moments of ache, our moments of questioning. The place where we wait to see what will happen next.
In our gospel lesson today, we find Jesus in the wilderness. There, away from all the usual props of life, Jesus is tested. He stares down Satan, who tempts him with all manner of shortcuts and diversions from his life purpose. Turn these stones into bread, hurl yourself from this cliff, kneel down and worship evil.
Just before the wilderness, Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River. And God said, as Jesus rose out of the water, “Behold, my son, my beloved one. With him I am well pleased.” Then, right after this intimate moment between the Father and the Son, Jesus is hurled headlong into the wilderness.
One moment, Jesus is shining and full of promise at his baptism and the very next moment, Jesus is tested, challenged, in the wilderness with temptation lurking.
There is a beautiful whole between these two stories. In the first, story, baptism tells us where we begin this journey. It is the moment when we are marked by the Holy Spirit, sealed as Christ’s own forever. A moment when the people we love are so proud of us Then, the wilderness is where we test the strength of that love. It’s where we wonder if they really do still love us, now that we have failed them; now that we have done this thing, or not done that thing they expected of us. Wilderness is where the love becomes real.
Does that mean God designs Satan’s challenges as a proving ground for love? I don’t believe that’s how it works. I do believe there is freedom in this world, and that includes freedom for the evil forces to do their worst. God allows that freedom.
It is normal to doubt God in moments when we feel the force of that evil. It is human to doubt. God engages doubt. God will wrestle with us, as he did with Jacob. God will meet us in the nighttime when we question, as he did Nicodemus, God will greet us in our deepest sorrow, as he did Mary Magdalene. God is strong enough to handle our doubts.
When we see events like the war in the Ukraine, the shootings in our own streets and in our schools, the hatred that takes a myriad of forms around our globe, the illnesses that ravage people we love, the cost of mistakes people make, the arguments in our own families—it all can make us wonder if there is any reason for hope.
In the season of Lent, we intentionally reflect on these untamed parts of human life—the places where we feel scared, abandoned, threatened, unsafe.
Sometimes we try to tame Lent. We worry only over what we will give up or add to our lives. Chocolate being at the top of many lists. And some people add disciplines—they pray more, or study the bible daily, or exercise regularly, or eat brussel sprouts—unless you’re like me and already love them—then, it doesn’t count. Or some people commit to do something helpful for someone in need each week.
All of these can be good things to do in this season. But, not just as exercises in self restraint or willpower. Our Lenten disciplines do serve a purpose, but they are not just another form of New Year’s resolutions.
Giving up things or adding mindful disciplines in our lives serves a deeper purpose. They help us return to what really matters. Like when you stop everything to go for a long walk with a friend, or to go sit by the sea with your family.
Sometimes we go to the wilderness by choice, through our disciplines. Other times, like Jesus, we are hurled there against our will. Like, when tragedy strikes. Like, when sin or grief overcome us. No matter how we get there, in the wilderness, we find what really matters.
For, in the wilderness, we face the hard things without distraction. And the hard things bring us back to what matters most.
In our family, we’ve had some hard things this past year—loss that has brought us to our knees, illnesses that threaten the lives of our beloveds, griefs that are hard to carry. These things have indeed brought us back to what matters most. And we’ve found what matters most is really quite simple.
Simple, but not easy. What matters most is expressed well at Jesus’ baptism. “Behold my beloved. With him I am well pleased.” Cherishing. Cherishing is what matters most. It’s another way to say “unconditional love.” To be cherished, and to cherish. This is what we were made for.
In the wildernesses of this life, there is real danger. It is possible to get lost there. But it is also the place where we can find our way back. Back to what really matters.
It’s not in the moments of celebration and victory that we return to love most readily. It is, rather, when we are broken, when we are caught up short. Those are the moments when, like a toddler with a room full of chocolate wrappers, our eyes widen, our pace slows, and we wait to see what happens next.
On that afternoon in our library, when I found George, here is what happened next. Just after he looked at me, with eyes wide open, I looked back at him. My eyes grew wide, too, and then, I smiled. The beauty of that child, even and perhaps especially in his moment of abandonment to that chocolate, overcame me. And I cherished him. As he saw my smile, he began to smile. He realized all was well. This momentary giving way to the chocolate. It was okay. While the aftermath was not pretty, we both knew in that moment of our smiling at each other that we could work with the pile of wrappers, the stomach full of chocolate, and the moment of abandon that had led to the scene.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m me. Not God. Which means, for every story like this one, there are 10 more stories when I lost it. When what he got was not a smile, not cherishing.
We are, you and I, human. We are not capable of cherishing one another every single time we find ourselves in the wilderness, or facing a floor full of kisses’ wrappers. But, here is the beautiful thing: we are becoming more capable every day. That is what this Christian journey is all about—becoming capable of cherishing one another like God cherishes us.
The wilderness is where we learn how to love. It is a place of loss, a place where we doubt and rail and wonder if we are alone. It is there, at the wild edge of this life, that we return to what matters most.
So, welcome to the wilderness. May you face the things that scare you, may you sit with the grief you bear, the failure you fear, the questions you bring.
And, sitting cross legged, may you be greeted by the One who loves you just as you are, smiling at you. Cherishing you. And, in the center of all of it, in the very center of your whole beautiful, messy life, may you, with eyes wide open, smile back.
Bishop Ruth Woodliff-Stanley
The Rt. Reverend Ruth Woodliff-Stanley was elected by the Diocese of South Carolina in May 2021, and consecrated as a bishop on October 2, 2021.