I am going to ask each of us
to do something we do not like —
to touch our fear.
Now remember, a lion
knows as much fear
as a Thompson’s Gazelle,
it is just that the Gazelle wears its fear
much more visibly.
Both lion and Gazelle own fear
even if about different things,
and they both carry fear
wherever they go.
So do we.
If you are wondering
why I am talking about fear
it is because Jesus in the wilderness is all about fear.
So, to help us touch our fear
I am going to engage in a little simulation.
This is my favorite backpack.
I bought it when I was traveling alone for the first time
to El Salvador.
Before this, I had always gone with others,
large groups of others.
The backpack I took with me while traveling alone,
suddenly and literally fell apart in the Atlanta airport –
just kind of disintegrated.
So I bought this one.
I was traveling with my fears that day.
I don’t love flying to begin with
and because my Spanish
was almost non-existent, and
I was not going to being met
by anyone at the airport — which
is an hour or more away from the capital —
I felt apprehensive about finding
my way for the first time by myself.
All of which is to say,
this backpack has had some fear in it.
I am going to pass it around
and invite you to deposit
one or more of your fears in it.
Nobody will know which fear
you put in the backpack,
and because this is an exercise in imagination,
nobody else knows how big your fear is.
It’s just a game of pretend
and you do not even have to play.
I mean, if it is too scary to play
then it has already worked
and you can just pass the backpack on.
Just to be clear,
this is a game of pretend
in which you are asked to name a fear you carry —
name it to yourself, silently,
it is not a sharing exercise.
Then pretend you are putting that fear
in my backpack
which has carried my fears
long before you ever added your own.
If you don’t want to play,
just pass the backpack on to the next person.
When the last fear has been deposited,
I will zip it up
and put it where our prayers
will soon be.
Now, let’s begin by taking a very brief moment
to call up a fear or two
Here comes the backpack.
The title of this sermon is:
”‘Wilderness is where we go
to find freedom from our fear.”
I know that seems like an oxymoron
but the wilderness is where we will discover
freedom from fear.
But please do not hear
more than I am promising:
it is not that we will no longer be afraid,
but that we may find the freedom
that comes with living in spite of our fear.
There is only one way
that I know of,
that we discover that kind of freedom
and I will share it with you…in a minute.
But let’s leave our fear hanging there
while I talk a little about this Jesus story.
This story of Jesus in the wilderness
was told in order
to make Jesus look and sound like, Moses.
Moses leads the escaped slaves
in the wilderness for 40 years
and Jesus is in the wilderness 40 days and 40 nights.
Moses spends 40 days and 40 nights
on the mountain of God
during which time he neither eats nor drinks anything.
Jesus, in his wilderness,
does not eat or drink either.
Moses, when the people he is leading
rebel and question God, reminds them
that they do not “live by bread alone.”
Jesus, in his story, reminds his nemesis
that we “do not live by bread alone.
Moses lectures the escaped slaves
as they prepare to enter The Promise Land
not to forget who brought them to their liberation,
and so, warns them to worship God and God alone.
Jesus, when offered great power and authority,
reminds his nemesis of the same thing:
“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only God.”
Finally, Moses cautions his people
not to test God
but to remember that their identity and meaning
derives from how they live their lives.
Jesus recalls the same thing
when he is challenged to test God’s
So you see, this wilderness story
is told the way it is
because of the author’s belief
that Jesus is a new Moses.
Most Christians hear this story
without any context
and so think it is about Jesus vs the devil
like some Marvel comic movie.
To tell people that Jesus
did all the same stuff that Moses did
is to say that Jesus is a great prophet
in the mold of the greatest prophet Moses.
So as Christians,
we need to understand that Jesus
did not come out of nowhere
or sprout from nothing.
Jesus is Jesus
because Moses was Moses
and they are peas in the same pod.
Now, back to wilderness.
Wilderness is the place of freedom.
Wilderness is any time
and any place
we discover freedom from our fears.
The first category of fear
in the Jesus in the wilderness story
is the dread of hunger.
Jesus’ first temptation has to do with hunger.
Now we can see hunger in this story
as having to do with an empty stomach
and bread as having to do with satiation
OR we can understand them as metaphoric.
As in, we have HUNGER –
deep and abiding hungers.
We are hungry
for whatever it is we have
and are afraid of losing.
We do not need a devil in our world
to create the situation Luke has described,
we have marketing
and literally millions of people
hawking wares that claim
to satiate our hungers
and put away our fears.
With Convenience Stores
and Snicker’s Bars
we need never be hungry or thirsty
And should we feel hungry
or disappointed with anything,
we can get an app for that
or a pill for that
or a surgery for that.
But Jesus tells us: be hungry.
FEEL the want
FEEL the fear of a want
that might never be met.
In touching it,
in feeling it,
we will find freedom from it.
It does not mean we have to stay hungry
or that we can’t feed our need
but that until we feel the want
and touch the fear
they will own us.
So long as we are afraid to be afraid,
and afraid of feeling the thing we fear,
fear will own us.
The second category of fear in this Jesus story
We hate it.
It drives us crazy.
What is the proverbial ‘need for control’
if not the fear of powerlessness?
Some of us are better at tolerating powerlessness
but no one likes to smack up
against their limitations.
is what we hit
when we cannot do something
or do something as well as we would like.
A limitation is when we want the world
or our life
or our relationships
or another person
do and be
the way we want it or them
to do and be.
is like a slap in the face
and when we encounter limitations
in a public kind of way,
it evokes a very special kind of humiliation.
Jesus says: be powerless.
Know your limitation.
In fact, let your limitation bark in your face
and be fully immersed in its hot, dark mud.
Then, when we are confronted with the limitation,
we will be able to surrender
to a power greater than ourselves.
Until we can do that,
we will be owned by our fear.
Powerlessness is a base human fear for all of us,
and yet, if we do not touch it
we will never learn
the base human experience of faith —
which is surrender,
surrender to powerlessness.
The third category of fear in this classic Jesus story
is the fear of death.
But this is truly the trickiest of the three fears.
The fear is not about death –
as in a mortal ending.
The fear is about meaning
or the loss of it.
Most of us,
if we had a rock bottom confidence
in the meaning and purpose of our lives
could let our lives go quite willingly
when called upon to do so.
is that our life
does not have meaning
or that the meaning will not be known by anyone.
is that we will go silently into the night
and no one will notice.
is that we lived for the wrong things
or that we lived wrongly for the right things
or that we were not good enough
or that we did not achieve enough
or that we will not be loved enough
especially by the One whose love
matters most when we die.
We FEAR death
when we do not trust
in the value of the meaning
we have chosen to spend with our lives.
So the wilderness is any place
or any time
that we allow ourselves
to TOUCH our fears
and FEEL them —
to get in their face
and say, “Yeah, I know you.”
We don’t do it very often
because somehow we imagine
that if we chase them away
we won’t feel the fear any more.
But we always have fear
whether we are the lion or the gazelle.
There is always stuff to be afraid of
and for good reason.
But our fears need not own us.
And as long as we keep them at arms length
and as long as we numb ourselves from feeling them
and as long as we engage in
intricate dances to avoid acknowledging them
they will own us.
When we do not see our fears,
when we do not feel them,
when we do not know where they are…
we can be certain
they are moving about in the shadows
and that we are acting
to their presence
and nothing good comes of it.
That is also when our fear is the most powerful
That is why, as Jesus did,
we enter the wilderness and touch our fears
from time to time.
If need be, we can ask God
to hold our hand in the process.
So that is what the season of Lent is about.
Whatever ritual practice we engage in —
like giving something up
or doing something we would not normally do —
it ought to help us
be in the presence of a fear
so that we might discover freedom
in the midst of it.
Now if you thought I was collecting these fears
to get rid of them
or to somehow magically make them disappear,
you were wrong.
I collected them
to place them in our midst.
I will place them now,
at the altar where we will be invited
to place our prayers via prayer stones.
They are our fears
and they are legion, and
they are here with us.
Gracious God, please hold our hands
as we walk out into the wilderness
to touch our fears.