March 9, 2014

Church of Peace, United Church of Christ

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

Matthew 4: 1-11

Angels Already Here

Already you can feel it in the thickness of the air. Maybe you hear the Spirit whispering from the side or maybe you feel the dust on the back of your teeth. Make no mistake, Lent is upon us. We are plunged into the wilderness again, this holy realm between life and death, heaven and earth, this land of wild demons and angels all around.

On Wednesday evenings during Lent, I hope you will join us for dinner and conversation on the book Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor. This book is an invitation to encounter the presence of the divine all over the place. Reading it, you feel like she’s shouting “Watch where you walk — you might step on God!” Even out here in the wild.

One of the chapters is called The Practice of Getting Lost. The author gives the example of getting a flat tire one day while you’re driving home. Here you are on the side of the road waiting for the good people of AAA, and here you can sense the thickness in the air and taste the dust on the back of your teeth. See you are not just on the side of the road, you are in the wilderness where you are not in charge.

She writes this: “[Here] you are in need of help, and your awareness of this is not a bad thing… There are people all over the world who know how helpless you are feeling right now. Plenty of them would trade places with you in a minute, to be sitting in a wilderness where there are no bombs going off, no guns being fired. If you listen to these people, they may be able to convince you that the odds of your survival are very, very good.”[1]

Now I’m pretty sure she’s right about this. But when it’s me by the side of the road, I’m usually not thinking about other people. I would like AAA to kindly hurry so I can go home and make a cup of ginger peach tea. I can even believe the terrible lie of the wilderness, the lie that says you are here alone, so you better figure this out by yourself. Listen to the others, is what she says in the book. Out here in the wild, you’re not the only one; there are others we can listen to —even angels, even here.

This morning we experience the story of Jesus being driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit, so he could be tempted by the devil. Our version of events comes to us from the Gospel of Matthew, and the writer of this version wants to make sure we notice a few things. First of all, for forty days and forty nights, Jesus fasts. Just like Moses did when he was on Mount Sinai again waiting for the covenant to be reissued by God (Exodus 34: 38). Just like Elijah who fasted in the wilderness forty days and forty nights as he journeyed to Mount Horeb to hear the word of the LORD (1 Kings 19:8).

In our story, it’s Jesus who is in the wilderness completely famished and set to find out the truth of his identity. Come on Jesus, who are you? is the question hanging in the air. So the tempter enters the scene and the tests begin:

First. If you are the son of God, turn these stones into bread. Jesus knows the answer to this one just like they told him it would be on the test. “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deuteronomy 8:3).

Second. To the temple! I’m not exactly sure how the devil got Jesus there -if he was dragged, or carried, or if he just agreed to come along. You can be sure, Jesus does not agree with the devil’s proposal that he leap off the building to test God’s saving power. The devil quotes the line in the Psalm about the angels who will catch him, and I’m thinking when she says that you could hear some snickering coming from the clouds.  Jesus is ready with the scripture to quote back: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Deuteronomy 6:16).

Third. This time they go up to the top of the mountain and the devil promises Jesus the splendor of all the kingdoms of the world. And Jesus says, “Away with you Satan!” God alone is who I worship and serve. The devil exits promptly and the angels come over to wait on the Lord.

This story occurs right before Jesus begins his public ministry. The wilderness is where he comes into his own and claims his call as the Messiah. He passes the tests, and casts out the devil, and affirms his reliance on God. Here he finds out who he is.

Maybe it didn’t happen to you exactly like this. Maybe it wasn’t a whole forty days of hunger or a devil who came at you hurling scripture and hauling you to the top of the temple then up a mountain. Not exactly like this, okay. But everybody here knows what it is to be driven into the wilderness, then left there.

If you have lived through junior high or middle school. If you lived when the person you love died. If you ever misplaced your sense of who you are, your essential youness gone missing between the cushions on the couch, between heaven and earth. See, you know the wilderness well.

In our story, the problem is not the wilderness. The problem is not even the devil luring and leading our Lord; the devil is being the devil. The problem is right at the beginning: The Spirit led Jesus into the wild in order for him to be tempted. Remember the Israelites who were tested in the wilderness. Here it sounds like some kind of hazing orchestrated by our God in concert with the devil. Just get through the initiation Jesus, then you’ll know who you are.

Now of course, once you get to the other side of the wilderness. Once you get back home, you can sit at your kitchen table and sip a cup of ginger peach tea and look back at the wilderness  and thank the LORD for getting through all that. I can tell you how my faith has been shaped by the times it’s been tested. We really do find out who we are by living through adversity.

It is one thing to look back and interpret the terrible times as trials we have come through. It is another thing entirely to believe in a God who does this to us.

Sure it tangles with the trinity, but don’t you wonder where God is while Jesus is dealing with the devil in the wild? We could imagine God sitting back enthroned on a perch above, assessing Jesus’ performance. Can’t you just see God— one eyebrow raised, maybe looking over the top of his glasses, making notes on a clipboard awarding points for correct scripture references. Can you see this cartoon God saying, “Let’s see how he handles this one!”

It’s funny to imagine, but this is not the God I believe in. I do not believe in a God who flings atrocity around in order to test our response. God does not put you in a car accident on the same day you got diagnosed with cancer just to see what you’re made of. God does not force our brothers to get tortured in Guantanamo or our little children to get shot when they go to school…

Sometimes we might wish that it were so because then we would know the reason. It would be awful, but it would make sense. And we would know where to find God. She’d be sitting with her arms crossed, enthroned on the other side of the surveillance cameras.

The good news is that God is not sitting back from a safe distance watching us flail and fail, just hoping we’ll have the good sense to renounce the devil and hold fast to our faith. God is already here.

On the day of the shooting at Sandy Hook, a poster started going around facebook. It shows our best television neighbor, Mister Rogers with this quote from him: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping…’” [2]

In our story when Jesus says, “Away with you, Satan!” the devil leaves and the angels suddenly appear. What I’m wondering is what if the angels were there the whole time? What if the Spirit doesn’t leave us in the wilderness all alone to starve and die. The Spirit who leads us in gives us a deep long breath, and the air is thick with angels.

The wilderness is exactly where we can listen to those who have learned how to live there, the ones who tell you the odds of your survival are very, very good. The wilderness is where we can look for the ones who are helping, where we cry out to the LORD who is already here.

A few years ago, NPR featured a story on Radio Lab that you really need to hear told by the people who lived it. If you find my sermon online, you can find the link:

What happened was that twenty-one year old Emilie was riding her bicycle to her art studio when she got hit by a truck. In this moment, she was plunged into the wilderness, and so were the people who loved her, her parents and her boyfriend, Alan.

In the days that follow, Emilie lay in a hospital bed and the people around her tried to determine whether there was enough potential for recovery that she could go to a rehab facility or whether she would spend the rest of her days in a nursing home. The accident caused her to go blind, and she refused to let them put in her hearing aids. She couldn’t see, or hear, or show that she understood, and her family couldn’t reach her.

Until. Until the time had come when she needed to move. Her parents planned to send her to a nursing home, and she had her trach tube removed, then Alan tried this. He took her hand, and spelled into her palm with his finger, I, L-O-V-E, U. And Emilie began to speak. Right away, she cried out, “Pull me out of the wall!” Because she thought she had been left alone in a wall.

“Pull me out of the wall!” reminds me of Jesus’ cry, “Away with you, Satan!” These are prayin’ words that summon the angels every time.

Light shines in the darkness and is not overcome. When you find yourself in the wilderness, you don’t have to decide that you’ve been left alone to die in the dust. In this place, we can open our hands, because somebody just might finger spell the I Love You that pulls us out of the wall and teaches us who we are. The air is thick with angels, and earth’s crammed with heaven,[3] and we follow a savior who knows his way through the wild. God can find us here and go with us all the way, every time. Amen.

[1] Taylor, Barbara Brown. An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. Harper Collins: New York, 2009. page. 76.


[3] Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. Aurora Leigh,

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