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In the Wilderness...to see who we are.

wild flowers inside old work boots, we are called to put ourselves in the shoes of others

Sermon by Rev. Joel Crouse

First Sunday in Lent

February 18th, 2024


Genesis 9:8-17

1 Peter 3: 18-22

Mark 1: 9-15

The “I’m busier than you” conversation is probably the modern equivalent of “my dad is bigger than your dad” – and it’s just as ridiculous. But it’s also pretty human: we spend too much of our time, often unconsciously, sizing up our lives against the lives of others. And now it’s not cars and homes – now we want to have as little time for ourselves as anyone else does. That’s just crazy – and a recipe, sociologists say, for unhappiness. Because we become like the hamster on the treadmill, always chasing something we cannot catch. If we see ourselves only in the reflection of others, we never see who we truly are.

This is the first Sunday in Lent – and as much as Lent is a time for quiet contemplation, I imagine that for most of us, the real world isn’t going to clear away our schedules so we can wander off into the wilderness for 40 days and wrestle with our inner selves. The kids will still get homework, the boss will still lay down deadlines, whoever needs our attention is still going to need it.

But if any society needed to put the brake on, I think it’s ours. Those forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, winning riddles with the Devil and thinking hard about the days ahead and his connection with God, were key to setting him on the right path again. Before he went off into the wilderness, he was living a superstar’s life, thronged by crowds wanting his autograph, or to touch his cloak. I doubt he ever had to cook a meal. That’s a heady experience – and I imagine the human part of Jesus struggled with the temptation of fame. I suspect that like us, he occasionally felt overwhelmed by all the work that needed to be done, and the people clamoring to get his attention.

In fact, when he does meet the devil in the desert, many of the temptations are playing on the hubris of Jesus – asking him to prove that he is as great as his followers say, that he ranks in comparison. It was the Devil’s version of the busy conversation. And Jesus wasn’t having any of it. He knew who he was. He didn’t need to prove it – least of all to the Devil, who was never going to see his side of things anyway.

Now, I want to get back to that. But first let’s return to the wilderness. We aren’t winning the Lenten sweepstakes and getting our 40-day sojourn, so we must find the time to wrestle with our temptations in the here and now. That makes sense anyway, because the things that tempt us away from the good things that God wants for us, exist in the here and now.

Usually, they happen over and over again – and often we react in the same way. But Lent is the church’s changeover season: and our chance to change. Lent is meant to be a time for us to contemplate our connection with God. But these next 40-odd days create for us 40 opportunities to be deliberate in our actions, to defeat our temptations, and to break bad habits. A bad habit, according to science, takes about 14 days to break – so God has kindly given us some wiggle room. And this is not about giving up chocolate or movies or some other pleasure. This is our time, in the wilderness, to see who we are, to decide who we want to be and find the path between those two points. That was what the 40 days meant for Jesus. In the silence – in the quiet space he had – I imagine that he spent a lot of time on those three questions: Who am I? Who do I want to be? And what is the path in between?

I think that as Lenten resolutions go – that would be the first one I would propose to you. To ask yourself those three questions every day, for these forty days. I have no doubt that you will find that God is working through each one of those questions – and he has some pretty clear instructions for the third one in particular.

But today I am going to stick with just one: a variation on how Jesus responded to the Devil, and the core of what’s dysfunctional about that whole “I am busier than you are argument.”

Too much of our understanding of how people behave is about us, and not them. If our partner snaps at us, we often take it personally – rather than assuming first that they had a bad day at work. A friend runs late or cancels at the last minute – they must not want to be with us, we may find ourselves thinking – when the truth is that other parts of their life have swamped them. People do inconsiderate things without ever meaning to be inconsiderate – and we often forget that.

This week, I read some advice on how to handle this reaction. Every time someone’s behaviour irritates you, or insults you, the writers suggested, say to yourself: “That person is giving the best they can in this particular moment.” Even if you are justified in being irritated – especially if you are justified in being irritated -- you say: “That person is giving the best they can in this particular moment.”

As Lenten resolutions go, I think that’s a good one. And here’s why: first of all, thinking those words requires that we remove our own selfish wants from the exchange – and force ourselves to consider the other person. For just a moment, what flashes through our mind may be a charitable thought about where they could be in life right now, that goes a long way to defuse the tension. In that instance, we have stepped away into the quiet wilderness, however briefly. We say: “That person is giving the best they can in this moment.” Now let me be clear, this is not about being above someone else—that gets us right back to ‘who is busier.’ This is about assuming the best of that person—and that their intentions are good. The funny thing is, that’s exactly what God promises to say about us, every time we make a mess of things: “They are doing their best. I forgive them.”

But what makes this self-help step perfect for Lent is how it helps bring us to a better understanding of ourselves. We can see ourselves more clearly, standing outside the fray, than when we are wrestling with everyone else in the middle of it. When we refuse to be baited we are defining ourselves as patient. When we forgive even when we shouldn’t have to, we define ourselves as compassionate. We stop wasting our time – the little free time we feel we have – quibbling over who’s busiest. And even better, it focuses our energy not on the problem, but on the solution. Those actions – compassion, patience, service – they bring us closer to God.

Every time Jesus said no to the Devil, he set himself apart from the Devil: he defined himself as someone outside the fray. Each time, he came to understand himself a little better. And in this way, the path for his life became clear to him.

This is the opportunity we also have in Lent: to identify our temptations, to learn from them, resist them, and define who we are by a better response to them.

We have just about 40 days. More than enough time to change those bad habits, to decide who we want to be and make a path to get there. So set forth into the busy wilderness of life. And to get things started, the next time you meet with a conflict, think these words: “This person is giving me the best they can at this moment. I forgive them.” Who knows? Maybe they are thinking the same of you—maybe they are giving you the same wiggle room, erring on the side of grace. Wouldn’t that be a relationship, worthy of God? Amen.


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