St. John’s United Methodist Church of Baltimore
Rev. Jackson H. Day, Pastor
First Sunday of Lent, March 6, 2022

In the last two weeks, our world has changed.  Russia has invaded Ukraine, banking and commercial relationships with Russia have been severed, air travel with and over Russia has been curtailed.  Gasoline prices are rising, supply chains have been disrupted – but by far most importantly, lives are being lost minute by minute in the midst of immense suffering.  Our world has become a wilderness.

         It’s a physical wilderness.  It’s an emotional wilderness.   And it’s a moral wilderness.  All of us, really, are suffering from moral injury at this point.  We know that causing the death of others violates our morality; failing to prevent the deaths of others violates our morality; and in the present moment if our nation were to intervene directly in Ukraine, all humanity could die from the mutually assured destruction of nuclear war.  And so we withhold our military support while people die in Ukraine.  As high priest Caiaphas – one of the villains of Holy Week — is quoted in the 11th chapter of John’s Gospel, “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”[2]

         As a result, the peacefulness that you and I enjoy this morning is bought with the unwilling blood of others.  Whatever we do or fail to do, someone will die.  This is the moral injury that psychologists have identified as one of the components of the PTSD that afflicts so many of our servicemen and women returning from combat.

         Wilderness is a breeding ground for temptation.  Our Gospel Lesson[3] is traditionally presented as the story of Jesus’ temptations, a good theme for the beginning of Lent.  But often, context is everything, and the context for this story of temptation is the wilderness.  Jesus is in the wilderness.  That’s what makes the temptations attractive to Jesus and that’s what makes the story a powerful one.

         The first temptation was to turn stones into bread.  Bread is more tempting when you have been away for food for 40 days and you’re starving.  At some point, you must have food, or die.  

         The second temptation was power over all the kingdoms.  Satan takes Jesus to where he can see all the kingdoms of the world.  Has Jesus left the wilderness? The desire for power comes not from a physical wilderness but an emotional and spiritual wilderness, and Jesus is really still there.  In the wilderness your power, your human agency is limited, you can’t command anything or make anything happen.  We humans are created to make a difference, so power can feel as tempting as bread.

         Jesus’ third temptation was to prove his relationship to God by jumping off a building and trusting God’s angels to lift him up.  Again the devil seems to take Jesus somewhere, in this case to the top of the temple in Jerusalem.  The third temptation is to test God: “God if you really love me, you will do stuff for me.”  If you weren’t in a spiritual wilderness, if your relationship with God wasn’t in question, that wouldn’t be tempting.  So spiritually, Jesus is still in the wilderness.

         Jesus is hungry, powerless, and alone, and set up for temptation.  Most of us give in to temptation at one time or another, especially when we’re in a wilderness, but Jesus, we are told, did not, and that is one of the reasons he’s special.

         The people of Ukraine are hungry and alone, and we can feel powerless to help.  That is the wilderness we are in, and it’s not so different from the wilderness Jesus endured.  Today’s lectionary readings give some words of hope about the wilderness:  it can be temporary.  It can be a source of strength.  And it can bring us closer to God and others.  These things are neither a blueprint for survival nor a plan for war, but, shrouded by the mystery of an unknown future, they are grounds for hope.


         Our Old Testament lesson from Deuteronomy[4] tells us something about wilderness:  it’s temporary. The Bible consistently shows us wilderness as places between two other places.  The Bible never tells us that wildernesses are forever.

         Our passage from Deuteronomy reminds us of the people of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai.  When I first read this, I skipped over the first line and thought the whole passage is about a harvest festival and bringing God your first fruits, and why aren’t we reading this in the autumn when the crops are in?

         Then it was pointed out to me that it begins, “when you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”  You’re not there yet.  You’re in the wilderness.  You’re still in that space where you don’t think the awful experience you’re in will ever end.  

         The Exodus story is one of our faith’s dominant human wilderness stories.  The starting point is slavery – or the flesh pots of Egypt – and the destination is the Promised Land – but in between is the wilderness.  In the Exodus story, the Bible tells us to never forget that we have a wilderness story, because it’s something we need to remember when times are hard.  Don’t forget we have a wilderness story when we face the wilderness today!

         In our Deuteronomy reading, God is telling Moses, God is telling you – when you get out of the wilderness, this is what you are to do.  Not IF you get out of the wilderness.  WHEN you get out.  You’re not out yet, but the wilderness will not be forever.


         Our wilderness can be temporary, and it can give us strength.

         When I was pastor at Providence, we sponsored a Scout troop.  Scouts seek a positive perspective on the wilderness.  The wilderness is a great place to go, the joy of sleeping under the stars, breakfast on a cook stove in the morning, hiking to mountaintops, and when the weekend is over and you return home, there is someone else to wash your clothes.  And if the wilderness should be drenched by rain, you can always get in your cars and say, “well, that was a wash.”  But amidst the experiences of youthful fun, they were developing strength, strength both of body and of character. 

         Sometimes the wilderness can be physically comfortable.  In the Old Testament, the prophet Daniel grew up in exile in Babylon.  Recognizing his talent, the king made him part of his household, and the royal steward tried to feed him royal food, full of honey and fat.   For Daniel, that made it a wilderness, and to the steward’s consternation, Daniel insisted on vegetables.  Daniel had to prove to the steward that eating vegetables wouldn’t kill him!  Many of us would be healthier if we had the strength of character to resist the wilderness of tasty food!


         The wilderness can be temporary, it can give us strength – and it can bring us closer to God and to others.

         When we are in the wilderness we can feel alone – and probably if we don’t, we should.  Some years ago I was returning to Baltimore from California, but the East Coast was closed because of bad weather.  The airline told me, “You can stay here in San Diego, or we can get you as far as Las Vegas.”  I took Las Vegas.

         I love to explore, so I rented a car and drove north, checked into a little motel in the desert and then went exploring.   Several miles down a dirt track I suddenly realized that I was alone in the desert.  That was before cell phones.   If the car broke down, if it got a flat tire, I couldn’t deal with myself, I might not be found for weeks.

         Surely that was a feeling the people of Israel had, out there in the wilderness of Sinai between Egypt and the Promised Land.  Surely that is the feeling of people in Ukraine today.

         Psalm 91[5] reminds us of something crucially important:  God is our protector.  Of course we have to take steps as well, but we do it with the knowledge of God.  God is our shelter.  We live secure in God’s shadow.  God is our fortress and God’s angels will protect us.  In this morning’s Gospel Satan tried to get Jesus to abuse these very words from Psalm 91 – “he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.  On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” 

         We must take care of ourselves in the wilderness, but God is looking after us as well.   Wilderness can bring us close to God

         St. Paul seconds the psalmist with his message of God’s protection when we are in the wilderness.  Do we feel like God is far away?  Writing to the Romans[6] Paul assures us that the word of God is near us.  The word of God is on our lips and our heart, and if we confess with our lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead, we will be saved.  The Greek word used for saved is the same word used for delivered.  Like the people of Israel in the wilderness, we will be delivered.  And though we don’t know how, so will Ukraine.

         Our faith takes a long view of deliverance:  all of us will die, but none of us need fear that death will be the end.  We will be delivered.

         Christ spent time in the wilderness and so do we.  Thank God the wilderness can be temporary even when we can’t see the end of it.  And it can help us become strong.  And it can bring us closer to God and each other. Forever and ever.  Amen.

[1] Adapted from a sermon preached at Providence UMC, Towson, Maryland, March 10, 2019.  Lectionary:  Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13.     #UMH 269, Lord Who Throughout These 40 Days; #257, We Meet You, O Christ; #555 vs 1 &2, Forward Through the Ages.                  

[2]John 11:50

[3] Luke 4:1-13 – Temptations

4:1 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness,

4:2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.

4:3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”

4:4 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'”

4:5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.

4:6 And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.

4:7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”

4:8 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”

4:9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here,

4:10 for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’

4:11 and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'”4:12 Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”

4:13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

[4] Deuteronomy 26:1-11 – A Wandering Aramaean

26:1 When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it,

26:2 you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name.

26:3 You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.”

26:4 When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God,

26:5 you shall make this response before the LORD your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.

26:6 When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us,

26:7 we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.

26:8 The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders;

26:9 and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

26:10 So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.” You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God.

26:11 Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.

[5] Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16

91:1 You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,

91:2 will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.”

91:9 Because you have made the LORD your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place,

91:10 no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.

91:11 For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.

91:12 On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.

91:13 You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.

91:14 Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name.

91:15 When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them.

91:16 With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.  

[6] Romans 10:8b-13

10:8b “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim);

10:9 because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

10:10 For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.

10:11 The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.”

10:12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.

10:13 For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”