The Rev. Dianne O’Connell

First Congregational Church

March 13, 2011

Judges 16: 4-22

Matthew 4:1-11


The Desert Experience

Good morning.  Sometime back, you might remember, I asked for sermon suggestions and Barbara Ross suggested a homily on the Samson and Delilah story to accompany her special music piece. I’d written a paper on Delilah in seminary years ago calling her a Philistine Heroine, comparing her to the Old Testament Jael who lured the Canaanite General Sisera into her desert tent, covered him with a rug, and killed him with a tent peg while he lay sleeping.  Made quite an impression, if I remember correctly. Both women used their talents and the resources at hand to fight on the side of their people. They were loyal to their cause and stayed the course. We honor the one and revile the other.

So, I decided to take Barb’s suggestion and reflect a while on Samson, while being a little kind to Despicable Delilah.

Samson was blessed with great physical strength and personal combat ability.  He was to the Hebrews what Goliath had been to the Philistines. The only problem with Samson was that he was easily distracted – usually by a pretty woman.  And Delilah was not only pretty, Samson had fallen in love with her.  The opera version would have us believe that Delilah was in love with Samson, too.  You know the story. Samson reveals the secret of his strength to Delilah, Delilah betrays Samson to the Philistines, Samson is captured and imprisoned. But, in the end, blind and humiliated, Samson redeems himself through dying in the rubble of the building he brings down, taking three thousand Philistines with him.  We don’t know if Delilah also died that day.

I like the story of Samson and Delilah because the characters are so very human, with conflicting motivations and challenging circumstances. These are not young, innocent star-crossed lovers like Romeo and Juliet.  These much older, street-weary adults, still messing up their lives, still looking for a way to redeem themselves. It’s my prayer that they both found peace.  Thank you, Barbara, for the wonderful special music this morning.

Today is the first of seven Sundays in Lent. Lent, as I mentioned last week, encompasses the forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday.  Traditionally, it is a season for prayer and preparation, a time during which we, as Christians, attempt to become spiritually-attuned and receptive to the promises awaiting us at Easter.  Part of this process involves taking an honest look at our lives, assessing our strengths and our talents, weighing our weaknesses, experiencing some honest-to-God sorrow for our mistakes, distractions, and poor choices, and even embracing some well-earned guilt for our out-and-out, with malice and forethought, sins.

It’s a time to go into the desert and think about it all.  Maybe we take along a little water, a bag of dried locusts, but mostly we go it empty-handed and alone – to be alone with ourselves.  The first step in the process is to just – be – quiet.

The human Jesus went into the desert for prayer and fasting right after his baptism in the River Jordan. He knew that God had given him a major assignment in this world, but he was still trying to discern not only what it was, but the proper strategy for carrying it out.  I think we can relate to this both as individuals and as a church community. First Congregational, for instance, has a pretty good idea of the kind of voice it wants to be in the Anchorage community, but the strategy for making it happen is still in the development stages.   I have some idea of the kind of person I want to be, but the strategy for becoming that person is still up in the air.

Forty days and forty nights.  The clock is ticking. Moses spent forty days on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments.  Gideon was a judge for forty years and Eli was a priest for forty years.  David and Solomon reigned as kings of Israel for forty years each.  The Israelites spent forty years wandering in the wilderness before they reached the Promised Land. Will it take each of us forty more years of wandering to figure it all out, to find our promised land?  I hope not.  Most of us don’t have forty more years.  But forty days maybe! Maybe we can do it in forty days.

We’re told that Jesus faced three temptations while in the desert. One was to turn stones into bread; another was to become King of the World; and the third was to perform some glitzy magic trick to impress the people, but one that would accomplish little else.  I’m sure each of our temptations are as individual as we are. And we’ll have to do a lot of talking with ourselves to figure out the best courses of action.  Maybe Jesus’ example can be of assistance to us.

Let’s go visit him out in the flat, hot landscape of the desert. Jesus is hungry.  He may even be a bit delirious. He’s beginning to see and hear things. Bread is uppermost in his mind, and the desert rocks are even beginning to LOOK like loaves of bread.  An irritating voice suggests, “why not just call this thing off?  Walk out of this place and go get a sandwich?”

As the hungry Jesus stared at the rocks around him, he envisions what it would be like to just turn one of them into a croissant.  But the world would need more than a few dozen dinner rolls once his earthly ministry came to a close.  People would need not just a recipe for more food, but a recipe for living a whole, physical and spiritual life.  Turning these rocks into bread now would be a pointless diversion, a bad idea.  Jesus keeps thinking, keeps praying.  

“Go for It!,” comes the nagging voice again.  “Go for it.  You’ve got connections, Jesus; you’ve still got friends in high places, you’ve got allies in the mountains. Go back to Jerusalem and take over!  Sure, you’ll have to make some compromises.  A few people will have to die.  But that’s the price one pays for power and influence. A ruler either rules with an iron fist or someone else will rule for you.

“Think of the good you could do once you were in charge, Jesus.  You could reduce taxes, set up child care centers, medical facilities, homes for the aged.  You could negotiate with the Romans for more freedom, starting with freedom of religion.

“Now, it’s true, you would have to keep the Romans happy. And you’d have to keep the scribes and Pharisees happy. And don’t forget the Zealots, they’re part of your base, but so are the Essenes.  The warriors and the mystics, both support you. Amazing. But if you are going to stay in power, you’ve got a real balancing act to perfect.”

Jesus feels a jolt. “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only!”  Jesus passes up the option of political power and continues to meditate.  

“Okay, at least give the people a little entertainment,” says the voice. “A little magic.  Come floating down from the sky in a big hot air balloon. 

“And, the purpose of all that?” Jesus asks.

“They’ll call you the Son of God!  Isn’t that what you want?”

“No.  That’s not it at all.  Do not vex me further.  I want them to become who they already are: Sons and Daughters of God.  It’s about them, not me.  I’m here for them – to let them know that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, it’s here. But they can’t just sit and wait, they must participate .”

The devil shrugs and takes his leave, waiting for another opportune time. Jesus returns to Nazareth to begin his ministry.

And here we are, still out in our desert, praying, discerning. It’s a temptation to pray that whatever it is that ails our individual souls, that Jesus will just make it all better. But while Jesus does promise to be with us on this Lenten desert vacation, we pretty much have to make the trip ourselves. With Christ’s help, may we arrive at Easter with renewed assurance of God’s love and forgiveness, a renewed sense of calling, and the sure knowledge that the Kingdom of Heaven is here for us, now, and forevermore. Amen.

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