A Sermon for Covenant
“Facing Your Demons”
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
March 9, 2014
Kyndall Rae Rothaus
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
It is not arbitrary that Lent is a season we observe for 40 days before Easter. The rhythms of the church year exist to help us enter the Christian story, particularly the story of Jesus, that way it isn’t just a story we read out of an old dusty book, but it is a story that we live, that we mimic, that, with years of practice, it is a story we almost understand. There is no other story so captivating, so necessary, so important, so worth repeating to us as the Jesus story, and so we reenact it over and over and over in hopes that the story might one day make it all the way from our heads down into hearts, from our knowledge into our knowing, and from our awareness into our way of living.
And thus, Lent is the part of the Jesus story where we mimic in some way the long arduous journey to the cross. More specifically, these 40 days we are now entering parallel the 40 days Jesus himself spent in the wilderness, facing the devil. I always found it odd in the Scriptures that it says “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” As Christians we are always praying, “Lead us not into temptation,” and that’s a line we learned straight from Jesus. Why does the Spirit lead Jesus to a place where he’s going to be tempted rather than delivering Jesus from evil?
This event is one of the first things Jesus does before he begins his public ministry. He has just been baptized by John in the Jordan, and now he heads for the desert, led there by the Spirit, and I wonder if he went into the wilderness not to find new temptations but to confront the old temptations head on. It isn’t that the Spirit wanted Jesus to be tempted so much as the Spirit said, “Come on now. Let’s face the demons that plague you. If you’re going to do your work in the world, you’ve got to look the shadows in the eye and show them you are unafraid.” This tenacious entry into an honest look at one’s life is what Lent evokes for us: in some way or another, we attempt to enter a wilderness of sorts. We self-impose some barrenness in our lives either with a fast or with our attitudes, and in this emptier-than-usual space, it isn’t so much that the devil comes to us in new ways, but that the sinister voice always lurking over our shoulder is suddenly more obvious. Nothing quite like a fast to make it clear how attached to food you really are. Nothing quite like a more intentional discipline to reveal how scattered and divided you’ve been living.
So I ask: If you were to enter a wilderness, that is, if your life were stripped of its comforts, what crutches would that experience uncover? In the bustle of city life, we are often tossed about by our devils without a second thought. In the quiet stillness of a hungry desert, our eyes are opened to see what has been driving us, what has been manipulating us and contorting us into something we are not. The Spirit doesn’t send us into the wilderness because that is where the devil lives. The Spirit sends us into the wilderness where there is less to obstruct our view so that we stand a fighting chance of seeing with clarity the temptations that follow us everywhere.
Which leads us to consider, what is the nature of temptation? As children we learn about rules, about how to behave, how to know the difference between right and wrong, and so our first brush with temptation is along those lines. We are tempted to disobey. Like Moses and the Israelites when they first started out their 40 year pilgrimage through wilderness, we need some guidelines, some 10 commandments to get us going. But then, as we grow and mature, the lines between right and wrong get fuzzier, and we learn that the world is more gray and more nuanced than first we thought. We even learn that some rules need to be broken in service of a higher good. This is what some of the biblical writers call “freedom in Christ,” which isn’t the freedom to willy-nilly do whatever you want without regard for others. Instead, it is the freedom to follow the Spirit, the freedom to cross fences, the freedom to live large in service of Love. As Richard Rohr says, saints are free to obey and saints are free to disobey. They are guided by a Wisdom, or a Love, or a Guide, that runs deeper than any outward set of rules. When you begin to hit this wave of the spiritual journey, temptations do not come so much in the form of the impetus to rebel against rules. In fact, the impetus to rebel is sometimes the Spirit of God prompting you to step outside the box and live more awake. Rather, temptations come more subtly, in the form of tempting you to be something other than the person God intended you to be.
This is the phase of the spiritual journey where deep listening is required. You begin to discover who you are, what you are made of, and how it is you are meant to live in the world. You begin to shed all the pieces of your existence that are less than the great big life for which you were created. You learn that who you are is unique and hand-crafted, that what you are made of is strength and mystery, what you are made of is mere dust mingled with God’s own image, and how you are meant to live in this world is full of love and there is some quite specific-to-you way in which you will reflect that love onto the earth. This is the part of the spiritual journey that is exhilarating and terrifying all at once because there is often so much you have to let go of before you can grab hold of what is really yours.
You will be tempted again and again and again to pick back up the small life you were living before. You will be tempted to live easy and live tiny and live fear. You will have to keep telling those devils, “No. I will not forfeit my soul to gain the world.”
I believe the temptations Jesus faced were in some way hitting the very core of his identity in God. This wasn’t so much about breaking the rules, as it is was about breaking Jesus. The devil and Jesus banter back and forth using the language of the law, and you will notice that even the devil can use the laws to tempt. It takes a deeper wisdom to use the laws in service of life.
I am so captivated this year by what I shared with you on Ash Wednesday: this idea that repentance is mercy and gift to us. It is not about wallowing in where we are wrong; rather, repentance is what happens when a stroke of insight breaks through into our stuck places and reveals a way forward. Repentance is when a new way opens and thank heavens we see the opportunity in front of us to change direction.
Repentance doesn’t strike you when you are worried sick about following the rules or when you are bogged down in cautious living. Repentance is what surprises you when you are listening for God. So for me, one of the ways I am trying to clear space in my life to hear the real voice of God during Lent is to stop apologizing for things I don’t really mean to apologize for. It’s a bad habit I have, to say I am sorry for petty things, and I am starting to feel like this just clutters me up and renders me incapable of knowing when a genuine apology or change of direction is called for. So, for me, no more saying, “I am sorry for sneezing, or “I am sorry for eating that cookie” or “I am sorry I left dirty dishes in the sink.” This rhetoric no longer serves me. No more “I am sorry for living,” because I am not sorry. I am not sorry for being a preacher. I am not sorry for being a poet. I am not sorry for being woman. I am not sorry for finding the bravery to express my feelings. I am not sorry for being divorced. I am not sorry for having endured wounds, and sometimes needing to talk about them. I am not sorry for having a voice and using it. But when I am afraid to do what I am meant to do, I will say sorry to myself for the lack of courage, and then I will forgive my fright and try again. When I build walls around my heart to keep it safe, I will remember what Dawna Markova says about loving each day as if you have never been hurt, and then I gently and apologetically tear the bricks back down. When I cannot figure out how to love my neighbor or my enemy, I will regret it enough to ask for God’s help. When I make a decision that runs against the grain of my soul, I will mourn until the soul dances yet again.
I want to be one who faces my demons rather than chases off sins that aren’t really sins at all. I want to confront the ugly bulky mass of fear that tries to run my life and the sinister voice that constantly gets me to judge my neighbor and the lying whisper that promises me there are shortcuts to vibrant living, if only I will trample on someone else’s head to get there. I want to face those things and learn that I am unafraid to tell them no. I want to emerge from the baptismal waters and enter the desert where the barrenness will help me to see. I want the Spirit to lead me there, that way I know I have help. I want to be purged so that I can better serve the world and embody love and be who I am.
I don’t observe Lent because it’s a ritual I am obligated to follow. I observe Lent because I want the Jesus story to sink down into me, and I want the Jesus courage to make it into my bones, and I want the Jesus character to become my own, and I want the Jesus words and the Jesus wisdom to see me through this rugged life, and just like most of you, I haven’t got a clue where to begin, and so I begin with one little step, and after that step, I will take another, and before you know it, I will have journeyed.
I am wondering, would you like to join me? And if so, what will you find in your desert? What is there to be confronted? And can you feel that little rise bubbling within you, which the strength to say no to the darkness and to say yes to the light?
May we journey with Jesus by our side, drawing on his power, relying on his love, mimicking as best we can his courage. Amen.