The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
First Sunday in Lent
February 18, 2018
“And the Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness.” It’s almost bizarre how the temptation of Jesus goes in the Gospel of Mark. The Spirit, the Spirit of God, is the same Spirit driving Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan for forty days. “Drove.” It’s an intense word. The Spirit did not nudge Jesus, or call Jesus, or ask Jesus. No, the Spirit drove him, pushed him, the Spirit cast him out into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan for forty days. When it came to the hardship and temptation of the wilderness, it seems that Jesus did not have a choice. The temptation, the wild beasts, and the wilderness were out of his control.
This week, during Drive-Thru Ashes, I heard many, many stories about people who had no control. Who have had hardship, and temptation to despair thrust upon them by no choice of their own. Throughout the day, I would ask, “how can I pray for you?” And then I heard the stories. “I have the flu.” There was a lot of the flu. But also, “I got laid off.” “My house flooded.” “I was just diagnosed with cancer on Monday.” “My wife left me.” I heard stories of people who were suffering by no decision of their own. They were driven into this despair.
And as the day went on, I started praying as we heard the news from Florida. I’d say, “How can I pray for you?” They would say, “For those students, those teachers, in Florida.” “For my school, for my kids.” “For this world gone mad.”
When confronted with this kind of horror, often we say it’s because of free will. “Well, humans have free will, so sometimes we’re going to make bad decisions that have consequences.” It’s a convenient way to explain mass murder, but I’ve never thought that it amounted to much. There is too much suffering, I have seen and witnessed too much evil and hardship to chalk it all up to free will. No, I think that more often than not, hardship and sadness and terror are thrust upon us. Whether we have been good or bad, it makes no difference. When I look at the faces of those children, those teachers shot dead in their own school, I’m not thinking about their free will or the free will of the murderer. No, I’m thinking about how it seems that there is nothing we can do. It all seems so out of our control.
The Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. Part of the myth of modern life is that we’re in control. That we make the decisions. That our life is just that, ours. We congratulate the power player who started their own business and rose to the top. We fawn after the “self-made man;” the entrepreneur, who pulled himself up by his own bootstraps. We idolize the up and comer who somehow, by fate and oftentimes sheer luck, climbs their way upwards. Then we turn insensitively to those who are still shackled by poverty, disease, illiteracy, and ask, “why can’t you do the same?” I look at so many of those kids over at Salyers Elementary School where we go, and I know they’re going to bed hungry at night. They can’t afford glasses to see and read. They can’t afford shoes that fit. And if you’ve got an empty belly, if you can’t see, if your shoes are too small, that’s not free will. That is evil being thrust upon those kids by no fault of their own.
See, there is no such thing as a self-made man or woman. We have got to get past that old tired lie. For even the self-made man at some point couldn’t even feed himself, and still he doesn’t grow his own food, he’s not his own doctor. Even the self-made woman is utterly dependent upon other people. Or, like me, you’re diagnosed with a chronic disease and you realize quite suddenly that you’ve never been in control. It’s a lesson in humility, that we have never been in control of our lives. I think that, for the most part, free will is an illusion.
The Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. He was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him. This is an icon of our lives - we were not asked to be brought into this world, we did not ask for hardship and temptation, and whether we like to admit it or not - we rely on other people for every breath, for every bite of food, for every dollar in our pockets, for our whole being. We did not make ourselves. We are not in control.
The Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. I think of those kids, and those teachers, going to school on Valentine’s Day, Ash Wednesday. They were not in control, either. They went to school hoping to maybe ask out that girl, or to get a rose from that guy. They went to school with ash on their foreheads as a sign of the fragility of life. A fragility that was all too apparent, as evil was thrust upon by them by no choice of their own. It was out of their control.
And maybe like you, I want to be in control. I want to make this madness stop. I want everybody to stop blaming each other and to start working together. I desperately, desperately want the love of Jesus to call the shots. I want to be in control, even though I know I have no control.
To be honest, I do not know what to do. I’m faced with disease, with poverty, with hopelessness, with joylessness, with death, and I don’t know what to do. I feel so helpless that I don’t know what to do when I don’t know what to do. I feel like I’ve been driven into this wasteland of horror and despair and hate. Our reality seems so very far from what God wants it to be.
So, what do we do? What do we do when we don’t know what to do? What do we do when we hear of another friend who’s been diagnosed with cancer? What do we do when another recession comes and people are laid off? What do we do when I see kids who can’t get enough to eat? What do we do when, and it agonizes me to say it but I fear it will happen - what do we do when we start counting the murdered students again? What do we do when we are faced with things that are so beyond our control?
You can obviously tell that I struggle with this mightily. Because I want to be in control. I want the love of Jesus to be in control. My spiritual director, a wise man, always just smiles at me when I start to list the despair in the world. He says, “Jimmy, don’t think about changing the world, about changing laws, about changing systems. First, change yourself.” And I hate it when he says that, because it’s true. I don’t have the power to cure diseases. I don’t know have the power to create an economy in which people are paid fairly for their work. I can’t stop the next school shooting. But what I can do, is change myself. What we can do, is minuscule step by minuscule step, is to allow the Spirit to change us. To allow the Spirit to drive us, perhaps into the wilderness, so that we come out of it closer to God. We cannot start to fixing the world until we address the sin in our own hearts. I cannot make the world love and live like Jesus, but I can try to love and live like Jesus. As the Daughters of the King say, “I am but one, but I am one.”
The true gift of Lent is that it is thrust upon us, it comes once a year, whether we are ready for it or not. Whether we asked for it or not. During Lent, Jesus holds up a mirror to our lives and asks us if this is how we want to live. We are driven into these forty days, completely out of our own will. Here in this Lenten wilderness, I ask all of us to take these forty days as a time to give up control, because in reality, we never had control anyway. Offer yourselves to God’s will. I’m not asking you to be the self-made Christian. No, all I’m asking is that we allow God to give us new hearts. And the Spirit will start here, with your heart, with your love, with your relationship with Jesus. And then I do believe, that one day I won’t have to stand out there in a parking lot and pray for people who can’t find a job. Who are hungry. Who have been shot. Because the love of Jesus will reign in our hearts and in our world. But it will be God who does that, God who has driven us to give up control.