Have you ever been so far out from the city that you can see the Milky Way? Away from all the city lights, pollution, and hubbub, you can see the cloudy arm of the galaxy stretched across the sky. You can see stars actually twinkle, you can make out the shapes of constellations, and you can feel the weight of the magnificence of the universe.
In order to see that, though, you really have to get away from everything. You can’t see that just by driving a few miles out of town. You’ve got to really get out there into the wilderness. Few cars, few buildings, few homes, few people. And there’s this moment every time I see the stars and the majesty of the universe like this that I feel intensely and unavoidably vulnerable … unsafe … in danger. Underneath the chorus of the stars, I realize it’s so dark, my cell phone won’t work here, I can’t see more than ten feet in front of me, and I have no idea what’s lurking out there in the dark.
As close as I feel to God’s glory, I can’t help but feel Satan stalking us in the darkness beyond the tree line.
I’m reminded of those experiences when I hear the passage we read this morning. Immediately after this experience with the cosmic magnificence of God where the sky gets torn apart and the Holy Spirit descends on him, that same Spirit throws Jesus out into the wilderness – the same wilderness where there are few cars, few buildings, few homes, few people, where it’s dark beneath the stars, where cell phones don’t work, where you can’t see ten feet in front of you, where you have no idea what’s lurking beyond the tree line.
Jesus finds himself in what they called in his day the ereymos, the desolation, the void, the emptiness – the wilderness.
On Ash Wednesday, we began the Christian season of Lent, which is based on this experience of Jesus. Lent lasts for forty days, representing the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness. Lent recognizes that we have the same experience that Mark tells us Jesus had. Great experience of God is so often accompanied by intense periods of wilderness. And in the wilderness, we don’t just meet God, we meet Satan, the Adversary. In the wilderness, we don’t just see the magnificence of God in the stars, we face the gritty, dangerous, and perilous temptation of the Devil.
It is appealing to gloss over this part of Jesus’ story – and this part of our own lives – as metaphor, mere myth (as if there were such a thing), as a symbol for the kinds of decisions we make in our lives. It is appealing to say that all temptation and wilderness represent is the desire to make the wrong decision – not the result of an epic battle between good and evil of which we are all a part. It is appealing to make this story small. It is tempting, if you will, to make this story ordinary and inconsequential to our lives.
Throughout history, though, there have been Christians who didn’t see it that way. In centuries past, and in many churches today, before baptism Christians have been required to go through what’s called a catechumenate. A catechumenate is a group of people who are considering baptism and they go through a process called catechesis, which prepares them for the commitment they are about to make. They would go through an intense process of learning and questioning and testing during the season of Lent, their own wilderness journey. Only after this experience could they be baptized on Easter Sunday, raised from the death they had experienced in catechesis to the new life provided by Jesus in the resurrection of baptism. They would walk through the wilderness, the desolation of death, in Lent and rise from the dead in baptism on Easter.
One of the many things these would-be Christians had to do in their wilderness journey was called the Scrutinies. The Scrutinies were a serious of rituals in which these potential Christians were asked whether or not they were really serious about following Jesus. They were asked things like this:
Do you reject the glamor of evil, and refuse to be mastered by sin?
Do you reject Satan, father of sin and prince of darkness?
Do you reject Satan, and all his works, and all his empty promises?
And my personal favorite:
Now is the time to renounce publicly those powers that are not of God and those forms of worship that do not rightly honor God. Are you, therefore, resolved to remain loyal to God and Christ and never to serve ungodly powers?
The baptismal scrutinies remind us of a core truth about our lives: we don’t live in a neutral world. One of the oldest Christian writings not in the Bible was used to prepare people for baptism just like the Scrutinies. The first line of this ancient text says, “There are two ways. One of life. One of death. And there is a great difference between the two ways.” We don’t live in a world where we can happily make decisions about our lives as if they had no consequence. We don’t live in a world where God is unopposed. We live in a world where our decisions, our commitments, how we spend our time, how we spend our money, and how we live our lives matter a great deal. Lent is a time to reflect on how these things help or hurt our ability to follow Jesus. Lent is a time of choosing between the two ways – one of life, and one of death.
We make this choice by facing temptation. Temptation is not just wanting to do bad things. Temptation is about testing our loyalties. When Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness, other Gospel writers tell us that it was his loyalty to God that was tested. When we face temptation – the choice the Scrutinies offer between the two ways – we must choose whether or not we will be loyal to God. We must choose whether we will resist Satan, or not.
One of the best illustrations of what this loyalty-testing can cost us and what it can look like is the life of Franz Jägerstätter. Franz Jägerstätter is not a well-known name to Baptists, but his story is rich when it comes to teaching us about resisting Satan and being loyal to God. Franz was born in Austria in 1907, not long before World War I. He grew up while the Great War devastated the European continent. He lost his biological father to the war and was raised by his mother and adopted father. With all the upheaval in his life, Franz turned to crime and misbehavior. He got in fights regularly and ran afoul of the law frequently.
After fathering a child and meeting his eventual wife, Franz’s life began to change. Franz married his wife Franziska and they became active in the local Catholic parish. Franz was mesmerized by the teachings of Jesus and became very active in the church. He eventually would become the sexton for the parish, the person who rang the bells for services and looked after the church property. He deepened in his exploration of the faith every day and eventually was coming to receive the Lord’s Supper daily. He and his wife were beloved by their village and considered an exemplary Christian couple. Then came the wilderness.
In the 1930s, the Nazi movement swept across Germany and spread into its neighboring countries. By 1938, Nazism had so fascinated the populace of Franz’ village that they were ready to, quite literally, bow down to Hitler. But when Franz was greeted with the Nazi heil, he would respond with more colorful language about Hitler than is appropriate for the pulpit today. When it came time for the men of the village to vote on the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany, Franz was the only one to speak out against it. He was ignored by the mayor who said 100% of the village was ready for Nazism.
As war spread after 1939, Franz had a crisis on his hands – a temptation like he had never experienced before. Germany’s Catholic bishops supported Hitler and his war. Military chaplains swore allegiance to the Fuhrer instead of to God. Christians were fighting on both sides, many having silenced their consciences in Franz’s view. After non-active mandatory service, Franz returned from the military vowing never to fight for Hitler and the Nazis. He only respected the priests who confronted Nazi paganism and went to prison. So, when it came time for him to be drafted again, Franz saw two ways – one of life and one of death.
“I cannot serve both Hitler and Jesus,” Franz said when he was ordered to enlist and take an oath to Hitler. Most citizens in his village and country were acquiescing to the Nazi regime, its wars, and its Holocaust. Bishops and priests marched in lock-step, encouraging him to join them. Franz, however, claimed to be plagued by a vision from God of a crowded train going straight to hell. He knew the decision he had to make.
Franz was imprisoned, taken away from his family and his community by the government. He wrote letters to his wife while in jail, acknowledging the end he suspected was coming. “I would not exchange my small dirty cell for a king’s palace if I were required to give up even a small part of my faith,” he wrote. “Disciples of Jesus must learn to perceive the suffering of their master as unavoidable and to apprehend the religion of Jesus as the religion of the cross.”
Franz was slandered by his countrymen and urged by his religious leaders to consider his family. He and Franziska wrote about this often, coming to the conclusion that no matter what, Franz had to follow Jesus. The Nazis decided to execute Franz on August 9, 1943. He wrote that day to Franziska, “If I must write … with my hands in chains, I find that much better than if my will were in chains. Neither prison nor chains nor sentence of death can rob a man of the Faith and his free will. God gives so much strength that it is possible to bear any suffering …. People worry about the obligations of conscience as they concern my wife and children. But I cannot believe that, just because one has a wife and children, a man is free to offend God.” Condemned to death for sedition, as a traitor to the Reich, Franz never stopped believing that this was the cost of discipleship, this was how to resist Satan, this was how to follow Jesus.
Franz found himself in a wilderness where his country had gone mad. It would have been easy to stand in the midst of all of it and give up. It would have been easy for Franz to forget his baptismal vows for a few years. It would have been easy for Franz to forget his answers to the Scrutinies. It would have been easy for Franz to choose a different path, but he chose the path of resistance.
Lent calls us to resist Satan and all his powers. Like Franz, we live in a world of temptation, a world that requires resistance. As Franz shows us, Satan and the forces of evil and death are not mere bogeymen for frightened children, nor are they simple metaphors for things we don’t like. I would hope that one of the things that has become abundantly clear to our church in 2018 is that there are evil forces in the world. I hope that it has become apparent to us that we, too, are tempted by Satan and are with the wild beasts in the wilderness right now.
I’ve been tempted so many times recently – and it would not surprise me if we shared this temptation as a church, as a community, as a family. I’ve been tempted to want a quiet life, a life free from obligations, free from fears, free from the concerns that weigh heavy on our hearts and minds. When ICE is coming after our neighbors, it’s tempting to shut our eyes and live lives free from witnessing their thuggery and evil. When our neighbors’ children are killed by a gun that never should have been sold in the first place, it’s tempting to shut our ears and live lives free from the cries of dying children. I’d much rather live in a world where I was not obliged to my fellow human, my brother and my sister. The Devil sidles up next to me and whispers these desires in my ear and it takes every ounce of my being to say no. Because as much as I would rather live a quiet life, as much as you would rather live a quiet life, Satan wants that so much more than either of us.
In this moment in the history of our church, we stand beneath the stars in the wilderness. For many of us, God – and Satan – feel very close right now. Many of you have felt the evil we’ve experienced while fighting Gilles’ deportation. Many of you have learned personally what it feels like to resist Satan in this process. In this moment we stand beneath stars, beneath the magnificence of what God is doing among us to try and save Gilles, but also in front of a great temptation to give up and give in. We stand in the wilderness now with the choice before us every single moment whether we will follow God or whether we will give in to Satan.
Beyond our shared circumstance, many of us felt the equal (or not so equal) closeness of God and the Enemy after the shooting in Parkland, Florida. You saw the evil that took the lives of 17 souls. You know as well as I that this is not the way we are meant to go from ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We feel the evil that provokes us to do nothing in response to death and violence. In this moment, we are vulnerable to temptation. We are vulnerable to the temptation to throw up our hands, resign our commitments, and say, “Well, there’s nothing we can do.” We stand in the wilderness now with the choice before us every single moment: will we follow God or will we give in to Satan?
Lent is about resistance. Lent is about loyalty to God. And we’re being tested constantly in our country right now – there are two paths, one of life and one of death, and there’s a great difference between the two ways. These two ways do not map onto political parties. These two ways do not conform to your ideology or mine. These two ways are of life and death, of God and Satan, and we confront them in the wilderness today.
And that choice demands of us resistance to Satan. That choice demands that we not censor Jesus and the Gospel. We will be told and tempted to water down the Gospel to a series of nice recommendations for life. We will be tempted to sum up the Gospel as be kind, be polite, be unobtrusive. To give into that temptation is to give up on Jesus. To give into that temptation is to give up the freedom Christ has won for us.
Lent is not just about hard and sullen work. Resistance is not drudgery. In our baptisms we are not just called to resistance – we are called to freedom. In baptism, we die not just to our own desires but to the desires of the world for us. In baptism the version of ourselves that is beholden to values of our surrounding world dies. In our baptism, we are set free from the debts we think we owe to political parties, employers, family, and other worldly institutions. We are loyal only to God, obliged to no one.
We are tempted to abandon that loyalty, the kind of loyalty Franz demonstrated to us, even after our baptisms. But what Satan will never tell us is that when we abandon that loyalty, we abandon our freedom. One of the Scrutinies I failed to mention earlier goes like this: “Do you reject sin so as to live in the freedom of God’s children?”
What does that mean concretely for your life? It means a whole lot beyond the fight we’re in right now. Lent requires us to reflect on how we live our lives and ask hard questions about our loyalties:
- Does how I spend my money reflect loyalty to God or something else? We may be investing our money in things that are not of God. We may be spending our money on things no one needs instead of giving it to the poor and taking care of one another. How can we resist Satan and follow Jesus?
- Does how I spend my time reflect loyalty to God or something else? We may be investing our time and our bodies in activities that are fun and enjoyable but are ultimately distracting us from God. We may be putting all our energy into things that ultimately won’t matter. How can we resist Satan and follow Jesus?
- Would I put myself – my body, my livelihood, my family – on the line to do what’s right? We might value safety more than doing the right thing. We might value security more than following Jesus. We might be more concerned about our property, our family, or even ourselves than we are about our loyalty to God. How can we resist Satan and follow Jesus?
I don’t know what God is calling you to personally right now. But I know God has plans for us where we are right now. We don’t choose the times in which we live, but we can choose what to do with the time we’re given. There is a path to life and a path to death, and God invites us, calls us, to choose life.
There’s a world on the other side of Lent full of joy, wonder, and freedom. This world of Easter, of resurrection, is a world where God will make all things right. This is a world where God will make all things new. How we get there will look different for each one of us – as Franz Jägerstätter teaches us, some of us will die first – but if we are following Jesus, we’ll find this new world, in this life and the next. And in this world, Satan will have been resisted and defeated once and for all, and the wilderness will be unmistakably full of God’s presence.