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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

February 18, 2018

Matthew 4:1-11


When I was in high school, I spent many hours each fall running around in the woods with other members of the cross country team.  When we practiced on weekday afternoons, after school, we would run along the old railroad bed, or on the bike path along the river, or through the wooded parts of the nearby golf course and town parks.  On the weekends, if we didn’t have a race, our coaches would assign us workouts, and we would do them near our homes.

My friend Josh lived in a neighboring town that was very rural—a lot like Woodstock, actually.  And one weekend, while he was out running his Saturday workout on the acreage of a dairy farm near his house, he had an unforgettable encounter with a goose.  As you may know, geese can be a little bit aggressive, and this one certainly was.  Josh made the mistake of running too close to the spot that the goose had claimed as its own, and the goose did not appreciate this trespasser on its turf.  It chased Josh down, whacked him with its wings, and nipped him with his bill.  Josh was fine, in the end, but he had some marks to show for it, and a healthy respect for geese from that time on.

Ancient Celtic Christians in the British Isles referred to the Holy Spirit as a “wild goose.”  And I think that is a pretty good image for the way the Spirit shows up in this morning’s reading.

In the verses immediately preceding this story, Jesus was baptized in the river Jordan by his cousin John, and “just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.  And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’” (Matthew 3:16-17).

When I think of the Spirit as a dove, I picture a gentle fluttering and hear a soft cooing.  But in the very next verse, that same Spirit led Jesus up into the wilderness.  In the version of the story in Mark’s gospel, we are told that the Spirit “drove” Jesus out into the wilderness—like a wild goose, hissing and honking, wings flapping and bill snapping at his heels.  And doesn’t it sometimes feel like the Spirit has to wallop us over the head, drive us into the wilderness… because we would not go there under our own steam, left to our own devices.

The word Matthew uses for “wilderness” here implies an uninhabited place, a place that was solitary, lonely, desolate, deserted.  It implies that Jesus was all alone, bereft of friends or helpers, deprived of help or companionship, like a flock without a shepherd or a widow without a spouse.  Jesus was chased off into the lonely wilderness by that wild-goose-Spirit to face his demons alone.

Do you know what that feels like?  To be stripped of all you’ve known… to find yourself exposed to the elements and wrestling with your demons… to be surrounded by a strange and desolate landscape with nowhere to go for refuge… to discover what can be found in the deepest depths of your heart and soul…  It is not an experience most of us would choose for ourselves.  If you’re like me, it is vastly preferable to stay in the comforts of our homes, to surround ourselves by other things, other people, other needs, to distract ourselves from the hard work of self-examination.

Confronting our demons is not a pleasant or comfortable thing.  It is hard.  It is lonely.  It is uncertain.  It is scary.  And it is also transformative, in the way that a refiner’s fire is transformative, burning away everything but the most essential core of our being, revealing something of who we really, truly are.

And here’s the thing.  Even in that lonely, desolate place, Jesus was never actually alone.  Even as he released all that was not necessary, even as he surrendered to God’s beautiful and terrible call on his life, he was never abandoned.  He had with him the echo of the Spirit’s cry at his baptism:  “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  He had with him the echo of God speaking through the sacred texts he held so dear, those three scriptural verses he used as he debated with the tempter about the nature of faithful life—three quotes from the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy.


“One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” 
(Deut. 8:3)

“Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”  (Deut. 6:16)

“Worship the Lord your God,
and serve God alone.”
  (Deut. 6:13)


And at the end of the story, we are told that there were also angels who came and waited on him.  And maybe, just maybe, that wild goose Spirit was there, too.

Even in that lonely, desolate place, even as the nonessentials were all stripped away, Jesus was never abandoned—and neither are we.  If we are hurled into the wilderness by death or loss or grief or depression or illness or betrayal or circumstances beyond our control—or if we choose to accept the invitation of this Lenten season and embark on a wilderness journey of our own volition—we are never alone, for Jesus meets us right there.

There are things that are stripped away, things we need to release.  There are things that can never be taken from us, things we need to hold fast.  I invite you in a moment to take part in a symbolic representation of that letting-go and that holding-on.

To my right, you will find the baptismal font, filled with the same gems and stones we used on Baptism of Jesus Sunday last month to remind ourselves of our baptismal identity as God’s beloved children.  If you need a tangible reminder of who you are as you enter this wilderness season, you may reach into the bowl and take one to carry with you.

To my left, you will find cards with those three scripture verses quoted by Jesus, three teachings that were important to him in the midst of a trying time, as well as a few other favorites that Jesus doesn’t quote here, but which I suspect were echoing in his heart nevertheless.  If you need a reminder that God’s teachings are always available for you to draw on, you may choose one or more of those verses to carry with you.

Here in the center, there is a table with slips of flash paper and pens.  If there is something you need to release, something you feel being burned away in this season, you may write it on a slip of paper and then come up here to the chancel, touch the end of the paper to the flame, hold it up high, and let it go.

As you offer these prayers in tangible form, or as you pray quietly in your seat, remember this:  even in the loneliest, most deserted place, Jesus was never abandoned, and neither are you—not ever.


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