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ASH WEDNESDAY: February 22, 10:00 AM & 7:00 PM

“My muse is not a horse and I am in no horse race…”: February 26, 2023

The First Sunday in Lent:
Matthew 4:1-11

It’s been written: “Temptation has a visceral sound.”* (When I think of my adolescence — a time of great involvement in church life — so much of it seems to have been about ‘temptation.’ I mean, when I say “youth group had a lot to do with temptation”… we can understand that in a couple different ways.)

There’s something visceral, resonant about ‘temptation’ as a subject. We probably know the story about the temptation in the garden. And the temptation in the desert (the opposite of a garden). And we’ve all got our opinions and baggage about what these stories conjure up in us, or have conjured up in society.

“To speak the word,” it’s been said, “summons images of lust and gluttony, pride and dissipation, self-aggrandizement and vulnerability, that which is at once seductive but forbidden. In ordinary life surrender to temptation connotes moral turpitude or, at least, malfeasance, while the resistance to temptation seems to prove virtue or, anyway, a resolute willpower….”*

We heard, at the beginning, about “carefully keeping these days.” For some it’s very clear and regimented: doing something, or not doing something. For others it might be less so, but still, Lent probably lingers somewhere in the back of the mind. It’s even caught the attention of many folks in wider society, even those who’ve never been to a church. It might have more to do with trying to fit into skinny jeans or swearing less, but they’re attracted to this idea of a season of focus, or goal-setting.

But what happens when we think about — and live — Lent in relation to Jesus; Jesus who was tempted in the desert. “He was tempted as we are but did not sin,” and insofar as he was human, he must have been. But the story we heard doesn’t seem to have much to do with gluttony, lust, moral turpitude, let alone skinny jeans.

If the stones turned to danishes and he ate a whole lot of them, we could call it gluttony, sure. But that’s not where my head goes as I imagine the story. A hungry person eating some bread in the desert is perfectly reasonable in most ways of thinking.

The Son of God being protected by angels is perfectly reasonable. Even Biblical (with the Devil quoting Psalm 91).

The Chosen One of God having exerting control over the kingdoms of the world seems like the kind of thing one would want.

So what are we to make of this story of somewhat odd temptations? And how might it help us approach this season of Lent?

The first thing we might do is rewind just a couple of lines: And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw God’s Spirit descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from the heavens said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” And then we come in: Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

Jesus, in his life, was continually — like us — vacillating between life lived with others, and life on his own. Chapter 3 of Matthew has Jesus gathering with the crowds — everyone in the city that went out to the river — to take part in this baptism movement. Until the Spirit leads him to the wilderness to be alone. Or think of Jesus, together with his closest companions at that evening supper. And then goes off to pray, alone and agonized, in the garden. And in between, often the centre of attention of crowds in great need… until he slips away.

Lent, for us, is a time of navigating that back-and-forth between community life (as Church) and our individual experiences (or ‘journeys’ or practices). We hear the exhortation to lead a holy Lent on Ash Wednesday or today; we sing penitential prayers and hear these temptation stories together as a congregation, but we take from them the calling to pay some extra attention to our lives, and do some interior work.

But much more than that, the desert is connected to the river; the river in which Jesus heard “this is my Beloved child.” The Spirit sends Jesus out to the wilderness to do the important and difficult (and even, at times, scary) work that’s needed to most truly and authentically and wisely and compassionately be the Child of God that he was called to be. Someone with a heart completely aligned with God and a heart completely open to people. The temptations he experienced didn’t have much, if anything to do with gluttony, lust, or surrendering to those things, nor with resistance, willpower, and virtue — in themselves. It was all about conforming his life and his decisions to his identity as the Beloved child of God. Sent to the world to love unselfishly. To show power in weakness, to reveal God’s presence in brokenness, to bring victory from defeat (life out of death). And the comfort, safety, and power presented by the Devil was not in line with the life he was called to live.

So there’s a message for us in that. As we go into our own little wilderness or deserts — whether it’s our plans for these 40 days, or some more time reflecting, or even just experiencing the feel of church life in this different season — we have the opportunity (even the guidance) to sift through our lives, our choices, and the voices we listen to: are they lining up with our deepest identity revealed and sealed at baptism: that you are a Beloved child of God.

Is there something — it could be a bad thing, or it could be a good thing — something to set aside, that in doing so, will help you remember that God loves you and is calling you to experience fullness of life. Is there something to take on, that will open your ears to that voice: “This is my child, my beloved”? Are there scriptures you might read, to remind you of the surprising, unpredictable, power and presence of God in the world? Are there liturgies (services) that will help you follow Jesus to and through his death and into the new life of Easter? I’ll end with a little story.

There’s a singer I like, who I’ve mentioned before: Nick Cave, who did the music for the new movie about Marilyn Monroe. In the mid-90s he was nominated for an MTV music award. One that was well-deserved. He wrote that he was “grateful” and “flattered” and sent his “sincere thanks.”

And then he went on:

Having said that, I feel that it’s necessary for me to request that my nomination for best male artist be withdrawn… I have always been of the opinion that my music is unique and individual and exists beyond the realms inhabited by those who would reduce things to mere measuring. I am in competition with no-one.

My relationship with my muse is a delicate one at the best of times and I feel that it is my duty to protect her from influences that may offend her fragile nature.

She comes to me with the gift of song and in return I treat her with the respect I feel she deserves — in this case this means not subjecting her to the indignities of judgement and competition. My muse is not a horse and I am in no horse race and if indeed she was, still I would not harness her to this tumbrel — this bloody cart of severed heads and glittering prizes. My muse may spook! May bolt! May abandon me completely!

So once again, to the people at MTV… again I say thank you but no… no thank you.**

Again, the reframing here is not so much about “is this good?” (or “bad?”), but about “does this help me… does this align me… with my ultimate purpose? Is it in harmony with my inspiration, my muse?

Or to bring it back to us, and to Lent: does this bring me closer to the one who made me and called me ‘beloved?’ Does this bring me closer to the cross that shows the love of God? Does this create the space needed to experience and celebrate the new life of Easter?

“I invite you, therefore, int he name of Christ and his Church, to the observance of a holy Lent.”

© 2023 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* William Stringfellow, “Temptation: Pursuit by the Power of Death,” Sojourners 15, no. 4 (April 1986), 34.