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Wilderness 1The following is Part II of a sermon preached on Sunday, February 21 at Glendale Baptist Church. The previous day we’d held a memorial service for a beloved child of the church, who died tragically on Ash Wednesday. Between Part I and Part II of the sermon, we sang and prayed and heard the gospel reading, Luke 4:14-30.**

“On Practicing Our Faith”

On practice
On practicing our faith
On practicing our faith with the Jesus story*

Where exactly are we in the Jesus story, right about now?

Let’s try to locate ourselves on our journey through the Jesus story. The lectionary. You recall what that is: the list of scriptures that reaches out across the Christian landscape and leads us week by week and season by season through each church year. Each year we follow the Jesus story in the Gospel readings (or lections). This is year C. And the gospel readings in year C take us through the life of Jesus by reading Luke.

In worship we read these texts so that we can practice the Jesus story. Beginning in Advent we prepare for the birth of Jesus. That season is followed by the very short few days of Christmas, in which we celebrate the birth of Jesus. And that is followed on by a short season of Epiphany, which focuses our attention on the manifestations of God’s presence in Jesus at baptism, the transfiguration and his first preaching gig. (You just heard it, read by Claire). Then we come to Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of the season of Lent. The season typically starts off with a story of Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness.

Now let’s talk about the number 40 in the Bible is like a gigantic bill board on the side of the highway: Look here it says important wilderness events are underway! Jesus began his ministry in baptism, and when straight into the wilderness for 40 years. No, 40 days. Just felt like 40 years. That was the children of Israel who spent 40 years in the wandering in the wilderness. Elijah, who Jesus preached about, spent a long time in the wilderness. Hagar. Moses. The Old Testament is full of stories of people spending long periods of time in the wilderness.

So we come up to Lent, and guess how long it is? Forty days (plus the Sundays). And it’s a wilderness. So we’re invited at this brink of Lent into the wilderness with the Jesus story.

Every year worship leaders plan ways to invite us into the Lenten season with a theme. And this year April and Amy and other worship leaders, have invited us to practice our faith by practicing our prayers and other spiritual disciplines. This is yet another way to practice the Jesus story. To wrestle with it. To argue with it. Struggle through it. Because that’s pretty much what we do here. We practice faith by means of argument, struggle, and wrestling. Then when it comes time to play for real, we don’t give trite answers. We don’t give theologically shallow responses to tragedy. Because how you practice is how you play.

So here we are with today’s text. Luke 4. Jesus has just returned from the wilderness where he hung out with wild beasts and was hosted by angels and he wrestled with evil personified. Forty days of all that. What can we take from this moment in the Jesus story to help us practice our faith for the next 40 days?

Well. He’s been practicing his faith. Jesus has. He’s been fasting and praying. Wrestling with evil incarnate. That is some pretty serious and intense practice.

What do we think he got out of that practice? Where was he deepened?

This phrase stood out to me. The text says, “Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit.”

I don’t know about you, but I find that phrase “power of the Spirit” a little off-putting. A little strange. A little bit grandiose maybe. Or maybe it’s just an odd pairing of words power and spirit, kind of like celebration and grief or equality and grace.

Somehow because of the surprise in putting them together something new comes into being. A new kind of worship. A new kind of community . A new kind of prayer. Or maybe not so new after all.

But what that phrase really does for me is it raises the question of how this strange pairing of power and spirit go together. And how does this practice of Jesus – 40 days in the desert – lead to some kind of power? And what kind of power is it?

I’ve practiced a lot of things. So have you. I’ve practiced a lot of grief. So have you. I’ve practiced prayer. So have you. Can I tell you a little bit about my own practice of prayer? I’d like to tell you about my most basic, bottom line practice, non-negotiable practice for the last 10 years. Every morning for 20 minutes I sit and pray in silence and darkness and without any words. It is a kind of praying that takes me far deeper than communication with God. It is a prayer of communion with God. And it’s not even really about the twenty minutes. The practice goes with me into the other 23 2/3 hours of every day. That is where it really matters. That practice of being in that deep unfathomable presence of God is what I took through the last four days. It took me through the tragedy, the loss, the grief and the celebration, the worship and faith.

This is not to tell you about my power. Hardly. If left to my own power I would either be a screaming rage or a puddle of tears. And believe me I’ve been both in the last four days. But instead I want you to hear about the power of presence that is far beyond what we can see or hear or say in a moment. It is a power that comes out of the deep. It is a power of presence which is available to all of us. Right here. Right now. But how we practice is how we play.

Jesus knew that power. The power of the Spirit. The power that came out of a deep well, and nourished him for 40 days in the desert.

“He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read.” He sat down to teach and all eyes were on him. He preached one heck of a sermon. It wasn’t really his first. He’d been practicing his whole life. He’d been drinking from that deep well that we can still visit. As we walk through our own Lenten wilderness.

On practice
On practicing our faith
On practicing our faith with the Jesus story
On practicing our faith in the Jesus story to guide us into the deep and carry us through Lent

Spring training began last week. The first pitch of the regular season for the Atlanta Braves will be tossed out on April 5th. The day after Easter. Spring training and Lent pretty much coincide this year. (It doesn’t always work out exactly this way, but this year . . .)

So friends, as you watch baseball. As you watch and pray. As you enter grief and as you enter the deep well of God’s presence, please remember the words from my father-in-law . . .

“How you practice is how you play.”

* During Lent we are reading “nested meditations” in worship each Sunday. This one was composed by me especially for this preaching occasion. See Kevin Anderson, Divinity in Disguise: Nested Meditations to Delight the Mind and Awaken the Soul (Center for Life Balance, 2003).

** Although I locate our practice of the Jesus story with the lectionary, at Glendale this season, we are departing slightly from the list of readings in order to attend particularly to the practices of Jesus. Thus the Gospel text for this day’s worship was actually a lectionary reading several weeks earlier.