Earlier this winter, I found myself in Iowa City for a clergy gathering at synod hq. It was time spent alongside other pastors in our Lutheran denomination, and it was good. Afterwards I headed to my car in good spirits, looking forward to the drive home. Vehicle now started I then looked down at the gas gauge. I had a quarter of a tank left.
To fill up now, or not? That was the question.
Of all the ways to get from Ames to Iowa City I’ve really grown to love route 30. So scenic, so serene, plenty of open spaces to be seen and appreciated. Add in the occasional picturesque small towns that pepper the landscape and now you’re really cooking.
And don’t get me started about all the beautiful rustic farm houses and old barns that line the route, so relaxing.
But, for all the reasons to love this particular drive, there just aren’t too many gas stations along the way.
Eager to hit the road I opted to wait on the refuel, estimating I could probably make it to the Marshalltown exits just fine. And could take a break to fill ‘er up then.
So I put the car in gear and fired up my cell phone. Catching up with long-distance friends, while driving alone, helps the road miles just melt away. Before long one of my friends picked up and the two of us got to talking.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, the Marshalltown exits came, and went, and were now long gone in the rear-view mirror. It wasn’t until the saying of goodbyes that I looked down at the dashboard. Which now featured a prominent bright orange low gas light staring back at me.
Apparently this big orange light had been on for a while. I knew this because the gas gauge was on the wrong side of a big capital letter E. E is not for enough. E is for empty.
Realizing now the importance of getting gas, and soon, I surveyed the landscape looking for the next exit. The State Center exit quickly passed by my line of sight; there wasn’t enough time to veer over and take it. I soon was greeted by another sign with even more unwelcome news. The next exit was 12 miles away.
How many miles did I have left before running out of gas? How long would it be before I found myself stranded?
Even worse, at least for this former Floridian, it was below freezing.
With snow in the forecast to boot.
To stack the deck I slowed down to a less gas guzzling speed and turned off the heat. I then pulled in closer behind a semi to try and draft them some. All in the hopes of not running out of gas over these next dozen miles.
It was a moment of big sighs, white knuckle driving, prayers being lifted.
Today we celebrate the first weekend in Lent, a 40-day journey culminating in Easter.
It is a season of slowing down some.
Reflecting on the world around us.
Being honest about what is wrong with it.
Dreaming about how, with God’s help, it could be.
It is a season of self-examination.
Reflecting on our own failings.
Being honest about what they are.
Dreaming about how, with God’s help, we could be.
It is a season more somber than others.
Reflecting on a savior come to free us all.
Recognizing it took his death to do it.
Dreaming about how, with God’s help, his death leads to our life.
It is a season of both ashes, and palm branches.
A season of silence, and of shouting.
A season of tombs occupied, tombs empty.
A season measured in days and weeks, yet practiced in years and lifetimes.
And – if you attend here Wednesdays – it’s a season of chats, incense, and fires that burn higher, and hotter, than your pastors sometimes expect. That’s a soft plug for our Lenten Wednesday services; our first chat featured a hand-held fire that I’m really glad didn’t burn the whole place down 😉
The Lenten text from Luke 4 is likely somewhat familiar; in many congregations Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is preached on every two years out of three.
Which means that some of you have heard this story read and preached anywhere from ten to fifty times already.
To quote me five-year-old son, sometimes that can get booooorrrrringgggg.
In case you’re not overly familiar with the text, here’s the cliff notes version:
– Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days, getting tempted by the devil.
– The devil tempts Christ thrice. Each time Jesus responds, quoting scripture.
– Trials now passed, the devil departs.
Got it? Great, that concludes our message. Amen.
You’re not getting out of here that easily 😊
Instead, let’s spend some time considering a few tips and tricks, pulled straight from scripture, on how to navigate the temptations of this world for maximum effect.
#1 Remember your baptism
Right before the Luke temptation text Jesus finds himself in a scene with a cousin named John, a river named Jordan and a dove without name.
That’s not quite right, the dove does have a name.
The dove is the embodiment of the Holy Spirit.
When John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan, the Spirit descends on Christ. It is then when God looks down and responds, “you are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
Martin Luther taught that each morning we are to rise and say, “I am baptized into Christ,” remembering our status as a beloved child of God. This prepares us to then go about our day knowing we are in God’s care. Remember your baptism, and what it means, and do so on the daily.
#2 Fill ‘er Up
Unlike my trip home from Iowa City earlier this winter, make sure you spend some time to refill your tank as you start this Lenten journey. Today’s text begins with Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit. His journey didn’t start out on a quarter tank of Spirit. Scripture said he was full.
Christ always kept his trip tank full. He did this with prayer and the reading of scripture. Perhaps most importantly he surrounded himself with disciples dedicated to travelling that road, with him. Traveling together.
You too, can travel your road right alongside fellow disciples of Christ.
#3 Prepare to be Led
Now running with a full tank, scripture tells us Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. That one phrase, led by the Spirit into the wilderness, could be a sermon all to itself. For now keep this one conclusion in mind: To be a Christ follower, at times you’re going to be in spiritual wilderness. And in those times you’ll find yourself being tempted in all sorts of ways.
All this, despite your best planning. Despite your careful preparations.
All this, amazingly, is according to God’s plan. For we are not called to live carefully, protected in a bubble, safe from the world around us.
We are called, instead, to be God’s people out and about and among God’s children throughout the world. By definition that puts us in some unfamiliar, uncomfortable settings.
By definition you’ll have opportunities to be *of* the world, and not just *in* it.
But fear not, because with prayer, and scripture reading and hanging with fellow Christ-followers your tank is set on F. That’s not F for fail. It’s F for full. Full, my friend, of the Spirit.
Not only is the Spirit in you, she’s there alongside you, taking the steering wheel as she leads you into this wilderness. Present with you, every mile of the way.
Prepare to be led by the Spirit. If you let her she’ll take you to some amazing places. She’ll take you to places of temptation. She’ll lead to paths filled with difficulty. But ultimately, these tests she points us to, prepare us. They prep us for God’s mission for the world, strengthening us for it, as we go.
#4 Fill ‘er Up Again
The good news, and this is really good news, is this: temptation lasts for but a season. Eventually this too, shall pass. After Jesus was tempted thrice, and quoted scripture thrice, the devil departed for a time. In these times of solace and peace let us give thanks.
But that’s not quite the end of the story, is it. Because it is only after temptation ends that Jesus’ ministry begins. A ministry that took him from town to town, house to house, temple to temple was preceded first, with temptation.
The very next verse after today’s passage begins with Jesus being filled with the power of the Spirit. Refueling, once again, for all he would then do. Filling the tank for all the miracles, all those parables, all the pain, all the joy that was to follow.
The only way Jesus could have made the lasting impact on our world that he did was by frequent stops to get reenergized in the Spirit. These fill ‘er up moments happen again, and again, and again in scripture. Each fueling Christ’s journey to the cross and beyond.
Empty Tank Redux
Fortunately my trip back home from Iowa City had a fairly non-eventful conclusion. After drafting a semi for a dozen miles I was able to get to the next exit and to the gas station. But just barely. I was so surprised at making it I took a photo of the gas pump. I filled the CRV with 16.497 gallons of gas. In a tank that, per the manual, only holds 15.3. No, it wasn’t a miracle 😊 Tho I’d drifted into the station, seemingly on fumes.
As we begin our Lenten journey anew, let me give you a little advice. Don’t be like your pastor.
Don’t wait to refuel, taking the chance to find yourself stranded on the side of the road.
Instead, model Christ.
Start your Lenten journey with a full tank. Celebrate your baptism, daily. Take comfort in knowing our Creator has a plan, custom made, just for you. Spend time in prayer, and in scripture. And spend time alongside fellow Christ-followers. In all this your Spirit tank will be refilled.
Next, prepare to be led by the Spirit. And plan to be led to some challenging, tempting, and even dark places. In these moments you will grow, and learn, and retool to better live out God’s call on your life.
Finally, once temptation leaves don’t kick back and call it a day. Refuel in the Spirit, once again. Get reenergized to live out God’s mission for your life. Refuel without ceasing.
To reference a favorite Tom Cochrane song from the early 90s –
Life is a highway
I wanna ride it all night long
If you’re going my way
I wanna drive it all night long
For when the Holy Spirit is your driving partner, through the wilderness, you’ve got the best GPS system money can’t buy. And the best fuel to fill your tank along the way, ensuring your journey arrives right where God intends. And that journey, my friends, has only just begun. Amen.