“Living at a Distance” 03/09/2014 by Rev. Stacy Swain (Click on title for audio)

Psalm 32 and Matthew 4:1-11


Our bedtime ritual when my kids were small was that after a bath and teeth brushing, when the kids tumbled into bed, I would tell them a story. Mostly in the stories I would tell, the heroes were either a brave little mouse, or a lowly beetles, or some other unlikely creature and the theme was usually a rift on “even the seemingly most unlikely one is great and has something great to offer.” The timid mouse was not so timid after all! The lowly beetle it turned out was the one that saved the day!

But there came a point in my story telling years, when my pajama clad critics began insisting that I tell them a real story, and that meant a story about something that had really happened and not something that had happened to someone else, but something that had really happened to them. No longer were they interested in what that mouse or beetle, or someone else could do. What they really wanted to hear about was something they had done. They wanted to be the main character and hear something of the story that was their life. For whatever reason remembering and holding onto stories about who they were and what they had done was what mattered.


You can be sure, they lost no time in telling that story – about what happened that day there by the River Jordan — those who were there that day when the heavens opened and a dove descended on that man whose name they learned was Jesus and when that voice that could only have been the voice of God proclaimed to all of them “This is my son the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” — You can be sure that more than one tweet went out on the walk back up to Jerusalem that afternoon and that by the next morning? — Well you can be sure the story had gone viral.

Now I had always thought that what comes next in the story was rather unfair. I had always thought it rather unfair that right after this spectacular scene of the baptism, just when the news is starting to spread that Jesus is God’s Beloved son, just when Jesus is starting to be the talk of the town, he is in the very next scene, the scene that Kevin read for us today, taken off line, so to speak. Right after his baptism, Jesus is led out (or as the Gospel of Mark puts it “driven out”) by the Spirit into the desert wilderness, a place full of all sorts of dangers for forty days.

I had been taught that the reason Jesus was sent from his baptismal blessing in the Jordan to the trials of the wilderness was because God needed to be sure Jesus was up to what God was going to ask of Jesus. God sent Jesus into the wilderness because God needed to test Jesus to be sure that Jesus could handle the ministry that God was about to entrust to him.

But that explanation just never made any sense to me. It seemed like such a set up. Why claim Jesus as beloved and then test him? Shouldn’t God have tested Jesus first and then, if he passed – then bless him and claim him as beloved? I mean we don’t hire someone and then check their references, do we?

But lately, I have come to wonder, “Did God send Jesus into the wilderness not to test him but to protect him?” “Did God send Jesus into the wilderness because God knew that staying there among them as the news of this “beloved child of God named Jesus” spread would be far more dangerous for Jesus than any of the dangers he would face in the wilderness?”


I think that one of the challenges, if not the central challenge, that we humans face is finding a way to live at peace within our own skin. It is to find that point of authenticity where who we present to the world that we are (and who the world thinks that we are) and who we know our selves to be are in concert. Where there is flow, equilibrium between who we see we are, as reflected by the world and who we truly know our selves to be, are one and the same. Knowing and proclaiming our true, God given, identity is a life-long challenge that I believe, is central to the life of faith.


I also believe that knowing and proclaiming our true, God given identity has never been more challenging.


We live in a culture that particularly for the young is outward and image identified. Who we project ourselves to be, and who others see us to be is what is important. In this image intense and self promoting landscape of “selfies,” tweets, instagram and God knows what else, we project who we want to be and then wait with baited breath to see if we will be authenticated, “liked,” brought somehow into being by the reception of those who we wait to receive us. I confess, after I post something on our church facebook page I cannot help but return there rather obsessively to see if someone has “liked” us. As if being “liked” validates what I have posted and who we are as a church.

If we believe we are authenticated or validated by who “likes” us or how we are received — well – that is a very tenuous way of living and one I believe God was protecting Jesus from that day. Jesus I think knew who he was before the heavens opened that day, but his knowledge of what that would mean was so fresh and vulnerable that I think God sent him out that day to give him time so that others would not make him into something he was not meant to be.

So the spirit led him into the wilderness where for forty days he could come to know this truth about himself, for himself, and decide how it was he was going to live out of it. It was a truth about who he was and what he was to do that needed above all else to be true for him. For the rest of his life, throughout all of his ministry, this truth would be contested, reinterpreted and ultimately the contestation of this truth that he was the beloved child of God would ultimately cost him his life.

In love, God gave Jesus forty days, biblical parlance for the fullness of time to metabolize and make his own this truth that Jesus was God’s son in whom God was well pleased so that come what may Jesus would not be shaken for the truth of it.

Jesus had forty days, the fullness of time to metabolize and make his own the truth of his identity, to own his story. So when the devil shows up to tempt him by trying to reinterpret who Jesus is to be, Jesus will have nothing to do with it. Did you notice? When the Devil tempts Jesus to define who he is in the currency of worldly value, Jesus will have nothing to do with it. After forty days, Jesus is decided, calm, centered in himself. There is no struggle. He just states what he has come to know as truth and then moves on: “One does not live by bread alone, Worship the Lord your God, serve only God; do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Could we wish anything more for ourselves? Anything more for our children?

One of the greatest gifts we can give to our children and the greatest hopes we can have for ourselves is that we are to know ourselves as to be the main characters in the story of our lives. That requires the good and hard work of knowing ourselves and that requires the good and hard work of listening not to the clamor of who and what the world says but who and what we in the presence of God know.

So I invite you to think about these next forty days of Lent, this time in our proverbial wilderness to be not a testing time but a time of protection. A time a part where you are held and invited to metabolize to integrate, and take blessing of baptism as a beloved child of God into who you are and how you are to be so that you may live ever more fiercely that blessing out in the world. For what is needed is not that the world define who we are and are to be, but that who the world is and is to be may be define by who we know we are. May these forty days ground us in that knowing. Amen.