Today’s story is that of Jesus in the desert — in the wilderness — facing temptation against the devil. Against the forces of evil personified. We’ll get into it in just a minute, but first, I need to begin by naming one of my biggest temptations: the chips and salsa at Mexican restaurants.
Just this past Monday, I went to Mi Cancun in Pittsboro for lunch, and I hadn’t even sat down, and the chips and salsa were already on the table. Like Jesus in the wilderness, I too was famished. And as is my custom, before I arrived at the restaurant, I tried to prepare myself: “Brent, you’re hungry. You already know that you’re going to order the lunch portion of the spicy steak tacos, no beans, extra rice. Don’t fill up on chips and salsa. I know you want to, but don’t. Remember last time.”
But then I got to the restaurant, and I sit down, and they’re already there. I can’t resist: My hand reaches out to grab a chip, and I eat it. “Okay, that’s just one,” my mind tells me. This is fine. Everything’s okay. But inevitably — inevitably — I don’t even know how it happens, I grab another. And another. And it’s all over. My spicy steak tacos come out just a few minutes later, and I realize that I’m already too full because of all the chips I’ve already eaten. Every. Time.
There’s nothing wrong with chips and salsa. But what’s so disappointing is the fact that now I can’t enjoy my spicy steak tacos. There’s a delicious meal there waiting for me, but instead, I give in to the temptation before me that keeps me from something greater. I’m too full. And yet somehow also empty.
Today launches a new season for us at The Local Church. It’s our first Sunday here at Woods Charter School, and our hope and prayer is that this space will give us room to continue to grow God’s movement of love and belonging here in Chatham County and beyond. And we now have a dedicated kids’ space under the same roof where our kids can play and learn and grow together. They’re no longer simply relegated to the corner. They have space to call their own where they’ll discover anew each week that they are loved for love.
It’s also the first Sunday in the season of Lent — the forty-day season in our church calendar — a time of preparation for the heartbreak and hope of Holy Week and Easter. Perhaps you’ve heard of Lent before, but what you might not know is that the word Lent comes from an Old English word for “lengthen,” and it refers to the gradually lengthening days that we experience this time of year. Over centuries, Lent came to evolve into this period of preparation over forty days which is a number that has significance in scripture — from the number of days it rained in the story of Noah’s ark to how many years Israel wandered in the wilderness. We hear it again today in the story that Fiona read featuring Jesus in the desert for forty days himself.
And it’s that wilderness wandering that gives shape to our own Lenten journeys. Now, when you think about Lent, you might think about themes of self-denial. Giving up social media or chocolate or, I don’t know, tortilla chips. Or maybe for you, it’s about taking something on — something to add to your life — a renewed prayer practice or commitment to reading scripture or showing up here on Sunday mornings. Maybe you’ve experienced Lent before as a season of desolation and penitence, leaning into our fragility and failure, our propensity for harm, and the ways we’re caught in systemic sin, recognizing our need for divine grace.
And I want to say: None of that is wrong. If that’s you this year or in year’s past, I trust it was what you needed it to be. But I also wonder if this year — in the wake of all that we’ve been through, in the midst of all that is still upending our world right now — I wonder if it might be worth taking a slightly different approach to the season of Lent. Something that feels, believe it or not, a little less “Lent-y.” And that’s why I’m so excited to introduce our new sermon series that will guide us through this season. It’s from the creatives at A Sanctified Art, and the series is called, “Full to the Brim: An Expansive Lent.”
And now, it’s important to know that “Full to the Brim” certainly doesn’t shy away from the themes we’ve named that often mark this season: suffering, grief, lament, penitence, and loss among others. It doesn’t shy away from those, and you’ll see that not just today but in the weeks ahead. But instead, what this series offers is an invitation to be filled to the brim — to be nourished. To taste and see the goodness of God. In other words, what if Lent wasn’t necessarily about an emptying? A self-denial? What if it wasn’t about beating ourselves up? Instead, what if it was a journey toward wholeness? Toward abundance? Toward experiencing life in all its fullness? And what if we were to discover that it’s all there already spilling over? What if that’s the turn we need right now? Let’s flip the script on this season. That’s what Full to the Brim is all about. And I think we need it.
Alas, we begin in the desert. It starts in desolation. It starts in wilderness. Here we get the wilderness story from the gospel according to Luke — Luke’s account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
As we noted last week on Transfiguration Sunday, Jesus is baptized in the Jordan with words of identity and purpose spoken over him. And no sooner is he baptized, blessed, named that he’s led into the wilderness — full of the Holy Spirit. Into the desert for forty days to be tempted by the devil, and that’s where we pick up today.
Jesus is exhausted. He’s starving. He’s vulnerable and weak. He seems to be easy prey, and the devil senses an opportunity to undermine his identity and purpose and so much more. So the devil appears to him and says, “I know you’re hungry, Jesus. You’d probably give anything for just the smallest morsel of bread. And, well, that gives me an idea: If you really are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
In other words, the devil is promising comfort to Jesus here. He’s tempting him to sustain himself. He’s trying to get Jesus to essentially say, “I don’t believe that God will actually provide for my needs.” But Jesus resists this ploy, digs deep, and responds with a line from the Hebrew scriptures in Deuteronomy, throwing the ancient words of God back at the devil, saying “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”
And in so doing, he’s referencing the manna — the food — that God provided to the Israelites over those forty years in the wilderness. He’s trusting that the God of provision that sustained God’s people back then will do the same for him now, too.
But the devil doesn’t give up. He tries a second time showing Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, and he lays it on thick. “Think of it, Jesus,” the devil says. “All of this can be yours. It’s all been given to me, and I can give it to you. All you have to do is worship me, and your life can change in an instant. You’ll be out of this desert and sitting on a throne with the snap of a finger. You can have everything you’ve ever wanted. Glory. Fame. Power. You name it, just say the word, and it’s yours.”
But again, Jesus rejects, resists, and rebuffs the devil’s promise of glory and self-service, again quoting Hebrew scripture: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
In other words, Jesus is saying, “This is not about me. This is about God. This is about my father. This is not about what I want, but it’s about ordering my life in service to God’s dream, God’s vision, God’s great hope for this world.”
Deterred but not defeated, the devil tries a third time, placing him in Jerusalem at the very top of the temple — at the pinnacle of the center of religious life for God and God’s people. And the devil is getting smarter. The test is getting harder, because now Jesus isn’t the only one quoting scripture. The devil does it, too. The devil says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
In other words, the devil is relying on the same source that Jesus has used to resist, essentially saying, “Hey it says it right here. Scripture says the angels won’t let anything happen to you. Just try it. Try it. Go on. Try it. It’s God’s word.”
But Jesus a third time resists. “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Whereas the devil offers security and salvation, protection and care, Jesus again rejects the devil’s advances essentially saying, “I don’t need to test God to prove my worth. To prove that I’ll be safe in God’s arms. To prove that I am beloved.” He digs deeper beyond the devil’s empty words and finds an assurance — a trust in the care and security of God.
And at that point, the story goes that the devil flees for a more opportune time — one that we’ll see take shape over the next few weeks as we get closer and closer to the cross.
So that’s the story. And you may be asking yourself, “What could Jesus’ time in the wilderness possibly have to do with tortilla chips?” And the answer lies in the very first verse. Don’t miss it.
“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness…”
Jesus is full of the Holy Spirit. That’s where he begins. And it’s a fullness born of God’s power and presence and provision — a fullness that precedes his wilderness experience. With a fullness that’s present throughout his journey, there the whole time — as he journeys through temptation, desolation, despair, hunger, pain — all of it. And it’s all real.
It’s not just stoicism or grit or will that enables him to resist these temptations. It’s this fullness of the Spirit that empowers him to turn away from the tempter’s seduction. To resist the duality and see through the allure of the comfort, power, and security offered by the devil to instead — and in the midst of the desert, of seeming hopelessness and powerlessness and weakness — dig deeper to cling to God’s provision and comfort, to see God’s dream and God’s blessing still — not just for himself but for the world.
Jesus was full to the brim with the Holy Spirit. God’s presence and power at work in us and in the world. And we are, too.
So I wonder — like those tortilla chips at the start of a meal that leave you full but still so empty, as we begin this season of Lent — I wonder what for you could be filling you up but still leaving you empty? What is it tempting your time, your priorities, your energy, your attention? Maybe it’s a quest for self-sufficiency that amounts to a subtle discounting of your trust in God. Perhaps it’s a bitterness you’re holding on to that takes up space in your head, crowding out any sort of potential for goodness or the benefit of the doubt or a chance for redemption. Maybe it’s a full calendar that leaves little room for that which you’ve named as a priority but with actions that don’t necessarily align.
But I also wonder if it’s a fullness you feel when it comes to the heaviness of the world. The fatigue you feel from the last two years. The stress and strain you feel as inflation hits and the prices of food and gas and so much more go up. The heartache you feel when you see the heart-wrenching images and video coming out of Ukraine. That’s real, too. Just as it all was in the desert for Jesus — it’s all real. And it can feel so heavy. So full. Leaving little room for anything else. Full but still so empty.
I saw this video yesterday — and I’ll post it later today on TLC+, our online community — but it’s a video taken outside of the train station in Lviv as Ukrainians are scrambling to flee for their safety — for their lives. And amidst the fullness of desolation, hopelessness, despair, and fear — a woman, full of the Holy Spirit herself, sits down at a piano and starts to play… The song she’s playing feels so out of place, and yet it offers a fullness all its own — not one that leaves you feeling more empty, but one that feels more true, more hopeful, more real, more full of God’s goodness. The song: “What a Wonderful World.”
It was quite the juxtaposition. I watched her play and listened, and my eyes were suddenly full of tears. Because her song — her defiance — gave me a fullness of hope. Of beauty. Of truth. Even in Lviv. Even there.
Whether it’s Ukrainians feeding Russian soldiers and letting them FaceTime their moms back home or Polish moms leaving strollers for Ukrainian refugee mothers at the train station — there is goodness on display. God’s love made manifest even there.
That’s just it. That’s the good news. Even in the desert — in the wilderness places — when it can be so hard to see and feel, the Spirit that fills Jesus cuts through it all to reveal something deeper and more true — something that’s been there all along: the love and grace of God that surrounds him and fills him. That will never let him go. And it’s the same Spirit that fills us to the brim even here. Even in our desert places, too. Now and always.