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The Beloved in the Wilderness

Luke 4:1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “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.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.



The Beloved in the Wilderness

A few minutes ago we had the privilege of participating in a baptism. Brenda and Rob brought Luke to the sanctuary on Friday morning, so that we could begin to be acquainted before the room filled with noise and activity.

Luke is a confident walker, about halfway between his first and second birthdays. On Friday he did some exploring; we poured water in the font. He felt its cool, slippery wetness. He seemed to like the size of this room.

I did not meet Luke until Friday because he lives with his parents in Philadelphia. His father, Rob, was raised in the Presbyterian Church, and his mother, Brenda, in a deeply faithful Catholic family. Both parents are busy physicians; Rob is a surgeon in training. Because frequent moves may be required of their family in the next few years, and because this church will continue to be a touchstone in their lives, they asked if Luke might be baptized here. Our session was glad to say ‘yes’ to that request.

But the truth is, I never hear a parent request baptism for a child without feeling it in my chest. Some part of me always wants to say, “You do know what you are asking, don’t you? You do know that you are giving this child back to God—that you are acknowledging that the arc of his life will be found by following Jesus into this water? You know that it will be costly? …and that death is part of this story? And your prayer is still that your child will desire God above all else?”

And there’s more: “You know that you are inviting countless strangers into your little one’s life? Not only the people gathered in this room, but the whole global church on whose behalf this congregation is making promises? You know this will make all of them family?” Some part of me still wants to say, “You’re sure about this?”

But the remarkable thing is, if we’ve been baptized, someone, somewhere along the line said “yes” to those questions. Someone brought us to the water, where our names were spoken, and we went swimming in the promises of God. And everything that’s happened since has been an invitation to trust those promises.


Maybe it wasn’t so different for Jesus.

When today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke opens, Jesus is still dripping with his own baptismal water. He is about 30 years old. He has not preached any sermons or healed any lepers. He does not have a circle of followers. He lives in a land occupied by Roman soldiers. He has an ordinary occupation. But he has had a holy encounter, and now he must contend with what that will mean for his life.

Luke tells us that after Jesus was baptized, while he was praying, the heavens opened, the Holy Spirit descended like a dove, and a voice from heaven said “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” But Luke’s pretty vague about just who sees and hears that heavenly message. The way Luke tells the story, we don’t know if the message only came to Jesus. What we do know is that the experience drove him into the wilderness. The Spirit led him there to sort it out.

The voice that tempts Jesus in the wilderness is beguiling. Think about the three temptations: what’s wrong with bread when you are hungry, a little power when there is work to be done, what’s wrong with testing God’s promises just to be sure. Where’s the harm in any of that?

When these temptations are added together, though, they amount to an offer of invulnerability. They invite Jesus to lean away from God. The devil offers this Son of God the prospect of a life without hunger, without poverty, without pain; but Jesus knows that these are not the things human beings most need to fear. Jesus knows that worse than being vulnerable to suffering, is being estranged—isolated—from God—and from neighbor.

Jesus has been called Beloved, and Jesus knows that love only comes in mutually vulnerable relationships, and so Jesus refuses the devil’s proffer. He chooses God’s way in the world. He leans on the one who loves him completely.

Deeper than Jesus’ need for food, or glory, or to be protected from suffering, is his need to be alive to the presence of God. So Jesus won’t fill his own belly by magical means while the rest of the world hungers; he won’t claim glory for himself while others are despised; he won’t insulate himself from suffering when so much of the world is in pain. Jesus chooses instead to let God’s love flow through him.

He will multiply loaves, but he will use them to feed hungry multitudes. He will manifest his glory, but to lift up the lowly. He will banish pain and disease—at the cost of his own life.

Sam Wells, former Dean of the Chapel at Duke, says “Jesus went into the wilderness because that is where Israel had learned who it was, what it was made of, where its support came from, and where it was going. Jesus went into the wilderness as the embodiment of Israel to learn the same things about himself.” Wells then goes on to say that “the church marks Lent to discover in whose strength it stands.”[1]

The church marks Lent because we face our own version of the Tempter’s bargain. Will we satisfy our own hungers first? Will we bow to the gods of conformity? Will we attempt to secure our future at all costs? Luke suggests that giving into those desires would grieve the heart of God, because the life of invincibility is not the life to which we are called.

The baptized life begins in, is sustained by, and will end in the love of God. We, too, were called beloved as we dripped in the waters of baptism. We, too, make our way in the wilderness, accompanied by that holy Lover. We, too, are called to turn and manifest God’s love in the world, no matter the cost.

Perhaps the first question Lent asks us, then, is: What is preventing you from experiencing the love of God more fully? What do you need to put down, what do you need to take up, to have a more vital sense of God’s presence?

Do you need time alone, to listen, to pray, to rest?

Do you need a deeper engagement in accountable community?

Do you need to let yourself be changed by friendships with those on the margins of life?

Do you need to risk confrontation with abusive systems that keep God’s children, God’s creation, from thriving?[2]

The life that flows from baptismal waters feeds all those streams, and the season of Lent is a fertile time to ask God to redirect our priorities. What do you need to put down, what do you need to take up, in order to live more fully into your baptism?

The invitation of Lent, the invitation of the Christian life, is to peel back the layers of our desire until we awaken to our deepest hunger and our deepest joy—until we remember who and whose we are.

One visual reminder of the Lenten season this year at UPC is the set of banners now hanging on the periphery of our chancel. They were hung on Ash Wednesday morning. The banners are full of symbolism—for example, in the upper right quadrant of the banner hanging over the font, you may be able to make out different shapes of bread: an oblong bâtard, a round boule, but the many images contained on the two panels are divided by two strong beams that form a cross.[3]

When the staff talked about the design of these Lenten banners, we wondered if the cross would be discernable when the two halves of the design were separated from each other.

I don’t know the answer, but I’ve become fond of the question, for however fitfully or fleetingly we manage to follow Jesus, God is weaving our lives into a grand design, whether we discern it or not.

So let us welcome each other into the water, let us we keep watch with each other in the wilderness, and let us pour ourselves out in the world, for the sake of the love we’ve known.




[1] Samuel Wells,

[2] These questions were shaped in response to a sermon entitled “Temptation” by Sam Wells:


Margaret LaMotte Torrence , Interim Pastor


Phone: 919.929.2102 ext. 111


Margaret came to serve as UPC’s interim pastor in September, 2017. She expects to remain in Chapel Hill until a new pastor is called, likely in 2019. She grew up in Sarasota, Florida, living across the street from the church her father served. Margaret met her husband, Lee, when they were first-year students at Davidson College. She did not sense a call to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament until she was in her 30s. By that point their family also included a son, Nate, and a daughter, Hanna. They all moved from California to Princeton—to begin seminary, kindergarten and preschool respectively—while Lee worked to make it all possible. In the intervening years, Margaret has served churches in New Jersey, North Carolina and Florida. She and Lee live near Asheville, in a home they share with Margaret’s parents. Margaret considers it a great privilege to serve in community with others who are seeking to hear God’s voice and to follow that leading. She is grateful for the many sisters and brothers who have shared their lives and stories along the way. When she is at home in the mountains, she finds particular joy in hiking, gardening, stacking stones, and volunteering with a remarkable ministry known as the Haywood Street congregation. Margaret frequently leads conference worship in Montreat.