One of my favorite Broadway musicals is Stephen Sonheim's Into the Woods. This musical is a mishmash of children's fairy tales woven together to deal with the choices people make in their lives. In the stories that are intertwined . . . Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Rapunzel, and a childless baker and his wife . . . each makes a decision, but they must go into the woods to realize the magnitude of their decisions upon their lives. It is "into the woods" that the questions and doubts . . . that the struggles begin. Though this may seem to be a pretty clever metaphor by the writer . . . it is not new.
People have been going into the woods for generations as long as there have been people. These ventures have been called quests . . . vision quests . . . by many cultures, and they always occur in the woods . . . or they occur out on the sea . . . in the desert, but always in the wilderness. It is in the wilderness that the adventurer is stripped of the familiar and thrust into a strange and foreign landscape . . . it appears dark and foreboding. Stripped of the familiar one begins to sense that there is a whole lot of stuff in the world that he or she has never encountered. They are reduced to the bare essence of who they are as the only thing that they can rely upon . . . and, even then, they begin to second guess . . . begin to doubt . . . begin to struggle with their choices in life.
The Christian mystics understood this well . . . this journey into the woods . . . into the wilderness. They understood the struggle of the spiritual journey of life and how it always has to go through the woods in order to get to the other side. They often referred to this journey and struggle as the "dark night of the soul". It is nothing new, but it always seems to catch people's attention when it is mentioned as a normal part of the spiritual journey in life.
This morning we have the story of Jesus' journey through the woods, or as it was in his case . . . the wilderness. It was into the wilderness that he journeyed after his affirmation and confirmation of his ministry . . . into the wilderness for forty days and for forty nights . . . the biblical term for a long time. It was there that we learn of his confrontation with the devil who challenges him in his ministry. Challenges his choice to follow God's will . . . challenges his motivation for wanting to follow God's will . . . challenges him to really look at what he wants to do and to compare it to something that the devil feels is much better.
In literature and in cartoons this battle of wills is usually portrayed as a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other . . . but that is the role of the devil . . . to raise questions, to stir up doubt, to tempt, to dangle the proverbial carrot before the individual's face. That has always been the role of the devil . . . to turn people away from Jesus and ultimately away from God. The devil cannot do it by itself . . . the devil needs assistance . . . assistance by the one who is being lured by temptation. It is up to the individual to make the choice . . . it is always the individual's choice to decide. Note that in our story this morning that that is all that the devil does . . . dangles the carrot in front of Jesus' face. It is up to Jesus to decide.
It is no different for any of us . . . it is always our choice . . . and, life is full of choices.
Shoot, we are all good at making choices. From the time that we get out of bed every morning we make all sorts of choices . . . from the clothes that we wear to the food that we eat . . . we make choices. We make choices about the places we work . . . the people we hang out with . . . to the television shows that we watch. We make choices all of the time, and a lot of the time we do it without even thinking about the choices we are making . . . we just do it.
And, for the most part, I doubt if too many of them are even difficult to make . . . that they are not the sort of things that we struggle in deciding . . . that we are not tip toeing into the woods. Yet, at the same time, I think we all know that there have been choices that we have made that have dragged us into the woods where we struggled with our decisions and longed to find our way out to the other side. I think that we have all experienced the "dark night of the soul" that is spoken about by the mystics. After all, we all know the line in the familiar hymns that proclaims that the darkest hour is just before the dawn. We have been to the wilderness in our lives and if we are still breathing . . . well, I imagine that we will continue to enter into the woods from time to time. Making the majority of the choices in our lives is pretty easy, but there are times when they are tough . . . tough, but necessary.
Necessary because that is how we discover more about ourselves . . . discover more about our faith . . . how we grow. Necessary because it is how we strip ourselves down to the essential understanding of who we are as created by God to discover that we are nothing without God. Necessary because it makes us have to rely upon God and only God. It strengthens us . . . and, it strengthens our faith . . . but most of all, it brings us that much closer to God.
In the story of Jesus' time in the woods he is down to the brass tacks . . . he has had no food . . . little sleep . . . exhausted and at his lowest physically, and one would think, mentally. A perfect time to come and mess with a person's mindset . . . and, that is what the devil does. Three times the devil attempts to lure Jesus with wonderful opportunities . . . opportunities a common person would not think twice about . . . to come on over to the dark side of life. And, three times Jesus relied upon . . . what? Well, God. Using scripture as the basis of his answers to the devil's temptations, Jesus affirms that God is the only thing that matters . . . not power, not prestige, not wealth . . . only God and God's will. Amazingly Jesus never loses sight of the light on the other end of the woods.
Today marks the first Sunday of the season of Lent . . . what I like to refer to as the journey into the woods. As the followers of Jesus we are called upon to examine our lives . . .examine our faith . . . examine our commitment and relationship with God . . . and to lose ourselves to discover who it is that we are created to be and to discover, once again, the one who calls us by name. It is a time of examining our choices in life . . . are they the will of God . . . do they help bring about the kingdom of God? are they loving? Are they peaceful? Just? Through discernment and prayer we journey through these woods known as Lent. No one enjoys evaluations and Lent is a season of evaluation. I didn't see Lent listed in the top three choices of favorite seasons of the church year by many of the followers of Jesus.
Though Lent might not be the most favorite of the seasons of the church year, it is probably the most important . . . because it is about choices. It always begins with the story of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness . . . where he struggled with the choices he had made. It does so as an invitation for us to journey with him into the wilderness . . . an invitation to struggle with our choices of faith . . . and, to really get down to the important thing like our relationship with God and others. Thus our reading this morning is an invitation . . .
. . . and, it is also another opportunity to make a choice. God, nor Jesus is going to make the choice for us . . . neither is the devil. The choice is up to us as individuals. Do we make the journey into the woods . . . the journey into the season of Lent . . . so that we might make it to the light on the other side? To the promise of Easter. The choice is ours . . . always ours. Choose well. Amen.