Sermon for Rainbow Service, March 5 2023
The Bible story of Jesus being tempted in the desert is usually read at the start of Lent each year. We read it to help us prepare for the spiritual rebirth that comes at Easter time. It’s a challenging story because Jesus is being tested. He has just been baptized. He is filled with the Holy Spirit. He is on a roll. So he goes on a forty day vision quest in the wilderness. The things he is tempted with are all based on his strengths. In his moment of temptation, the Tempter offers him several ways to accomplish his dreams. It’s a time of discovery of who he really is and what his life is about. By facing this time of trial in the wilderness, he discovers what his true identity as The Christ, the chosen one, is going to mean.
The Lenten journey ends on Easter Sunday each year we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. But we aren’t supposed to be just mere spectators who applaud Jesus for accomplishing this. The goal of the Lenten journey to Easter is for you to experience your own resurrection. It is a chance for you to discover your purpose in life. Along the way you will discover your true identity, your real name, which is something only you can find.
This kind of story is not new. It is as old as stories itself. Scholars call this kind of story the Hero’s journey. At the beginning of these stories, the hero doesn’t know they are someone special. Only by going on this journey do they discover their true importance. The hero is challenged by a call that moves them to leave home. While on this adventure they start to discover the real issue they need to address in their life. They are almost always wounded in the process, for this is often the great epiphany that changes them forever.
For some it is a physical journey to a far away place, and when they return they are a changed person. For others is an inward spiritual journey to a deeper sense of true self that leads to a feeling of harmony with the world. The initial task they set out to deal with merely opens the door to the real task they must address. By facing this deeper task, they find their soul, their true calling in life. At the end of their journey, they return home with this gift, which they use to help their people. In the end they learn how to give of themselves for the sake of others, so everyone might enjoy this gift of the fullness of life.
The first time the Hero’s journey story really touched my life came when I was a teenager. I grew up in Carleton Place. On a hot summer’s day in July of 1977 I drove with a group of friends to a movie theatre in Ottawa. There were thousands of us lined up on Bank Street waiting to get in to the only theatre in Ottawa that was showing this particular film that there had been a lot of hype about. It was the opening day for the movie Star Wars. We were the last people to get in to that showing, so we were sitting in the very front row, right underneath the huge screen. The movie was revolutionary for the visual effects, and also for the story line. It was inspiring in a way that other action movies and science fiction movies had never been. It inspired me to go on a deeper spiritual journey to find what was really important in my life.
It was a few years later that I learned how Star Wars and the story of Luke Skywalker is based on the Hero’s journey. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is also based on this ancient story of self discovery. It’s a theme that makes movies like the Lion King and even the Matrix so meaningful for us.
When Jesus goes on his hero’s journey, he discovers what his life is really going to be all about. It’s in this time in the wilderness that he learns what it means to be the Christ, the chosen one. He also learns from his temptations what he needs to avoid doing if he is going to be successful. He comes back a changed man who is willing to do things differently. Only after his time in the wilderness is completed does he begin his ministry.
One of the reasons Jesus’ message becomes so popular is because he invites each of his followers to undertake their own hero’s journey so we can discover for ourselves our true identity as the children of God. This spiritual journey is so powerful that many of his disciples take on a new name that reflects this new identity.
One of Jesus’ first disciples was called Simon. Jesus is so amazed at how Simon is changed he starts calling him The Rock. So it’s not just professional wrestlers who get to take on new identities. When Saul has his conversion experience on the road to Damascus, he renames himself Paul. This is a significant change with huge symbolic meaning. Saul was name of the first king of Israel. Paul is a slave name that means ‘Shorty’. Saul thought his job was to tell other people what to believe and how to behave. When he takes on the new name of Paul it’s because he understands he is to be the servant of all whose job is to help others to be free.
My favourite new identity story in the Bible belongs to Saint Photini. Most of us know her as the Samaritan woman at the well. She’s the woman who’s had 5 husbands. A lot of people look down on her because of that. After she meets Jesus she goes and tells the people in her community about him, and many come to believe in Jesus as a result. For a woman to do this was quite the scandal in those days. After the disciples baptize her, they give her the name Photini, which means ‘the enlightened one’. Saint Photini shines in her role as the first evangelist in church history. Saint Photini eventually leaves Samaria and travels to Rome where she leads one of the churches there. She even manages to convert members of the Emperor Nero’s family. It just goes to show that what people do with their new identity is always more interesting and important than what they were doing before they found their true selves.
The hero’s journey is something each of us is invited to undertake. It is a journey of self discovery as you discover who you are, what you are, and what your life is all about. It is a journey that incorporates all the wounds and scars that you pick up along the way, and uses these moments of suffering to strengthen your compassion towards others. Every hero meets resistance as they take on this new identity. As you grow into your true self, though, the hero soon finds they have love even for those who we once saw as our enemies. For it is by learning how to love others as well as we love ourselves that we are able to share the gift the abundant life that God has given to us all.
As the weeks of Lent roll on, I pray God will give you courage and strength for your journey, so you can become the hero of your own adventure. I pray Jesus will walk with you through all the trials and sufferings you undergo on your journey. And I pray the Holy Spirit will help you to shine with a love that is so bright that you will be a blessing to everyone you meet.