Beloved in the Wilderness
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, 10 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 wilderness seems kind of close these days if you ask me.
Maybe it’s the news again – our politics, that tornado that ripped through Alabama last week, everything going on in places like Venezuela and Haiti and Great Britain, Alex Trebek has pancreatic cancer…
Maybe it’s that the Methodist Church went the other direction – the wrong direction, in my opinion – when it comes to loving gay and lesbian and transgender people… (I’m not judging the Methodists, mind you, so much as I am lamenting with them and with all those who are scandalized by that decision.)
Maybe it’s the sadness of yesterday’s funeral for Joe Richards and all that led up to it…
Maybe it’s the threshold of Lent we crossed over on Ash Wednesday… or that I’m getting ready to head to the actual desert, out in of Phoenix, later this week… or it could just be one less hour of sleep thanks to Daylight Savings Time.
Whatever it is, the wilderness doesn’t seem so hard to find… or very far away… or easier to get into than out of these days.
And I’m always fascinated with Jesus and his time out there in the wilderness. This Gospel story is one of those oldies and goodies most of us have heard before where the Devil and Jesus seem to be playing this well-choreographed, back-and-forth kind of dance and dialogue:
First, Jesus is hungry. Starving, even, after 40 days of fasting. And the devil says: "If you are the Son of God, you could turn these stones into bread." Jesus insists that man doesn't live by bread alone. So the devil hurls him around the universe, shows him all the kingdoms of the world, and tempts him with a promise: "All this will be yours if you’d just worship me." And Jesus, faithfully, says, “No, worship the Lord your God," and that's that. So the devil takes him high atop the pinnacle of the temple and says, "So prove to me that you're really God's son and take a dive … you won't get hurt if what God says about you is true." And Jesus refuses, reminding himself and Satan that our God isn't one we ought to test.
The point of Lent – and the point of this Gospel story this time around, for me, anyway – is to wonder what it means to be called into the wilderness. I think we’re called to seek out and to put a finger on the evil and darkness and temptation in our own lives. We’re called to name it, to stop denying it, and to confront it in ways we neglect too much of the time.
But that's hard to do, this wilderness wandering – whether it’s the First Sunday of Lent or any other day of the year – or we would do it more often, more faithfully, with more resolve and courage and success, I believe. We don’t head out into the wilderness enough of the time, following the Spirit’s lead. We’re more likely to find ourselves pushed there, dragged there, kicking and screaming. Or we end up there, in the wilderness – much to our surprise – before we know what’s coming. And then the temptation of it all is to let it overwhelm us – the grief of it; the fear of it; the unknown and uncertainty of it all, whatever the case may be, in the wilderness.
And so we fail the tests too often, don’t we? We fill ourselves with all the wrong things too much of the time. Where Jesus refused to turn stones into bread – we grab the potato chips or the ice cream; the booze or the weed or the cigarettes or the pills.
Where Jesus turned down the offer for more power and glory, we go after as much as we can grab and look for it in all the wrong places – work, money, things and stuff, just for starters.
And where Jesus refused to put God to the test, we do… every time we throw up our hands and wonder why God won’t – why God hasn’t – just fixed everything that’s wrong with us, with the world, and with this wilderness.
And I think the reason we fail the tests too much of the time is because we forget something Jesus knew and held onto, from the start. Remember, Jesus entered into the wilderness “full of the Spirit” and “led by the Spirit,” on the heals of his baptism. I like to imagine that his hair was still wet when he met up with the devil in the dessert. He was fresh from the Jordan where the heavens had opened, a dove had appeared out of nowhere, for crying out loud, and God had declared him beloved, “the Son, the Chosen” with whom the Creator of the Universe was well pleased.
And it’s with all of that in his back pocket, that Jesus made his way into the wilderness to duke it out with the devil. So it’s easier for me to imagine that he might have resisted all of that temptation and passed all of those tests with flying colors, don’t you think?
And that’s our call and invitation, too. To remember, however and whenever we find ourselves in the wilderness, that – just like Jesus – we can enter it all on the heals of and filled with the promises of our baptism. And when we live like that, our chances of resisting the temptations… of passing the tests… of making it out alive are infinitely more likely, it seems to me.
I came across a poem by Jan Richardson, an artist and author and United Methodist pastor, who says this better than I could. It’s called, “Beloved Is Where We Begin.” It goes like this:
If you would enter into the wilderness,
do not begin without a blessing.
Do not leave without hearing who you are:
named by the One who has traveled this path before you.
Do not go without letting it echo in your ears,
and if you find it is hard to let it into your heart,
do not despair.
That is what this journey is for.
I cannot promise this blessing will free you
from hunger or thirst,
from the scorching of sun or the fall of the night.
But I can tell you that on this path
there will be help.
I can tell you that on this way
there will be rest.
I can tell you that you will know
the strange graces
that come to our aid
only on a road
such as this,
that fly to meet us
that come alongside us
for no other cause
than to lean themselves
toward our ear
and with their
whisper our name:
The wilderness seems too close… too easy to find… too hard to navigate… too difficult to escape too much of the time.
The temptation to quit… to choose the selfish, prideful, destructive way… to take the devil’s hand and follow his lead… the temptation to despair can seem like a watering hole in the parched places of our lives.
But if we enter into those desert places… If we engage the temptations of this life, filled first with and led by the Spirit of our creator… If we enter into the wilderness with the waters of baptism still dripping from our foreheads and the promises of God ringing in our ears.
We don’t have to fear any of it, knowing that we and those we love will come out of it alive – in one way or the other – on this side of God’s heaven or the next – always beloved, in the end.