Into the Wilderness

Jesus’ baptism was a spectacular event. The heavens open and the Spirit of God in the form of a dove lands on Jesus’ shoulder. Then a voice from the sky says: “This is my child, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” It is an unquestionable validation of who Jesus was. So he leaves. The Synoptic Gospels say that he was either driven or led by the very same Spirit that had so gently lighted on his shoulder. He goes away (presumably) to the barren landscape that surrounds the Dead Sea to fast. After forty days without food, he starts to see things; after forty days alone, he starts to hear voices.

The devil appears to tempt him. The first temptation is the obvious one for someone so hungry: bread. The second temptation is a little more subtle. The devil suggests that Jesus throw himself from the top of the temple, but he packages it with the promise that God would never let Jesus be harmed. Self-destruction gilded with ego and a sense of destiny. Finally, the devil takes Jesus to the top of a mountain, like Moses, and promises to give him everything he sees. Of course, Jesus rejects all of it.

This story can be read as Jesus’ triumph over the devil, his absolute resistance to sin. As such, it might encourage us to similar aspirations. However, it can also make us feel like crap. If I hadn’t eaten in forty days, I would certainly go for the bread. Reading it as an example of the many ways that Jesus is better than us shortchanges what Jesus actually did as well as our potential response. It minimizes what Jesus did because it tends to put us in mind of his divinity rather than his humanity. Jesus has a body and that body needs food as much as you or me. This is not a supernatural act. It minimizes our response because it seems unattainable and, perhaps, irrelevant. It would be extraordinary for one of us to fast for forty days; we would be nonfunctional. We’re not going to do it, so what use is this story? I’ll highlight one aspect of the story that I find both illuminating and challenging and then we can talk about many more things on Sunday.

Every time Jesus is tempted, whether to indulge in his own powers or to accept the “gifts” the devil offers, Jesus turns back to God. God’s word is food enough. God’s faithfulness does not need to be proved. Serve God alone. Many of us like to think that we are special, but Jesus recently had it announced from the sky that he is, in fact, special. There is so much that he could have done with that, but he responds with, “It’s not about me.” This may seem like a strange thing to say in a Christian context, but it’s not really about Jesus. Jesus is interested in the things of God, not the things of Jesus.

This is spectacular and miraculous. It is a triumph. It certainly shows how Jesus was better than us. However, it is also a perfectly human response; it is something we can do. At our lowest points, when we are hungry or feel powerless or feel like life is not worth living, we can turn toward God. Note that this does not solve Jesus’ problems. He’s still hungry in the middle of a God-forsaken land facing the probably tragic future of a child of destiny. Note also that he is not burying himself in charitable acts or work or thrill-seeking. Instead, he is pointing toward God. On this inward journey of purgation, he becomes keenly aware of the vast scope of God’s presence. That shapes his identity as the Beloved and his call to ministry and, ultimately, his death at the hands of the powers of his world.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we begin our Lenten journey with a discussion of sin, temptation, and guilt, of deprivation, life, and death. Remember that this Sunday is the beginning of daylight savings time, so set your clocks ahead one hour. We don’t want to miss you!

Grace & Peace,

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