18 February 2013

The Journey Begins in the Wilderness

Luke 4: 1-13

First Sunday in Lent
17th February 2013

Did you notice who sent Jesus into the desert?  Did you hear who sent him into the wilderness for forty days?  The Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God sent him there, into a wild and harsh and life-threatening landscape, to the sand and sun and isolation of the Judea desert.  There’s very little to sustain life there.  Little or no food, not much to drink.  After forty days he was famished, as you can imagine, his body weakened.  No shelter.  Exposed to the elements.  Alone with his thoughts and with God…and someone else.

            Luke tells us Jesus was “full of the Holy Spirit.” It’s a striking expression, “full of the Holy Spirit” – πλήρης πνεύματος ἁγίου – pleres pneumatos agiou.   It’s the first and only time Luke uses this phrase to describe Jesus.  Pleres is used to describe a vessel that is filled to the brim. It has a sense of completeness; a word used to describe something that is completely, fully covered.  To be full, full here of the Holy Spirit, means the Holy Spirit is permeating every part of Jesus’ being, completely, fully. 

Now how did Jesus get in this state?  Was he always this way?  Was he born this way? The text isn’t clear, but what is clear is that Luke intentionally links his entrance in the wilderness with what occurred along the River Jordan.  This text is directly connected to Jesus’ baptism.  And so it’s in a state of spiritual bliss, as it were, riding high from that profound religious experience, full of God’s presence, clear about his identity as the Son of God – remember what he heard coming up out of the water, “This is my son, my Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22) – he then begins his work. He’s on the return from the Jordan, returning to reality with this new insight, full of the presence of God, when he’s led by the same Spirit permeating his spirit into the wild and dangerous terrain of the wilderness.

He’s sent there intentionally by the Holy Spirit for one purpose only:  to be tempted by the devil.  The Holy Spirit is deliberate.  He’s sent there for a reason: to be tempted for forty days.  A better word than “tempted” here is “tested.”  And when we use “tested” and combine it with one of the favorite numbers in the Bible, 40, immediately our minds go to Moses and the Exodus – at least that’s where our thoughts should take us; that was probably Luke’s intent.  Israel was tested for forty years, not by the devil, but by the wilderness of Sinai on their way from slavery into the freedom of the Promised Land.  The people were tested in the wilderness – their faith was tested, their loyalties were tested, their commitments to God, to their neighbors, to themselves as a people. It was through the struggle in and through the wilderness that they came to have a clearer sense of who they were and who God is and what they were called to be and do as a people.  Even God was tested by them because over and over, for forty years, the people complained and whined and complained and whined about their conditions, forgetting again and again and again about Yahweh’s promised faithfulness to them. 

This is tough to take in: in order for growth to occur testing is required.  Yet, it’s true.  All great leaders, artists, writers, poets, inventors, scientists, prophets, athletes, ordinary women and men who become mature and wise and advance humanity just a little become great and wise and mature through moments of testing.  They’re tested, if not by the devil or directly by God, then by circumstances or environment or by prevailing injustice.  In those moments we are usually brought to our limits (or think we’re there), brought to edge of our wits and energy, brought maybe to the edge of sanity.  Then we hit a wall and realize we can go no further.  And we know we’re “famished” – meaning, here, to acknowledge want, need, to hunger and crave ardently.

And there’s probably no better place to discover one’s limits or discern what one craves than in a desert.  There’s probably no better place to encounter God and everything in our lives that tries to lure us away from God than in a desert.   Because, you see, there are things that only the wilderness can teach us.  Nudos amat eremos.  Jerome (c.347-420) wrote in a letter to Heliodorus:  Nudos amat ermemos.  “The desert loves to strip bear.”[1] It strips the ego bear as we quickly learn there that we are not at the center of our universe or any universe.  The early Christians who spent a lot of time in the desert often talked about apatheia, apathy or indifference.  The wilderness or desert is completely indifferent to us.[2]  It doesn’t really care about us.  It doesn’t care if we exist or not.  It’s silent.  And in the silence of such places we have nothing to say, nothing to prove, nothing to think, nothing to defend.  This is a marvelous gift that the wilderness gives us.[3]  We come to face ourselves and our demons and those things that call us away from our true calling.  This, too, is a remarkable gift.

I think­­— or, I believe—no, I know, in love the Holy Spirit sent Jesus into the wilderness to be tested.  It’s only in love. It’s only in love. If we don’t hear this within the context of God’s love and grace, then it looks like God is sadistic. And we have to be careful with how we understand words like devil or Satan. They have a long and complex history within the Bible, not helped by later writers, such as Dante Alighieri (c.1265-1321), who put his own tormented twist on things. Did you know that in the book of Job (1:6-12), Satan, meaning “accuser,” that’s what the word means, is actually on Yahweh’s payroll? He’s in the court of Yahweh in heaven.  He’s an adversary, an adversary who actually moves the plotline along, oddly enough (think about that for a while).  In Scripture, there’s never any question who is ultimately in charge, who rules, who has power.  Also, the devil doesn’t always tell the truth. When the devil says to Jesus, referring to the kingdoms of the world, “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,” (Luke 4:7), some claim that the world has been given over to the devil to rule.  But why assume the devil is telling the truth here? Why would the devil tell the truth?  Does the world belong to him?  The testing serves a larger purpose.

So why, then, does the Holy Spirit send Jesus to be tested in this extreme struggle of mind, body, and spirit?  And what does this mean for you and me?  Identity and idolatry.  What’s at stake here both for Jesus and for us is the crucial question of identity and the perennial threat of idolatry.

            Identity.  The first and third tests from the devil have to do with the question of identity.  “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”  “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from [the pinnacle of the temple].” Some scholars believe that the three temptations echo the three worse temptations in the Greco-Roman world, that we are tempted by the love of pleasure, the love of possessions, the love of glory.  There is a parallel of sorts, I guess.  But it’s easy for any or all of us, whether we’re persons of faith or not, to be ruined by a love of pleasure or possessions or glory. You don’t have to be a religious person to be tempted by the love of pleasure, the love of possessions, or the love of glory. 

There’s more here.  It’s the phrase, “If you are the Son of God,…” that is the real cause for concern, because it sows the seeds of doubt.  The critical question for Jesus was not whether or not he wanted bread, but who he was, really, and how was he going to live faithfully with that identity.

            It’s the identity question that directly links us back to Jesus’ baptism and through his to ours.  Who are you?  Really?  Who are you?  Baptism answered this question for Jesus, as it does for us.  This is another example of baptism understood less as incorporation into the church than of rite of identification; it’s about identity:  that we are children of God by grace.  That’s who we are, right?  That’s what our baptism claims, doesn’t it?  If so, then that makes you a son of God; that makes you a daughter of God.  But do you really believe it? Or, do you wear this identity lightly?  Question it?  What does it really mean for you?  We might believe it in our heads, intellectually, but do we really feel it in our bones, in our bodies? Does that knowledge permeate through the core of your being?  Or are you plagued by seeds of self-doubt, “If….” Each response Jesus gives to the devil is rooted in his affirmation of who he is and his decision to respond faithfully to God.

            The second test is often associated with temptation of glory, but it really has to do with worship. This is the critical issue here.  As children of God, who are we going to worship?  What are we going to worship?  What is worthy of our time and honor and devotion?  When the issue of worship is front and center the threat of idolatry is always close at hand.  When we forget who we are as children of God, it’s easy for us to be lured away by false gods, to fall prey to gods that are not gods. We might think idolatry is an antiquated, quaint notion that we don’t have to worry about any longer.  It’s not a threat to us because we don’t have statues and don’t bow down to graven images in our churches (although we have a cross in the sanctuary). We believe in God, we’re here to worship him on a Sunday morning, aren’t we? 

            The Reformed theologian John Calvin (1509-1564) said the human mind is a factory of idols. He was right. We always create images or things or personas to worship (often not worthy of our devotion or time or money).  Look at our fascination with shows such as American Idol or our enthrallment with celebrities or the Baltimore mania/adoration – dare I say, idolatrous obsession with the Ravens.  This is not to judge, but simply to observe (as a Ravens fan). 

The reason idols were considered dangerous in the Hebrew (and later Christian) scriptures was because the Israelites knew that we are always at risk of becoming what we worship.  Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), that wise American, made a similar point:  “That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our life and our character.  Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.” 

            It’s easy to assume:  I believe in God and worship God therefore I don’t have to worry about idols.  But let’s reframe this, change the language slightly:  “each of us believes in, wagers on, and trusts in a god or deity, meaning…an all-orienting and all-dominating prime value, something or someone whereby all else ultimately matters, and to which or to whom all the rest is related.”[4] One contemporary scholar has summed up idolatry this way:  “Tell me which prime value dominates your thoughts, your actions, your life in fact (perhaps unconsciously), and I will tell you what is the concrete name of your god and what is the color of your real religion, even if sociologically you belong to another.”[5]  This is a deep struggle we all wrestle with, including me, if we’re honest.

Jesus quotes scripture saying we are to “Worship the LORD [our] God and serve only him.”  It’s the word “only” that makes us start to sweat, squiggle, and squirm.  Only.  What are we as a society worshipping?  Success? Freedom? Wealth? Tradition?  Power? Safety? Violence?  It seems to me this might be a helpful context for the church to talk about guns and gun violence and the need for gun control. What are we worshipping?  What are we becoming?[6] 

In the wilderness, Jesus affirmed the “prime value,” invested his life in it, and allowed it to “fund” the rest of his life.  He discovered this in the wilderness.  That’s where the journey really began for him. Knowing who he was, completely devoted and dedicated to God, worshiping God alone, were the gifts he received from his time in the wilderness, insights he probably would not have discovered elsewhere.  I’m not sure why it takes a wilderness for us to discover these things, but I know it’s often required. Perhaps when we’re away from the wilderness we’re easily distracted, tempted, we forget who we are and whose we are, our value systems get skewed, and we forget what matters most. That’s why we need these places.  It’s where the journey begins again and again for us. So don’t be surprised if the Holy Spirit leads you there or maybe you’re already there. Just remember, the Holy Spirit leads us there in love – always in love – and in love the Spirit will lead us through it.

[1] Cited in Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes:  Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1998), 23
[2] The early Desert Father Avagrius of Pontus said, “Desert apatheia has a daughter whose name is love.” Cited by Lane, 186.
[3] Cf. the quotation from the worship bulletin:  “It is a commonplace of all religious thought, even the most primitive, that the man seeking visions and insight must go apart from his fellows and love for a time in the wilderness.”  Loren Eiseley (1907-1977).
[4] James E. Atwood, America and Its Guns: A Theological Exposé, Foreword by Walter Brueggemann (Cascade Books, 2012), 23. Emphasis added.
[5] H. E. Mertens in R. Burggraeve and J. De Tavernier, Desirable God? Our Fascination with Images, Idols, and New Deities (Peeters Publishing, 2004), 38, cited in Atwood, 23.
[6] I try to address the gun control issue within the context of religion, idolatry, and violence, here: http://catonsville.patch.com/blog_posts/praise-the-lordpass-the-ammunition.

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