09 March 2014

A Wild, Wondrous Journey

“Temptation in the Desert” by Briton Rivière (1840-1920)
Matthew 4:1-11

First Sunday in Lent/ 9th March 2014

An audio recording of the sermon may be found here.

Temptation seems to fill the air during Lent; Lent seems to be organized around it.  The lectionary for this first Sunday in Lent begins with Jesus tempted by the devil in the wilderness. It casts its shadow over these forty days.  Temptation is the enemy that requires our vigilance and diligence, especially if you felt called to give up something for Lent: chocolate, alcohol, television, Facebook.  Can you free yourself from the Tempter’s power?  Can you make it all the way to Holy Week? 

            There’s no way around it.  Temptation is all over this text.  Three times the devil tries to unnerve Jesus and obstruct him from his mission.  After forty days Jesus is famished, exhausted, weak, tired, thirsty, hungry.  And then the Tempter arrives.

            This really is a remarkable text. It’s easy to be drawn into it, dropped down into this dramatic setting, this place of struggle and anguish. This is a vivid story made for cinema or television. 

            It’s also a problematic text in that it’s easy to come away with all kinds of views regarding the devil and temptation, some of which are not helpful.  I’ve met Christians who live in a perpetual state of fear and anxiety that they might not be strong enough to sustain a full court press from the Tempter.  They think the devil is under every stone, around every corner, just waiting for an opportune time to tempt and attack, deceive and destroy Christians. There’s a kind of paranoia that sets in as they wait for the devil to trick them. They’re always on guard.  This is not a healthy way to live, neither is it a joyful way to live.

            The temptation is real in this story—and it’s serious.  These are not trivial amusements trying to lull Jesus away from his work.  He’s being tempted by desire, materialism, tempted by power, tempted by influence and glory, tempted by religion. He’s being tempted with an alternative narrative for his life, “If you are the Son of God….” If…  Does Jesus know that he’s the Son of God?  Is this what he’s really wrestling with in the wilderness?  And if he consents, if he claims this identity, accepts this power, what then?  How does one then live with such an identity, how does one make use of such power?

            That’s really what’s at stake here.  Yes, it’s about temptation.  But it’s about more than temptation.  To focus on temptation is a moralistic reading of this text.  It’s more than simply a warning: watch out, the devil will tempt us, don’t give into temptation.  This would be a surface reading of the text.

            We know there’s more to it than this because of one word.  It’s one word that’s often overlooked in the hearing of this story.  And that one word is: Spirit (Matthew 4:1).

            After Jesus’ baptism the Spirit of God sends Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted.  His temptation is ordered, directed, not by the devil, as it were, but by the Spirit of God.  The devil is not doing anything here beyond the purview of God’s providence. The Spirit sends Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted. And if the Spirit is God’s Spirit and if God’s Spirit is love, then we have to conclude that it’s for the sake of love, the Spirit’s love for Jesus that he’s sent deep into the wilderness of Judea.  Then we could say that it’s love that sends him into this space.  This might sound odd and strange and not very loving. But it’s for the sake of God’s love for him and, I would argue, God’s love for us that he’s sent into the wilderness. Why?  Because there were things Jesus needed to discover about himself that could only be discovered in the wilderness.  There were things he needed to struggle with that could only be experienced there in the wilderness. There were things he could only discover in the struggle, in the fight, in the wrestling. 

            There are things we can only discover about ourselves when we, too, have been thrown into the wilderness.  There are things that we only begin to really, honestly, struggle with when we are thrown into wild, unfamiliar places.  There are things we discover about ourselves and our neighbors, the world, even God, when we are in the fight, when we’re struggling to survive, when we’re lost in the search for meaning, when we're wrestling with our demons, putting them in their place, and then coming out on the other side of it all with the angels of God waiting on us and tending to us (Matthew 4: 11).

            I don’t know why it has to be this way.  But it is.  I don’t know why the world is ordered this way. But it is. This seems like a risky, even precarious way for God to order human life.  Why can’t we just discover these things without the struggle and the fight and the wrestling?  I don’t know. 

            But there are at least two things I do know.   First, what I do know and what this text seems to suggest is that a wilderness is required—an unfamiliar territory of some kind.  It could be a geographic place, a life-situation or experience, or, psychologically, the vast terrains of the human heart.  We can stay home, remain forever in the familiar, but then we’ll miss out on discovering what the soul truly hungers for.

            The hard truth is that “Great issues affecting [humankind] always have to be decided in the wilderness.” These are the words of Alfred Delp (1907-1945), written in Tegel Prison, Berlin, Epiphany 1945, where Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was also a prisoner for a time.  Delp was a Jesuit priest, theologian, philosopher, who was part of an assassination attempt against Adolf Hitler (1889-1945).  “Great issues affecting [humankind] always have to be decided in the wilderness; in uninterrupted isolation and unbroken silence. They hold a meaning and blessing these great, silent, empty spaces that bring [one] face to face with reality.”[1]  These are extraordinary words written in the wilderness of a prison cell.

            The second thing is this.  What I do know and what this text seems to suggest is that, like Jesus, we need to be pushed up against our limits, our limitations must be exposed.  It’s not unlike what an athlete in training experiences.  Places such as deserts and wildernesses are good at doing this for us—places known for their silence, their emptiness, places untamed, places that don’t care about us, don’t care whether or not we survive, that are completely indifferent to our wants and needs.  Life situations can bring us to our limits. When we come up against our mortality—the ever ashen-quality of our lives—that we are dust, this is also a limiting thought.  Now all of this can be depressing, I know. That’s what you’re probably thinking.  This doesn’t have to be, but it often is.  These are not essentially happy thoughts.  But don’t blame me.  And yet it’s part of the Christian message. It’s not the best evangelism method tool.  Churches don’t generally grow with this kind of message.  You don’t find it on church signs:  Join us at 10:30 a.m. and discover your limitations! Refreshments will be served.

            And, yet, this is the difficult, demanding, heart-breaking, achingly beautiful and gracious message of the gospel: there is liberation and release when we discover our limits.  This is what T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) was getting at in his poem “Little Gidding,” one of the poems in Four Quartets.  Little Gidding is a small village in England, with an old Anglican Church and cemetery, which Eliot visited in 1936. In this poem he’s talking about the poet’s use of language as a metaphor for the Christian life.
            Every phrase and every sentence
            is an end and a beginning,
            Every poem is an epitaph – epitaph, as on a gravestone. 

            Any action is a step to the block, to the fire,
            down the sea’s throat
            Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start

The illegible stone is an old tombstone, with the name worn away by the elements, by time.  That is where we start. That is where the Christian life begins, that’s where the journey begins.  Eliot is drawing here upon the wisdom of the English mystic Julian of Norwich (1342-c.1413) who said, “In my end is my beginning.”

            The Spirit sends Jesus out into the wilderness to discover his limitations, to bring him up against his limits, in order for him to discover who he is and what he’s capable of accomplishing.  And he discovers this in the struggle with the Tempter.  The Tempter doesn’t have horns, a red suit, and a pitchfork.  The devil, diabolos, in the Greek, means “one who throws things about.”  Dia, meaning through, around; bolos, meaning to throw.  The diabolos stirs things up, tries to confuse us, muddies the waters, and distorts reality.  He’s pushes Jesus.  Tries to disorient him, confuse him, distort his reality, maybe even speak to his weaknesses and doubts and his fears.  And each time, Jesus pushes back, reaffirms what’s true, and stays grounded.  In the face of these distractions, Jesus remains focused and committed to God’s vision for his life, with each “attack” he reaffirms who he is and who he isn’t, he comes to terms with his identity and his calling, all of it forged in the heat of the desert under the protective eyes of the Spirit.  And all of this was necessary in order to equip him for what was to come, to enable him to claim his identity, so that he could be faithful to the burden of the call placed upon his life.  He then drew upon this experience throughout his ministry, especially in a garden, in the middle of the night, sweating blood, wrestling again with the purpose and meaning of his life (Luke 22:44).

            The psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875-1961) said, “Man needs difficulties, they are necessary for health.”[2]  Writing to clergy in 1932, Jung said, “…every psychic advance arises from the suffering of the soul….”[3]  This is not a glorification of suffering; neither is he saying that God causes suffering.  But what Jung is trying to get at here, and I think he’s right and worth our consideration, is that through our struggles, our desire to suffer through what we’re confronted with, to undergo and struggle and resist and fight everything that is thrown at us and tries to confuse us and muddy the waters, even as Jesus did, we will discover something that we need to know.  And not only what we need to know, as if this were merely an intellectual game, but something more, something will be gained in our hearts, in our lives as Christians, an advance made, progress, development, growth in the Christian life, personal transformation, which has the potential to transform the world.   And that’s the good news here.

            And there’s one more sign of good news here. The number 40.  It might be the Bible’s way of saying “a very long time,” but it’s never empty time, it’s never unending.  It’s actually a time of cultivation and growth, a time of preparation for what comes next.  Every experience of 40—whether days or years—in scripture, whether it’s Israel wandering for forty years in the wilderness of Sinai or Jesus in the wilderness of Judea—yields something new.  Here we can see an advance, something gained from the experience.  Jesus comes bursting out of this experience overflowing with spiritual energy, teeming with vitality, engaged, active, ready to take on the world, ready to preach the good news of God’s Kingdom with passion, with strength, with compassion, with love.[4]                    

            Altogether, Jesus shows us: this is what is means to be human, women and men in relationship with God.  Jesus’ way is our way, our way through Lent and beyond.  His way is our way; our way is his way.  This is the wild, wondrous journey we’ve been invited to share. So may we too pray, boldly, courageously:  Come, Holy Spirit, come

[1] Alfred Delp, “Epiphany 1945: the Law of the Wilderness.” http://pedrokolbe.wordpress.com/2014/01/08/epiphany-1945-the-law-of-the-wilderness/.
[2] C. G. Jung, “The Transcendent Function,” in Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Vol. 8, par. 143 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970). Jung adds, “What concerns us…is only an excessive amount of them.”
[3] C. G. Jung, “Psychotherapists or the Clergy,” Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Vol. 11, par. 497 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975). Jung wrote, “…all creativeness in the realm of the spirit as well as every psychic advance of man arises from the suffering of the soul, and the cause of the suffering is spiritual stagnation, or psychic sterility.”
[4] Clarence Jordan, The Substance of Faith: and Other Cotton Patch Sermons (Wipf & Stock, 2013), 9ff.