March 4, 2018
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”
Fresh from being baptized by John in the Jordan, that same spirit who descended like a dove on Jesus, with a voice from heaven assuring him “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased” - that same spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness - not “led him” into the wilderness, as Matthew and Luke later tell it. In Mark he is driven.
John’s baptism was understood as a ritual bathing for the forgiveness of sins. As we’re shown here, that doesn’t mean we won’t continue to be tempted. I’m reminded of Jesus’ praying in the garden of Gethsemane. Feeling distressed and agitated: “he threw himself on the ground and prayed, that if it were possible, the hour might pass from him.”
Fear of what was to come was closing in. I can imagine he was tempted, just for a moment, to give it all up and run away. But his time in the wilderness had strengthened him for the challenges ahead.
We live lives filled with temptations, that, if given in to, separate us from the love of God, and sometimes from the love of others. Forgiveness is not a onetime event.
I’ve stood in the Jordan River where they believe John was baptizing his followers. Today it’s just a stream compared to what it must have been in Jesus’ time. That’s Jordan on the other side. You could wade over.
It runs along the Negev desert - 4,000 square miles covering over 50% of the State of Israel. Thanks to modern engineering, parts of it today are irrigated farm land, but much remains the forbidden terrain where Jesus struggled with his own demons, before he was ready to begin his ministry to people struggling with theirs’.
Just like I questioned why Jesus needed to be baptized by John, I asked myself: “Why these 40 days tempted by Satan?” Was Jesus driven into the wilderness to better understand what we all go through at one time or another in our lives? He knew what his mission and ministry was to be, but maybe he had doubts, reservations, fears even, and this was a time of struggling with them. Maybe he had to walk through those fears, and those temptations to chart a different course. Maybe he needed to be challenged so that he could say to those he reached out to: “I’ve been there. Let me help you walk through yours.”
We spent time walking in that wilderness, where the only living thing we ever saw was a scrub brush here and there, and the only sound we heard was that of the wind. We read this scripture passage and took time to just sit under that blazing sun and feel the breath of God occasionally washing over us, as we thought about our own wilderness times.
I knew when mine was. Back in the 1990’s, three overlapping events drove me into the wilderness. I was living in my condo about a mile from the epicenter of the Northridge earthquake, when it jolted me into a fear I had never experienced. I lived in my home for a year with great cracks staring me in the face, until we hired a fraudulent contractor that led to years of lawsuits and five years of paying both rent and mortgage.
During the same period, my life as an actress and artist was put on hold when a staph infection crumbled two of my mother’s vertebrae, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. I spent five and a half years traveling back and forth from California to Iowa helping both my parents during this time of hills and valleys in our family’s lives.
If that wasn’t enough, the UCC church which I called my second home and extended family, split apart after hiring a pastor who eventually sent half the congregation, myself included, searching for another church home. Yes, these were wilderness times. I questioned a God I was angry with, and it could have been tempting to walk away from organized religion all together. I didn’t.
Being baptized into the life of a Christian is not an answer to all our problems. In baptism we are called to a life of testing, challenge and temptation, trying to live into the call of Christ to love God and neighbor.
We all go through our times in the wilderness; grieving over the loss of a job or a loved one, or a home due to a natural disaster, suffering from a mental or physical illness, living in an abusive relationship.
Greed and the desire for wealth and power can lead one into the wilderness of an empty soul. We may feel lost and alone, not knowing where to turn.
It is in those times God may feel distant or absent. It is in those times we may have shut God out. Even Mother Teresa described her dark nights of the soul.
Right now I feel as though this country of ours is wandering in the wilderness - many of us feeling helpless to effect change - at times hopeless, not knowing how to pull our nation back into the light - overwhelmed by the magnitude of the challenges before us, living with temptations all around - facing wild beasts of many persuasions.
We’re in the wilderness when millions of our law abiding neighbors’ lives and futures are used as political bargaining chips to build a wall instead of taking care of our poor and providing health care for all.
We’re in the wilderness when pharmaceuticals, and those who distribute their drugs, put the almighty dollar ahead of opioid addiction or the affordability to access life giving drugs.
We’re in the wilderness when a troubled 18-year-old, who was expelled from school for violent behavior, and posted disturbing material on social media, can legally buy a semi-automatic AR-15 rifle.
I wonder what wilderness Nicolas Cruz was living in? - whose voices he was listening to as he planned the execution of his former classmates and teachers?
We’re in the wilderness when our politicians are tempted by the NRA - lured by their money and power ahead of the safety and lives of our citizens, especially our children.
How did this country, founded on hope and freedom, come to this? How do we handle our times in the wilderness, both individually and as a nation? How do we find our way out as Jesus did after his forty days, ready to preach and teach and heal others? These are the challenges we face.
I have doubts Jesus was out there 40 days and nights, but the number forty tells us something about his experience. In the Hebrew scriptures forty is a number associated with intense spiritual experiences, often when people are tested. The Israelites walked in the wilderness for 40 years searching for the land God had promised them, and we know they were tested.
Our wilderness times help us to learn more about ourselves. Struggle, we know, can build character. Facing our fears, and walking through them diminishes their control over us. But God is there walking with us - in the insights that are born out of our struggles, in the arms that wrap around our grief.
The spirit didn’t drive Jesus into the wilderness until he had received God’s affirmation. He wasn’t left there alone with the wild beasts. Angels waited on him. This is a message of hope in a rather dark story during our Lenten journey. During our times in the wilderness, who are those angels who come to our rescue?
When I think back on my own wilderness time, I remember my friend who rented me her house at an affordable price when I moved from my condo, and the friend who helped me restore it when I was finally able to move back in. I remember the total stranger sitting next to me in church when I got up in tears to ask for prayers for my mother. She hugged me with the words “I’ve been there. I understand.”
Through those years I grew spiritually. They forced me to re-examine my theology and helped shape my faith. After ignoring God’s call for a decade, two weeks before she died, I was able to tell my mother I had accepted God’s call, much to her delight.
There are angels all around us, if we only open our eyes to see them. They are God’s messengers, here to remind us we are not alone, here to stand beside us when the going gets rough, here to guide us through our fears, out of the darkness and into the life God intends for us.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “We are pressed on every side by troubles, but not crushed and broken. We are perplexed because we don’t know why things happen to us as they do, but we don’t give up and quit. We are hunted down, but God never abandons us. We get knocked down, but we get up and keep going.” - ancient words that speak to us today.
Now more than ever we need these 40 days of Lent, this season of reflection and repentance, a time when we are invited to look inside our hearts, seeing ourselves with compassion and truth - seeing both our brokenness and our beauty, our failings and our faithfulness.
Lent is a time to grow in our faith, to deepen our relationship to God, to access where we are on our spiritual journey. It’s a time to leave our baggage behind, braving the unknown, carrying nothing but the knowledge that we are God’s beloved, made in the image of our creator. What do you need to let go of? Is there someone you need to forgive? What do you need to peel away to get to your core, your spirit, where you come to meet God’s love?
I encourage you during this Lenten Season to find ways to engage in spiritual practices: sacred readings, meditation, reflection, prayer or journaling, a silent walk in nature - whatever practice helps you to slow down, quiet your being to listen deeply and fill your spirit.
So often in wilderness times, we forget to turn to God for help, thinking we can handle it all ourselves. But it is in these times we need to remember that God travels with us, suffers with us, even though God can’t make it all right. The psalmist remembered that as he prayed to God in Psalm 25. Would you read it with me? It’s printed in your bulletins.
Psalm 25: 1-10
To You, O Love, I lift up my soul;
O Heart within my heart,
in You I place my trust.
Let me not feel unworthy;
let not fear rule over me.
Yes! let all who open their hearts
savor You and bless the earth!
Compel me to know your ways, O Love;
instruct me upon your paths.
Lead me in your truth,
and teach me,
for through You will I know
I shall reflect your light
both day and night.
I know of your mercy, Compassionate One,
and of your steadfast love.
You have been with me
from the beginning.
Forgive the many times I have
walked away from You
choosing to walk alone.
With your steadfast love,
Companion me along your way.
You are gracious and just,
O Spirit of Truth,
happy to guide those who
miss their way;
You enjoy teaching all who are open,
all who choose to live in truth.
Your paths are loving and sure,
O Holy One,
for those who give witness to You
through their lives.