|(Image from book, and short movie, "40" illustrated by Si Smith, |
available through Proost, and totally worth getting)
When I was a kid I went through a phase where I would pause at the edge of a hotel pool and pray fervently to be able to walk across it on the water, only to sink like a stone every single time. And I used to kind of secretly wish that someone would try to kidnap me so I could “rebuke them in the name of Jesus!” and though it was some kind of magical talisman, a foolproof spiritual mace to disable any attacker. Thankfully, the car with the candy out the window never rolled up on me.
What’s happening in our gospel text tonight feels almost as absurd as that. It’s like a fever dream or drug trip, or, like the scene in the movie where the music and lighting change because the director is about to reveal something either about the character in front of you or the whole enterprise of life and living, and you’re supposed to lean forward and pay attention to the details and the words, the metaphor and deeper truth.
Let’s assume there is something really important about this experience Jesus goes through that is essential to who he is and who we are and see where that takes us.
It begins by rushing past 40 days and 40 nights of wilderness in one breath. Not a retreat escape in a Hawaiian oceanfront condo, but wilderness- as in, what the people wandered in for 40 years when they didn’t know who they were and were still learning whose they were. As in the place of struggle and bad stuff, where you end up when you don’t know where you’re going and you’re not sure it will end.
40 days and 40 nights, like the Israelites who waited aimlessly and debauched at the bottom of the mountain for Moses while he chatted with God for just that long, coming up with the guidelines for a new life together.
40 days and 40 nights like Noah and his brood bobbing around in a giant stink hole of noisy animals in a dark, dank wet world, listening to the neverending rain, wondering when it will end and what in the world could be on the other side when it does.
Long enough to despair, and to lose sight of who you really are and what the big picture is.
A stripping away of everything you’ve known, without a sense of what is coming on the other side, if you even survive it. So that is what kicks off this little standoff with the devious devil.
But, wait, because that’s not actually the beginning of this. Actually, the real beginning of this story comes right before the transition word. “then…” Then the Spirit drives him out into the wilderness. When?
Right after dive-bombing Jesus as he stands dripping in the river Jordan having been baptized by John. The Spirit switches from descending dove in one verse to nagging sheepdog in the next.
Hey everybody, this one belongs to me!. hey you, You are mine, my beloved. That’s who you are. And I claim you and make you part of what I am doing in the world.
Now shoo! off with you to struggle for your life in lonely isolation until you wonder if you can go on, and whether it’s even worth trying!
So, first, you belong to God, that is whose you are. You are God’s beloved, that is who you are. This truth is a poured over you, dunked into you, stamped in oil and prayer on your forehead, witnessed by those around you and by the Spirit of the living God falling afresh on you, non-negotiable permanent naming and claiming.
That’s where Jesus begins, that’s where we begin.
Then, wilderness. Then we go into struggle. Into loneliness and questions and hunger and fatigue. Us, and Jesus. That’s just the trajectory of life. From blessing into struggle.
I think we need this story desperately, like we need Lent, and here are two of the reasons why.
First, We need to see Jesus face this because it tells us something about being Jesus: Jesus is not going to use extraordinary power to save himself from human hunger and weakness, he’s not going resort to parlor tricks and sensationalism to prove God to us, and he’s not going to display the kind of power the world would recognize and give accolades for. God is bringing a different kind of reality with a different kind of security and identity and interdependence and a hidden kind of power that comes into our struggle and suffering instead of rescues certain ones of us out of it.
The second reason we need this story is because it tells Jesus something about being us. Jesus needed to face this because we face it every day. Not in these forms of course, (that would just be silly!) but we are tempted every day, maybe every moment, to accept as truth lies about ourselves, God and life, that lock us into slavery instead of freedom, and make us forget who we really are and whose we really are.
The tempter says to us:
There are things you need to do to be worthy of love and acceptance. If you were different, not you, somehow someone or something other than you, then you would be enough, and God, or other people, or the universe would finally be satisfied with you, and you’d know beyond a doubt that you are valuable.
And if you really want to contribute, if you want your life to have any kind of meaning and your voice to carry in any kind of way you need the right people to see and respect you, and you need to work your tail off and never let up.
Because nobody with grades like that, a face like that, a background like that, a resume like that, a medical condition like that, will make it in the real world.
If you don’t get into the right school,
if you don’t get and keep the right job,
if you don’t have perfect, well behaved children,
or a doting, stable and committed partner,
or debt-free financial stability,
if you don’t have your mobility or your mental sharpness,
or a life free of whatever it is that most has a hold on you,
then you are less than others, and your contribution doesn’t matter.
So you’d better either get those things however you can, or hide really well that you don’t have them.
And also, the world is in a lot of trouble, and you’re part of the problem – so let’s add to that guilt and duty and despair – as we strive to control what feels too big to control, and to care about what feels crushing in its sadness, and never to measure up to what we should be doing if any of this is going to make a difference.
We are slaves. We labor under the weight of other people’s opinions, and worry and fear, and messages of rejection and perpetual bad decisions.
We are slaves to pressure to be deceptive and pressure to be good,
slaves to our own power and control,
and slaves to the relentless pace and impossible expectations we set for ourselves and hold other to.
We are slaves to the evil and sin in the world and our part in it, and slaves to the message that it’s up to us to fix it all.
We are slaves and world owns us – every waking minute and many sleeping ones, until it has used us up and we’ve gotten too creaky or forgetful or slow-moving, to be of much use, and then we’re not worth anything anymore. So better cram it all in while it makes a difference and pretend that third act isn’t coming, and let anxiety and the frantic pace of self-preservation define us and dictate our every action because, we don’t really have a choice.
Except that we do. Except that We are not slaves.
We’ve been set free. And those things are all lies.
Let’s go back to where it begins.
Who are you? You are beloved of God’s, uniquely you.
Whose are you? You belong to God, who has chosen you to join in love in the world.
Your purpose and meaning and identity are sealed permanently in God. They are non-negotiable. And even struggle, losing everything, facing down every demon and lie, can’t change that. And this is God’s world, God is infusing it with love, you get to join in that – not lead it or carry it on your own, but share it with God and each other.
Tonight some of us talked before we came in here about how Sabbath is this gift and command, to stop everything, to step off the carousel on purpose, to put down all the things that we believe make us valuable and effective, or worthless and helpless, and just be.
So that God can remind us who we really are without and despite it all. And so that God can remind us who is really is in charge of our lives, holding this world. It brings us back to the beginning.
As it turns out that wilderness, temptation and Sabbath all kind of force us to face the same questions.
The other day my son had a terrible evening. Someone did something that really hurt his feelings and he did something he felt really ashamed of. It also happened to be his baptism day, so he linked the two and cried, I wish I was never baptized so this day would never have happened! And I told him the bad news, which was that this day would’ve happened anyway, and it would happen again, and worse in his life. People would hurt him and let him down and he would hurt others, that was simply true.
But then I told him that I was glad this happened on his baptism day, because what it helps us remember is this: these things, this terrible day, it doesn’t get to define you. It doesn’t get to say that is who you are – someone who hurts others, someone who is overlooked. Instead, your baptism says that even though these things happened and will happen again, who you are is not up for grabs, it has already been decided. And who you belong to is none other than the God who holds the world in love.
You are beloved of God, uniquely you, and you’ve been chosen to join God’s love in the world. And those things are fact. Period.
Sometimes we need the wilderness to remind us of that. Struggle and isolation thrust those questions front and center.
Sometimes we need to look our temptations in the face to see the ugly truth of them and how close we come to giving in, or perhaps that we already have thrown ourselves off the building and bowed to the powers of this world.
And sometimes – actually, as regularly as possible – we can face those questions and be reminded of their answers by stopping in defiance of it all, and simply being in the presence of one who knows us best and names us first, and calls us: Beloved of God, uniquely you, and part of my plan to love the world. It can’t be earned by the wonderful things you do or the terrible things you refrain from doing. And it can’t be lost by the terrible things you do you do or the wonderful things you neglect to do. It simply is the truth about you, because I said so. It’s time to remember that.
Immediately after the tempter leaves Jesus, angels surround him like a pit crew. He is famished, spent, emotionally and physically drained – collapsing into arms that give water, food, a wet cloth to the forehead, a shoulder to rest on. He is tended to and reminded, and ready, to face the world, embrace his humanity, and join in the ministry of God.
And so in this tale of wilderness and temptation, we see something about being Jesus: that Godwithus comes right into the worst of it and doesn’t cave to the world’s interpretation of power, or worth.
And Jesus sees something about being us. This wilderness is practice. This temptation is a warm up. It’s his initiation into being human, vulnerable, and weak. And it’s going to get worse. But when it does, this remains true – beloved of God, part of God’s plan to love the world. Non-negotiable and permanent.