The Wilderness & Our Identity
February 21, 2021 (Lent 1B)
The Lessons for the First Sunday of Lent (Year B): Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; and, Mark 1:9-15.
When was the first time you heard the story of Jesus in the wilderness? For most of us who grew up in the Church, it was likely in Sunday School as a younger child. I can still picture the large poster that the Sunday School teacher put up in front of the class. It was one of those 1970s era, multimedia, tactile posters with felt landscape and raised images. At one end of the fuzzy felt, suitably wilderness-esque landscape was Satan, scrawny, red-suited, and fork-tailed. Honestly, the image was ridiculous, a joke in the making, with Satan stooped in the sand reaching for what was meant to be a stone shaped like a French baguette. Towards the center of the picture was the undisturbed and unconcerned Jesus towering over the landscape in a pristine white robe (because Jesus should not be dirty, not even in the harsh environs of wilderness).
In all fairness, the teacher was probably doing her best to ease our young imaginations into a possibly frightening story. And, indeed, we weren’t frightened! We probably were not nearly as frightened as we should have been by Satan, that time-honored and archetypal metaphor for evil. Jesus was the superhero! Not wholly a bad thing because Jesus was and is always victorious. However, and here is where the problem lies: Jesus was the superhero in a way that left no room for humanity. In my childhood and into my adulthood (and even through much of my time in the seminary) it never occurred to me that Jesus actually struggled in the wilderness. I never wondered if Jesus hurt or felt lonely, or if he hungered and thirsted. I never asked if Jesus wrestled with who he was or if he questioned his vocation. I just assumed that Jesus was the superhero whose triumph over evil was a foregone conclusion. I presumed that Jesus’ trial in the wilderness cost Jesus nothing.
It took me a long time to shed that Jesus of my childhood, made all the harder by the uber-maschuline, muscled, chiselled-abs Jesus of the cross that graced our church. I sometimes still long the mighty and magical Jesus, the superhero whose divinity can overwhelm his humanity like a bright and reassuring halo. Alas, this is the season of Lent, the season of shadow and penitence when our certainties go into the fire and burn down to ash. Moreover, this is Lent after a year of pandemic, so we need Jesus’ humanity now more than ever.
All of that to say: It would be a mistake to read Jesus’s wilderness experience as a story of facile triumph. Jesus wrestled with real demons and real dangers during those forty days of temptation. Jesus struggled in the wilderness and it cost Jesus dearly. And I think that we need to know this truth even as alluring as might be sometimes to cling to the image of the unflinching superhero. I think we need to know this Jesus who endured the wilderness because the wilderness is the place where we dwell. It is the terrain where the Holy Spirit, Satan, the wild beasts, and the angels reside together! And we will survive such a place in, with, and through the companion who knows the way.
Mark, unlike Matthew and Luke, offers us no extraneous details about Jesus’s experience in the wilderness. We don’t learn the specifics of the temptations nor how Jesus responded. Mark, instead, offers just a few sentences:
“The Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was with the wild beasts, and angels waited on him.”
As I reflect on Mark’s version of the story, three details stand out to me:
First, Jesus didn’t choose the wilderness. Jesus wasn’t on retreat or engaging in some sort of expedition. It wasn’t a scheduled event. Instead, the Spirit of God “drove” Jesus into the wilderness. The Greek word here is ekballein, which is also used in the descriptions of Jesus driving out demons. In other words, the Spirit compelled Jesus to go, maybe even with some resistance, to the wild place of desolation.
I actually find that a comforting little detail. It rings true to life. After all, we don’t normally choose to enter the wilderness. We don’t volunteer for isolation, loss, and pain. Except for the odd movie or haunted house, we don’t volunteer for terror and danger. Nevertheless, the wilderness happens! It might come disguised as a devastating pandemic, a frightening medical diagnosis, a broken relationship, or a hurting child. It might be the loss of faith or the absence of God. Whatever it is, the wilderness is usually unbidden and unwelcome.
This is not to say that God wills bad things to happen nor that God wants us to suffer. Indeed, God desires neither of those. But God is always ready to shape us and redeem us even in the most testing and barren of times. That’s the starting economy of God – that even in the dangerous wilderness can be holy and lead to the revelation of the divine presence. Such is not because God provokes the wilderness or because God revels in our pain, loss, and fear; but, rather, this is such because we live in a fragile world, chaotic and broken. We live in a world of wilderness and God’s way is to take the things of shadow and death, and breathe new life into them.
Second, the wilderness is about affirming identity. Note that the gospel-storytellers place the scene in the wilderness immediately after the scene of Jesus’ baptism. In Mark’s version, Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan, which acted as a public declaration of intent to be a follower of Yahweh and to begin the mission which he was given. In other words, through baptism, Jesus has declared himself to be a certain kind of person engaged in the struggle for justice against the powers of evil and empire (here represented by Satan the wild beasts). Then, after Jesus rose from the waters of the Jordan, the heavens opened, and God announced Jesus’ identity:
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Immediately following Jesus’ engagement in this public act which establishes his identity as a committed follower of Yahweh (in a world, by the way, where such committed followers of Yahweh where hanging on crosses)…immediately after Jesus sets himself up against the powers of empire and religious corruption, Jesus is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness. And there, in the wilderness, the personification of evil, Satan (the tempter), visits Jesus a visit for the purpose of distracting Jesus from his mission and enticing Jesus to follow Satan (again, the personification of evil) instead of Yahweh. Mark has set us up with the revelation of Jesus’ identity (and mission) followed immediately by Satan’s attempt to dissuade Jesus from living that identity (and mission). I sometimes wonder about the interior life of Jesus in this scene. The gospellers don’t reveal anything, but I wonder what if anything happened to Jesus’ sense of identity and belonging as the wilderness experience stretched on. At his baptism, Jesus heard the absolute truth about who he was and in the wilderness that truth is assaulted and mocked.
The forty days in the wilderness were a time of self-identification and of self-creation, a time for Jesus to decide who he really was and how he would live out his identity. And here is what the Son of God chose: Integrity (not Power), Honesty (not Mendacity), Virtue (not Venality). Jesus could have reached for power, greed, and falsehood, but Jesus instead chose integrity, honesty, and virtue. Alas, there is nothing easy about affirming Jesus’ choice. Don’t we sometimes find them appalling, in our actions if not our words. Power and privilege are sometimes preferred! The miraculous intervention and the dramatic rescue are the long-awaited vindication. After all, there is so much good that I can do with power and privilege (the preacher said sarcastically)! But such is not our identity and ought not be our life!
We (like Jesus) are beloved followers of Yahweh, children of the most high God, and we have a life to live in that identity! But sometimes we (like Jesus) need the wilderness to affirm our identity and to learn what it really means to be God’s children! That is what Lent is – the wilderness of affirmation! So, to use the questions posed by W.E.B. Dubois: How does integrity face oppression? What does honesty do in the face of deception? What does decency do in the face of insult? How does virtue meet brute force? Our answer will make all the difference.
Third, there were angels in the wilderness. Even in the wilderness, in the land of Satan and starvation, in the land where the wild beasts roamed, God’s messengers lingered to minister. What an absolutely startling and comforting truth! Even in the grimmest places, God abides! Somehow, often without reason or explanation, rest comes and help arrives with divine visitation. Our angels might not appear in the way we expect or in the form we prefer, but they come!
The angels that ministered to Jesus, what did they look like? Were they manifest as mighty winged creatures descending from the heavens, or did they appear as manna on the dewy ground? Were they recognized as a comforting breeze on sun-scorched hills, as a trickle of water for a dry and thirsty mouth or as a beautiful constellation in the clear night sky? How do your angels appear? Do you know them when they minister to you, bracing you, caring for you, and loving you, calling out to you as a new version of God’s voice, “You are my beloved!”? What would it be like to enter into someone else’s wilderness and be for them the ministering angel for their journey?
Our Lent has begun! On the journey, I pray that we may know the company of Jesus, and enter with courage the wilderness before us. May our time testing among the wild beasts teach us our true identity as precious children of God. Then, when the angels in all their sweet and secret guises whisper the name “beloved” into our ears, may we listen and believe.