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Reflection March 8, 2020
“Once More Into the Wilderness” by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
While I discussed Lent a bit in Sunday’s sermon, the focus was again on Parker Palmer’s book. So I decided to put some Lenten reflections in this week’s Advance.
Lent begins with Jesus’ baptism by John and then Jesus being driven out into the wilderness. The text in Mark 1:12, the earliest account of Jesus’ life, proclaims that “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” The word used in the Greek has a great immediacy to it – something akin to being hurled – like a javelin. So – in other words, the Spirit hurls Jesus out into the wilderness.
Why? In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus is driven into the wilderness after his baptism – prior to beginning his ministry. It seems Jesus needed do this before he could start his public ministry.
What does the Spirit of God do? The Spirit of God always leads us from falsehood into truth. The Spirit of God is always leading us from slavery to freedom. The Spirit of God is always leading us from the brokenness of sin into the wholeness of holiness. The Spirit of God is always leading us from where we are to where God wants us to be.
Jesus needed the wilderness to confront his own humanity, to wrestle with the heights and depths of his human nature. We know from Hebrews 4:15 that in Jesus we have “one who in every respect has been tempted as we are; yet without sin.”
Jesus was tempted in every way as we are because he was as fully human as we. Jesus wasn’t God pretending to be human as some of the early church heresies argued (especially the Donatists).
Yet we can well ask: What does it mean to be human? What word or words would we use to describe what it’s like being human?
Being human is a great gift given to each of us by our Creator but the gift of becoming fully human is not an easy process. The older we get, the more we recognize this truth. Becoming fully human means we must confront the mix of light and dark residing in every heart and soul.
To become fully human necessitates being tempted – tested – by the wild beasts of our own nature. To become fully human necessitates being hurled into the wilderness to battle our innate capacity for evil. As I mentioned this past Sunday, we must all wrestle with angels and demons.
Jesus had to engage in this battle so it shouldn’t surprise us that each of us must do the same. Like the Israelites after escaping the slavery of Egypt are led into the desert for forty years, so Jesus is led into the wilderness for forty days and forty nights. Just as the Israelites were prepared during their time in the desert for the battles they would face on entering the Promised Land, so Jesus is prepared in the wilderness for the battles he will face in his ministry.
The Jewish people at the time of Jesus saw the world as being controlled by the forces of evil. Jesus himself in John 14:30, talks about Satan as the ruler of this world. There was a constant battle going on between the forces of good and the forces of evil.
The kings and those in power were often tyrants, generating evil and inflicting suffering upon those under their control. Is this not still the case in many places in our world? Tyrants and all varieties of bullies belong to the forces of evil still threatening our world today. We may use different images and different language than those at the time of Jesus but the dynamics have not changed very much over time.
I’ve preached about this dynamic on a number of occasions. The forces of evil, in Jesus’ time, were usually spoken of as “demons.” Demons were believed to live in the wilderness. To go into the wilderness meant to bring the fight right into the enemies’ camp. As the South African Albert Nolan writes in “Jesus Before Christianity”: “Jesus saw his liberating activity as a kind of power struggle with Satan, a warfare against the power of evil in all its shapes and forms.” The best place to begin this battle, then, would be in the wilderness.
Jesus in the wilderness is the one who fearlessly goes out to do battle with the forces of evil. By confronting his own fears, Jesus becomes a person without fear. As Albert Nolan notes: “There are no traces of fear in Jesus … He was not afraid of creating a scandal or losing his reputation or even losing his life.”
Having emerged victorious from his struggle with temptation, with being tested by the forces of evil, Jesus is fully prepared for his ministry of healing and bringing salvation to our tyranny-terrorized world. As God speaks in Isaiah 48:10: “See, I have refined you … I have tested you in the furnace of adversity.” Jesus is tested through the “furnace of adversity.”
The path to salvation, to ultimate healing and complete freedom, takes us into the wilderness. We must, like Jesus, be hurled by the Spirit into battle. We need to be tempted, to be tested “in the furnace of adversity”. We need to confront our own darkness. Jesus confronted evil and became totally free through that confrontation. We are called to a similar freedom.
Jesus is the one who shows us the journey we must undertake. We must come face-to-face with our own demons, with our own evil. Too often we project our personal darkness onto other people or things. But in the wilderness, there is little to project onto. The wilderness holds up for us a large mirror, demanding us to confront who we are. In the wilderness there are no walls to escape behind. In the wilderness there are few hiding places.
Many times we refuse to be driven into the wilderness because we are rightly afraid. We fear the evil lurking within us. After all, as the old-time radio show asked: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?”
We fear admitting the darkness that is mingled with our humanity. We hide from ourselves. We hide out in drugs and alcohol. We hide out in our possessions. We hide out in prestige and status. We hide out behind positions of power. We hide out in relationships that remain shallow.
We hide out because we’re afraid. We’re afraid of confronting our darkness because we’re afraid of temptations. We’ve sometimes been taught to avoid temptations. We’ve been taught to run from battle. And so we never fully follow Jesus. We never really go on his liberating journey.
In the fourth and fifth centuries, many men and women fled from society into the deserts of the Middle East. They wanted to follow the example of Christ by taking the battle into the enemies’ camp. The record of their struggles makes for insightful reading. What they learned in the desert, in the wilderness, teaches us still.
One of the stories from these desert Christians makes an important point which I have used long ago. A desert father by the name of John the Dwarf, presumably given the name because of his small stature, had prayed to God to take away all his passions, to free him from all temptations. His prayer was answered. In this condition, he went to one of the elders and declared that he was completely at rest, having no more temptations.
The elder, being wise, told John that he had prayed for the wrong thing. John should go back to God and ask that some struggle be stirred up within him. The soul, the elder said, could only be matured in battle. So John prayed to God as he had been told. And when the temptations began again, John did not ask God to take the struggle away from him. He prayed instead, “Lord, give me strength to get through the fight.”
Our faith is a fight, a struggle, a journey. Faith is the journey from slavery to freedom. Faith is the journey from sin to salvation. Faith is the journey from passivity to compassion. Faith is the journey from the wilderness to the cross to Easter morning.
As we again enter into our Lenten time, this is the perfect time to face what needs facing. This is the perfect time to do battle with evil in all its many disguises. This is the perfect time to allow the power of the wilderness burn away the final traces of slavery, to burn away the marks of our shackles, to leave us completely unfettered.
In the wilderness we may have angels waiting on us. Jesus was not the first to be fed by angels in the desert, in the wilderness. The Israelites in their sojourn through the desert were fed with manna which Psalm 78:25 speaks of as “the bread of angels.”
The prophet Elijah fleeing from the wife of King Ahab, Jezebel, was fed by an angel. One meal from that angel, as recounted in 1 Kings 19, gave Elijah the strength to journey for forty days and forty nights to Mount Horeb for his encounter with God.
Lent is the time when are called to take some risks. As the theologian Paul Tillich noted: “The person who risks and fails can be forgiven. The one who never risks and never fails is a failure in his (or her) whole being.” As we allow the Spirit to hurl us into the wilderness, let us undertake the journey of liberation, the journey of Jesus.
As I preached last Sunday: God can only be found where the wild things are found. Our faith is a wild thing and when we free it, it will rush after God with wild abandon. May this Lent be a time when we free our faith and let it take us into the wilderness where God waits for us!
Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor