Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Luke 4:1-13
Our text today inspired me to go back and look through C.S. Lewis’ classic, The Screwtape Letters. The little novel takes the form of a series of letters from a senior Demon, Screwtape, to his nephew Wormwood, a Junior Tempter. The uncle is mentoring his nephew in his responsibility to secure the damnation of a person known only as “the Patient.” He must make sure that “the Enemy” (Screwtape’s name for God) doesn’t manage to secure the Patient’s heart. The second epistle begins:
My dear Wormwood, I note with grave displeasure that your patient has become a Christian…. We must make the best of the situation. There is no need to despair; hundreds of these adult converts have been reclaimed after a brief sojourn in the Enemy’s camp and are now with us. All the habits of the patient, both mental and bodily, are still in our favour…. Work hard… on the disappointment or anticlimax which is certainly coming to the patient during his first few weeks as a churchman. The Enemy allows this disappointment to occur on the threshold of every human endeavour…. In every department of life it marks the transition from dreaming aspiration to laborious doing. [Lewis, C. S. (2009-05-28). The Screwtape Letters. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition, p. 5, 7.]
This is exactly the point at which we pick up Jesus’ story today – the transition from dreaming aspiration to laborious doing. Like the Patient, Jesus has just become a Christian – except that Christianity didn’t exist at the time. Jesus has just been baptized. But Jesus’ baptism was no ordinary baptism. When he came up out of the water a voice was heard from heaven declaring: “You are my son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Talk about a mountain-top experience!
Go out and conquer, might be the expected response. Success, wealth, honor, prestige! God is pleased with me. Nothing can go wrong! But instead, Spirit took him out into the wilderness for 40 days. I have often wondered what happened during those 40 days. Was it an extended Gethsemane experience, where Jesus wrestled nearly to death with his human and divine self? Would he have survived that? Or could it have been something more soul-filling?
There is an interesting, and probably intentional, comparison to Moses here. Moses spent his first 40 years of life in Pharaoh’s court, being lavished and groomed as Pharaoh’s beloved son. There he learned the way of power as the way to exercise his compassion for his cousins, the Hebrews. He became angrier and angrier, feeling righteous, too, for his cause was just. Finally, out of his anger, he killed an Egyptian man. Then his life, like a house of cards, began to fall in on him. To save his life, he high-tailed it to the wilderness, where he was taken in and shaped in the slow days and drudgery of wandering the wilderness with a flock of sheep.
For the next 40 years, this was his life. Did he spend his time in regret? Resentment? There is every indication that he completely rejected every part of his former life, even his compassion and connection to his own Hebrew people. Once bitten, twice shy. He had learned his lesson. There was no good to be gained from standing up for justice. He would just mind his own business out in the desert.
When God came to Moses at the end of those 40 years and said, in essence: “You are my son whom I love; with you I am well pleased,” Moses was suspicious. He wanted nothing to do with this God’s plan to send him back to Egypt, back into the pit of injustice to work for freedom.
Grudgingly, he went, as we know, and then spent the last 40 years of his life, as a mostly frustrated leader, with an ungrateful people. He led them back through the wilderness, where he had found peace; but they seemed to absorb none of it.
He was a hero. But so much of Moses’ story is sad and conflicted, interspersed with moments of deep communion with God – on Mt. Sinai, in front of the tent of meeting. Moses was perhaps one of the first mystics – at home and at peace alone with God; frustrated and out of his skill-set as a leader of the people.
With the example of Moses in his blood, Jesus too, was sent out to the wilderness to find his peace, his center. To become grounded and secure in his love of God and God’s love for him. He would need it in what came next.
When I read the story this way, the wilderness has a whole different significance. The wilderness was for Moses and for Jesus, their solid rock place, their refuge, their peace. It was the place they basked in the beauty of God.
We tend to think of the wilderness as a terrible place, but all the great heroes of faith went to the wilderness to find God – Abraham, Jacob, David, Elijah, Jeremiah, Jonah, Jesus, Paul – a few off the top of my head. In the Pacific Northwest, we have so much cushy moss growing around us, that we find the hardness of rock and dry ground harsh. We look away, or go to sleep when we pass through desert. I first noticed this when I lived in northeast Nevada. People would wonder how I could live there, with nothing for miles! I always wanted to say, that is because there is nothing in you which opens to this beauty. Here I see the colors of fall in the trailing weeds and sage, the crispness of spring in the soft, fresh greens. And the sky! Nothing can compare to the grandeur of the sky, with its clouds tumbling through, watching their paths for hundreds of miles.
No, maybe the wilderness was not such a bad place. In Hebrew, the word for wilderness is midbar. The root of midbar means “speak” or “word.” God speaks to us in the wilderness.
Wilderness is empty of trees, exposed. But that is part of what makes it holy – because there is nothing to hide us from the love of God. This was Jesus’ vision quest. His time to go into the wilderness to seek God, and God’s vision for his life.
I have a friend who went on a vision quest recently. A guide took him out into the wilderness of southern Utah and sent him into the wild by himself with a sleeping bag, a tent, a journal and some water. For four days, he saw no other human creatures. Mostly he was bored and frustrated for the first two days. But then his eyes began to open. His monkey brain quit chattering. God spoke to him, maybe not in words, but in a grand Ah-Ha! When he came back, his life was at peace. He had found his foundation. Most people who return from vision quests find their center there. Their eyes are opened and they see something that changes their lives and gives them a reason to live from that point on.
The three temptations of Jesus could be seen as a summary of the vision Jesus received during his wilderness time. They tell us what would center Jesus work from now on. Periodically, we find Jesus going back to the wilderness throughout his ministry – apparently to reconnect with that center. He always came back to the disciples deeply rested and ready for what was coming next.
Jesus was about to begin the work his life had prepared him to do. This was his life-dream, the thing that he would look back upon as his great accomplishment – these months of teaching and shaping a few disciples, whom he loved, with whom he was well pleased. These months of loving the people into health and well-being. These months of loving the people, with whom God is well pleased. Loving them into the Kingdom of God!
If this were me, looking to launch my life work, how would I understand these temptations? Rather than looking at the temptations the devil taunted Jesus with, let’s just look at the words of Jesus’ replies. Perhaps these are the strength he had gained in the wilderness. What vision emerged from his vision quest?
People do not live by bread alone (Luke 4:4). Love is what we live on. Jesus’ quest had begun with the announcement of God’s love for him. It was a journey into love, which sustained him beyond what is humanly imaginable. The loving companionship of God is enough.
When we go to the place of fear, wondering about God’s care, remember that there is nothing clearer in all of Scripture than: God loves you! That is the whole story. Jesus learned in the desert that food was not the source of life; instead, the love of God was life. This was the focus of Paul’s message, perhaps put most clearly in Romans 14:8 If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.
This seems to be rock-bottom foundation of the gospel – we are the Lord’s, in life or in death. That is good news indeed. Eagle Man said of his vision quest: The Great Spirit is not going to take your life up there while you are vision questing. And if it does, who cares? You’re in a good state. [http://native-americans-online.com/native-american-vision-quest.html] Sounds a lot like Paul.
Worship the Lord your God and serve God only (Luke 4:8). Keep your focus! As humans, we are so easily distracted by fear which is the opposite of love. God is love. Don’t lose sight of that love. Give your whole self to the love of God, who is above all and through all and in all (Eph. 4:8).
The people of Jesus’ day were just as susceptible to self-worship as we are today. One of the problems with the Jewish establishment, and many of the common people, was that they had confused the glorious Temple, with God, and their own plans and desires with God’s. No pointing fingers here. I have those pesky 3 fingers pointing back at me when I do.
Do not put the Lord your God to the test (Luke 4:12). How does this last one function as a foundation of the gospel? I have trouble putting this one in context without the verse the Devil quoted. You have read it several times this week, from Psalm 91, if you have been using the daily reading guide. Reading it over and over again this week, I finally noticed something I have missed in the past. This Psalm, and all its promises of protection are in the plural. They are for all of God’s people, God’s chosen ones. This Psalm is not about the Messiah being specially protected by God, but about God’s promise to all his beloved creatures.
God’s protection is for the whole people. Does that mean nothing bad will ever happen to anyone? No. But it does mean that when it does happen, God is there. No need for signs. The signs can actually be a distraction, letting our eyes drift from the clear center of the love of God.
It is all a journey of love. The labyrinth on the bulletin cover is there to reflect this. It is not a straight line. In all the twists and turns of the path, though, there is no fork in the road. It all goes to the center, and from the center leads us back to our life journey. The journey of love is like this. The desert vision quest is like this. As we walk through Lent with God and each other, may we rest assured that the twists and turns of the path are all within God’s love. That is the vision. That is the good news.