Into the Wilderness

Matthew 4:1-11 and Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

I invite you to join me in a spirit of prayer. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

I have shared with some of you that since I arrived here in Colorado, it has started to become normal for me to receive unkind words in cards and letters telling me and us that we are not Christian or that we are unbiblical. Over my ministry, I have generally taken such notes as a compliment, since someone took the time to invest in crafting something to tell me how wrong I am. What seems to tick them off the most is that our thread of the Christian tradition understands the Bible more as Truth than fact. We look for patterns, lessons and bigger themes, probing for the wisdom of God in our lives. You might have heard me or other progressive Christians say that we don’t take the Bible literally, but we take it seriously, which means we actually believe that this ancient book of books has Truth with a capital T for us right now.

We know that Genesis is not a science lesson on how planet earth was made, but we also know that it is filled with truths on what happens when humans tinker with God’s perfect garden biosphere- when we don’t acknowledge how fragile we truly are. And today, we read of Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness, just as we ourselves begin the 40 day Lenten journey, while at the same time, it feels like a wilderness time in our country on planet earth.

As you heard in Gospel of Matthew, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness and perhaps for some of us, it feels like we are right there with him. Multiple forces are colliding- with leaders who disagree about facts and the validity of science, and a situation in many places, in which people don’t have access to adequate healthcare. As Anand Giridharadas wrote this week, “we are only as safe as that of the worst-insured, worst-cared for person in your society. It will be decided by the height of the floor, not the ceiling.” And that is all happening amid an intentional stirring of fear among us in an election year, where there is mistrust of not just data and processes, but of one another. Where once, political opponents could eat lunch and be friends who thought differently, now we are told that we are enemies. This is not just between political parties, but within them and with ties among families, business colleagues and friends as well.

We are in a wilderness time and in the biblical sense this means we are in time of struggle. In fact in the Bible, if you see the number 40 that is a cue that a challenging experience awaits. Here are just some examples where we have the number 40 and a struggle: Noah and the flood in Genesis, Moses fasting alone on Mt. Sinai, Elijah on Mt. Horeb for 40 days and the list goes on. And as one theologian wrote, wilderness struggles are those that “will lay bare one’s deepest passion and loyalty.” That’s the thing about wilderness times about periods of struggle- they demand to know what we love the most. They force us to consider immediately which of these competing values do we care about more, when we are left with no protection but whatever we ourselves can muster. And wilderness kinds of struggles also include challenges where it seems as if the Universe is asking us to summon something beyond what we are typically capable of. Sometimes people will even say something like, “I feel like I am being tested!”

And in that space, we are being forced by circumstances to somehow, in some way, find a new posture, a new capacity, something like what can only be described as a new power.

In this story of Jesus in the wilderness, he is tested three times and as Douglas John Hall points out, all of the tests are a variation on the theme of power. Jesus is symbolically asked to try and defy the laws of nature in the first test. In the second test he is asked to turn down the power of getting all of the attention or as one writer says, saying no to being a spectacle, even throwing in some angels to sweeten the pot. The third one is about the temptation of the power that comes with political influence.

Jesus is told he can have all of the kingdoms and riches of the world if he devotes himself to another kind of god. Mystic and Catholic Priest Richard Rohr suggests that first Jesus is turning down the need to look good, second he is turning down the need to think of himself as superior, third he is turning down the need to be in control.

We should note that the word Devil is drawn from the Greek words dia and ballo so as Robert Bryant writes, this together means “to throw over or across,” in its broadest usage, the noun comes to mean “the one who attacks, misleads, deceives, diverts, discredits, or slanders.”

Jesus says no to being thrown off and thrown over onto a different path, he encounters the Devil and wins, which makes me wonder if over those 40 days he was claiming and cultivating, another kind of power within himself. The wilderness might be hard, but it can be instructive, transformative, or put another way, speaking from experience, the wilderness can be a lab for courage and the chance to develop inner possibilities and power we didn’t know was there.

Our theme for the Lent this year is Heightening Our Senses: how can we tune our ears, our eyes and hearts to draw from deep within the internal wells of ourselves? Perhaps any wilderness time can be for us a time of claiming, cultivating and activating our inner power and using it to protect what is sacred. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

So I have been pondering what new superpowers our church might we cultivate in these difficult weeks ahead, into the wilderness in which we find ourselves? What powers have remained dormant because they weren’t needed and it was easier? What is already present here within us individually and collectively that we haven’t needed until now?

We are in a different moment, in our interconnected web of existence, a moment that say to us: when everything is stripped back, who are you?

And in this wilderness time, we can follow the words of the poet Walt Whitman, “stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body...”

Into the wilderness we are called by God, beckoned by history, to claim and cultivate the power given to us, to share who we are, in a time when the Church is so needed.

And it’s not a red man with a pitch fork that we are seeking to stop, it is our own tendencies to believe the worst about those deemed as other. It is all of the forces and faces, that attack what is good, that mislead from what is true, that divert from what is fair, discredit what is worthy, slander what is right…

Into the wilderness we go, but know this, you are “larger, better than you thought; you did not know you held so much goodness,” so into the wilderness we go, let us harness the power already within each of us to correct everything that stands against love, bringing out what was there all along, what has been gifted to us and modeled to us by Jesus, to find grit, courage and the willpower to remain strong as we dare to face the Devils of this day. May it be so.

Photo Credit: Arto Marttinen

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