The Wilderness in Humanity
This week’s sacred story comes from Matthew 4:1-17 where, after being baptized, Jesus is drawn into wilderness and joins in the deeply human experience of temptation . Read the full text here.
The wilderness is a dangerous place. There, you don't have the things that normally protect you. People can get lost there. The wilderness can also be a beautiful place, if you can learn to appreciate it for what it is, instead of resenting it for what it's not.
The wild and isolated places in nature are a fair reflection of the vulnerable and solitary places in our own lives. When by choice or by circumstance, we find ourselves standing alone, in the midst of a world we cannot ultimately control. But that does not mean we are doomed or helpless. Standing alone can also be brave and necessary. I saw an article this past week that talked about Mary Oliver as the poet who saw the wilderness in humanity. It reminded me that we are created in harmony with wildness. God has made us with the same resilience as the cedars that takes root on windy mountain tops, yet stand for 100s of years. It's who we are. This is the nature of humanity. It's is a humanity that Jesus shares.
Immediately following his baptism, after it’s made public and clear that his identity is as one who is good and beloved in the eyes of God, immediately life gets hard. Jesus is alone in the wilderness and is brought face to face with a competing voice that wants to undermine those proclamations and promises.
A life in God doesn't mean that everything will now magically be easy or that you'll be prosperous and perfect. And I know that I've personally heard that message a few times before, but I don't hear it's translation very often. Because if life with God doesn't mean that life will be easy, if even Jesus has a hard time...that also means that when my life is hard, it's not just because I'm just a crap person.
The Devil tries to reduce the comprehensive Word of God into sound bytes, which in turn, reduces the divine promises of life and love to a transactional God, a tit for tat system of redemption, and a formulaic faith. This casts the contradictions of the Bible (which starts with Genesis 1 and 2), as a problem to distract us and a weapon to be wielded, rather than a testament to the wide range of God throughout time. The devil is all about tricking us into believing that things are smaller or less than than the fullness of what they really are. Jesus points to a bigger picture.
The temptations presented boil down to our most basic needs, and twisted to prey on our most elemental fears: our physical need twisted into a fear of scarcity, our need for safety twisted into a question of Gods fidelity, our desire for power and control twisted into a desire for acquisition and dominance. The Devil tries to make claims about who Jesus is, who Gods is and how God is, that utilize half-truths (also known as lies) and then twists them to undermine the full truth of who we are created to be.
What are the claims you hear and experience that make you question and wrestle with who God has declared you to be as beloved? What is around you that contradicts God’s promise that you will be cared for, that God will never forsake you, and that you are already powerful?
What gives you strength/courage to stand up to and defy those claims? Those forces?
God isn't above temptation, watching from afar in order to test us. God, in Jesus, through the Spirit, is drawn right into the thick of the wilderness too. God knows what it is to question and be questioned in the ways that matter most, to feel utterly alone.
Temptation isn’t a test of faith where we have to prove ourselves good enough for God, or suffer in order to be loved. It is what it is. God loves us at our best and our worst, and bids us to remember that even in the wilderness...Love is the way, and the truth, and the life.
Jesus doesn't overcome this temptation by being so divine that he is immune, because at the same time he is just as deeply human as we are. He answers these half-truths of the Devil by sinking his hips deep into the full truth of who he is. And God says that this is who we are, too. We are beloved, we belong, and we are already powerful. This was a guiding light for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who we remember this weekend, that we are indeed already powerful, that all people have dignity and agency and can make a powerful difference, but through nonviolence, through building bridge where there was division.
This is what Jesus is steeped in and comes to embrace as he begins the part of his life which we call public ministry, which changes the world. Imagine how the world will be changed as we sink into and embrace our identity as beloved and powerful? It is nothing particularly fancy or magical, but it is simple and true...which is both more difficult and more liberating.
Hear a final Word from Mary Oliver, through her poem, “Wild Geese”
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.