Lessons in the Wilderness
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” 12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. 14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
In the biblical narrative, creation is broken when humankind succumbs to the temptation to ‘be like God’—to live outside the limits of our creation. Instead of leaning into God’s care, the primal humans, Adam and Eve, tried to go it alone and depend upon their own wisdom. They separated themselves from God—with disastrous consequences. The Lenten journey is the means and the path to restore what God intended when we were created—and it, like the creation story, begins with temptation. How can we, how should we respond to the gifts of the Spirit?
Matthew and Luke have expanded and dramatic stories about the ways Jesus was tempted but Mark is very terse. Jesus is more literally infused by the presence of God when, in the greek, the Holy Spirit descends like a dove into him. Then, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness—as opposed to being led by the Spirit in the other gospels. In Mark, the wilderness experience is not just important, it is necessary for Jesus’ discernment of his call. It is one thing to realize we are chosen and we are loved. It is quite another to live life. Mark makes it clear that living life always includes wilderness. We do not get to skip that part and neither did Jesus. That said, Mark only provides one verse to describe the experience: “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”
We spent most of our discussion time in FIRL trying to describe contemporary applications for this verse. It is a language that most of us have heard but most of us do not use very often. Below is how we tried to make sense of the language.
TEMPTED BY SATAN
When we hear the word Satan, it is hard to get away from our images of a cartoon devil sprouting horns and a pitchfork. But when we back up and think of Satan as the personification of anything that leads us away from God and God’s promises, it was easier. God loves us and promises to love us—no questions asked. We are precious. We are also mortal, shortsighted, terribly vulnerable and prone to make idols out of self sufficiency, achievements, fame and righteousness. Most of us stay blind to the ways we live on the backs of others, we rationalize inequity and on a more local scale, seek agreement instead of respect. Ever since the beginning of humankind we have dichotomized the world into good and bad. That is God’s prerogative, not ours. We are sinners. In real life, it is very hard to believe that God loves such as us. It is hard to believe that God doesn’t say “l love you, but…”
In FIRL we called Satan, any personified force or influence that leads us away from God and toward our idolatries. Interesting, at least to me, both group’s list started with consumerism. They pointed to the constant stream of advertising that suggested life would be better if only we had a new car, a face lift, a peloton, a bigger IRA, a more attractive body…this list has no end. All of these things suggest that if we have more, we are better. Intellectually, we can see the flaw in our thinking but in real life, it is hard not to call such things ‘good’ as ends to themselves. Often, we hardly even question the never ending desire for more. If one car is good, two cars are better.
There is nothing wrong with any of these things, what is sinful is that they can erode our relationship with God. There is nothing wrong with marketing, per se, any more than there is something wrong with dancing, playing cards, sex or alcohol. Banning an activity does not address the actual temptation. An addict does not drink because of alcohol.
There is a whole category of self talk that is satanic. When self-talk suggests we are not enough, we need to do more or when we find ourselves making comparisons which turn differences into value judgments, we are in trouble. We put ourselves on a treadmill existence in which safety, love and acceptance is always just beyond our reach. We separate ourselves from God’s promises. We live our lives on secular standards. On those standards, we will never be enough, there will always be more we could or should do. We live our lives judging ourselves and others and lean toward chronic inadequacy and/or puffed up entitlement. That is not what God wants for us—but the temptations are everywhere.
Jesus emerges from his temptations with new clarity. He says: ““The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” The wilderness taught him about his own vulnerability, dependence upon God and the reliability of the good news.
WITH THE WILD BEASTS
My first thought when I started thinking about what wild beasts we live with is that such beasts were threatening and bad. But Alex asked me, ‘Are the wild beasts bad?’ A very good question. She exposed my tendency to label what frightens me as bad. I would argue that many of our racial and ethic prejudices emerge from such reflexive reactions. There are more wild beasts than I can count in the real world. There are literally predators who threaten lives. But far more common places are the anxiety and fears we have concerning our security, our relationships and our self image. In conflicts, we fear loss and broken relationships. We fear that we will be exposed as insufficient and we will be left. We fear we will be found lacking.
I have a couple in major conflict. The husband is desperate. He simultaneously complains and fears his wife does not love him. He copes by getting suddenly demanding and angry—and then becoming placating and compliant. He proclaims his love for her and seeks reconciliation but it is increasingly clear, he is more interested in keeping what he knows than showing regard for her. The wife is painfully aware of the disconnect and fundamentally does not trust her husband’s professions of love but she does not want to be the ‘bad guy’—-the person who says explicitly: “This is not working”. It has been a relationship choreographed by fear. In this moment both feel like victims of the other.
Our fears and anxieties become wild beasts in our lives. They can range from the trauma of grief and the harsh confrontations with our own mortality to worrying about how to dress for a party or how many likes we get on Facebook. We do not get to arbitrate what people fear. We need to recognize that when people are afraid, their ability to show regard goes way down. We get defensive, snippy and adversarial.
In psychology we say: “The way out is through the bottom.” Scripturally we say, “We live with the wild beasts.” That is a major faith claim and it is a huge ask. As one humorist put it, “The lamb may lay down with the lion—but he won’t get much sleep.” Jesus was called to live with what he feared in the full knowledge that he could be killed. And he was. He did so because he was infused with the Holy Spirit. He did so because his relationship with God was unbroken—even when he felt desolate and abandoned. Don’t be tempted to think we can be Jesus. We are called to follow—not be him.
ANGELS WAITED ON HIM
We all need reminders; we all need grace notes in our lives that remind us of God’s presence and promises. In FIRL we talked about the people in our lives that have shown up when we needed them, of notes sent both ‘out of the blue’ as well as in times of crisis. Some spoke of terrible diagnoses that evoked a quiet confidence that: Whatever comes, “we can deal with it.” And some talked about the quiet peace that comes when we accept how little we can actually control. We don’t know what Jesus experienced. It might have been finding food or water. It might have been finding shade. It might have been hearing a wild beast but not being attacked. However he experienced the presence of God, it sustained him and allowed him to live in a dangerous place and still feel God’s love.
We are vulnerable creatures who cannot assure our own safety. The wilderness, real life, teaches us who we are. Understanding is not sufficient. We must walk the walk. I believe that is why Jesus was driven into the wilderness. It was the beginning of his lesson on how to live within ourselves. We do not like our vulnerability and often call it ‘bad’. We strive in all kinds of ways to manage our own lives. If such efforts are in the service of being all of who we are created to be, we live in service to God. If however, our efforts are more in service of our fears and denial, we will live anxious, afraid and defensive. In real life, that is the human way. Jesus came to interrupt this cycle of self defeating death. It began in the wilderness.
Once we say yes to God, God only knows what will happen next. We are dependent children in the hands of God. Trust in him. Let it be so.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.