For Sunday March 10, 2019
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
“God hates nothing God has made. Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.” These are the words my priest will say to me as I begin my Lenten journey this week. As she marks my forehead with ashes, I’ll contemplate a huge and bewildering paradox: I am beloved of God. And I will die. The first truth does not prevent the second. The second truth does not negate the first.
In many ways, this is the same paradox Jesus wrestles with in our Gospel reading for the first week of Lent. At his baptism, Jesus hears the bottom-line truth about his identity: he is God’s Son, precious and beloved. But when the Spirit leads him into the wilderness, he has to face some powerful assaults on that truth. He has to learn how to experience love in a bleak and lonely wasteland. He has to trust that he can be beloved and famished, precious and "insignificant," valued and vulnerable at the same time. He has to learn that God's care resides within his flesh-and-blood humanity. To be beloved is not to transcend the other, grimmer truth, the truth of dust and ashes: he will die.
The devil offers Jesus three opportunities to walk away from this essential lesson. As I reflect on each of them, I wonder how they might become invitations for us — invitations to trust God’s love in the barren places of our own lives.
The first temptation targets Jesus’s hunger. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” The temptation implies that God’s beloved should not hunger. In the devil’s economy, unmet desire is an unnecessary aberration, not an integral part of what it means to be human. In inviting Jesus to magically sate his hunger, the devil invites Jesus to deny the reality of the incarnation. To “cheat” his way to satisfaction, instead of waiting, paying attention to his hunger, and leaning into God for its lasting fulfillment. Along the way, the devil encourages Jesus to disrespect and manipulate creation for his own satisfaction. To turn what is not meant to be eaten — a stone — into an object he can exploit. As if the stone has no intrinsic value, beauty, or goodness, apart from Jesus’s ability to possess and consume it.
Many of us have “given up” something for Lent this year. Chocolate, wine, TV, Facebook. The goal is to sit with our hungers, our wants, our desires — and learn what they have to teach us. What is the hunger beneath the hunger? Can we hunger and still live? Desire and still flourish? Lack and still live generously, without exploiting the beauty and abundance all around us? Who and where is God when we are famished for whatever it is we long for? Friendship, meaning, intimacy? A home, a savings account, a family?
I write these words with trepidation, because I know what it is to let hunger gnarl and embitter me. Hunger in and of itself is not a virtue, it’s a classroom. To sit patiently with desire — to become its student — and still embrace my identity as God’s beloved, is hard. It’s very, very hard. But this is the invitation. We can be loved and hungry at the same time. We can hope and hurt at the same time. Most of all, we can trust that when God nourishes us, it won’t be by magic. It won’t be manipulative and disrespectful. It won’t necessarily be the food we’d choose for ourselves, but it will feed us, nevertheless. And through us — if we will learn to share — it will feed the world.
The second temptation targets Jesus’s ego. After showing Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world,” the devil promises him glory and authority. “It will all be yours,” the devil says. Fame. Visibility. Recognition. Clout. A kingdom to end all kingdoms, here and now. The implication is that God’s beloved need not labor in obscurity. To be God’s child is to be center stage: visible, applauded, admired, and envied. A God who really loves us will never “abandon” us to a modest life, lived in what the world considers insignificance.
That Christians tend to have an uneasy relationship with power is an understatement. Church history is littered with the ugly fallout of “Christian” ambition, power, fame, and authority gone awry. So the question for us is whether we can embrace Jesus’s version of significance, a significance borne of humility and surrender. How important is it to us that we’re noticed? Praised? Liked? Is our belief in God’s love for us contingent on a definition of success that doesn’t come from God at all? Can we trust that God sees us even when the powers-that-be do not? Can our lives as God’s beloved ones thrive in quiet places? Secret places? Humble places?
The uncomfortable truth about authentic Christian power is that it resides in weakness. Jesus is lifted up — but he's lifted up on a cross.
The third temptation targets Jesus’s vulnerability. “[God] will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,” the devil promises Jesus. “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” The implication is that if we are beloved of God, then God will keep us safe. Safe from physical and emotional harm, safe from frailty and disease, safe from accidents, safe from death.
It’s such an enticing lie, because it targets our deepest fears about what it means to be human in a broken, dangerous world. We want so much — so much — to believe that we can leverage our belovedness into an impenetrable shield. That we can get God to guarantee us swift and perfect rescues if we just believe hard enough. But no. If the cross teaches us anything, it teaches us that God’s precious children still bleed, still ache, still die. We are loved in our vulnerability. Not out of it.
Three temptations. Three invitations. What will we do with them?
In some ways, Jesus’s struggle in the wilderness brings the ancient story of human temptation full circle. "Can you be like God?" is the question the snake poses to Adam and Eve in the lushness of the first garden. “Will you dare to know what God knows?” In the wilderness, the devil offers Jesus a clever inversion of those primordial questions: "Can you be fully human? Can you exercise restraint? Abdicate power? Accept danger? Can you bear what it means to be mortal?”
If those forty days in the wilderness was a time of self-creation, a time for Jesus to decide who he was and how he would live out his calling, then here is what he chose: emptiness over fullness. Obscurity over honor. Vulnerability over rescue. At every instance when Jesus could have reached for the magical, the glorious, and the safe, he reached instead for the mundane, the invisible, and the risky.
The Gospel tells us that Jesus didn’t choose to enter the wilderness. The Spirit led him there. But here's the kicker: Jesus chose to stay until the work of the wilderness was over. We don’t always choose to enter wildernesses, either. We don’t volunteer for pain, loss, danger, or terror. But the wilderness happens. Whether it comes to us in the guise of a hospital waiting room, a thorny relationship, a troubled child, a sudden death, or a crippling panic attack, the wilderness appears, unbidden and unwelcome, at our doorsteps. It insists on itself. And sometimes — can we bear to ponder this? — it is God’s own Spirit who drives us into the parched landscape amidst the wild beasts. Does this mean that God wills bad things to happen to us? That he wants us to suffer? I don’t think so. Does it mean that God can redeem even the most barren periods of our lives, if we choose to stay and pay attention? Does it mean that our deserts can become holy even as they remain dangerous? Yes.
What does this mean for us as we begin our Lenten journeys this year? Maybe it means it’s time to follow Jesus into the desert. It’s time to stay and look evil in the face. Time to hear evil’s voice, recognize its allure, and confess its appeal. It’s time to decide who we are and whose we are. Remember, Lent is not a time to do penance for being human. It’s a time to embrace all that it means to be human. Human and hungry. Human and vulnerable. Human and beloved.
May God in his great love grant us a holy and meaningful Lent.
Notes on Artists:
- Chris Cook is a British painter known for works in graphite powder and resin, which have been exhibited in several major museums in the United States.
- Briton Riviere (1840-1920) was a British artist of Huguenot descent.His work is held by many public institutions, including the Tate, the Metropolitan Musuem of Art, and the University of London.