For Sunday March 6, 2022
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 many of us hear in church as we begin our Lenten journeys. Our priests impose ashes on our foreheads, say these challenging words, and invite us to face a bewildering paradox: we are beloved of God. And we will die. The first truth does not prevent the second. The second truth does not negate the first.
After two years of a global pandemic that has taken nearly six million lives worldwide, we’ve had ample opportunity to witness life — beautiful, singular, and robust human life — crumbling to dust and ashes. This week, as our brothers and sisters in Ukraine and Russia face the terrors and losses of war, we are once again asked to consider what it means that we — all of us, regardless of where we live or what political views we espouse — are small, mortal, vulnerable, and defenseless.
In many ways, this is the same reality 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 a series of powerful assaults on that truth. He has to learn how to discern God's presence in a bleak and lonely wasteland. He has to trust that he can be beloved and famished, valued and vulnerable at the same time. He has to learn that God's care resides within his flesh-and-blood humanity — within a fragile vessel that can crack and shatter. To be beloved is not to transcend the other, grimmer truth, the truth of dust and ashes. We 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 lives. Because it’s one thing to trust God in retrospect, when our hardships are over. It is quite another to trust God in the moment, when the comforts and certainties we cling to burn to ash.
The first temptation in the wilderness targets Jesus’s hunger. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” This 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 “give up” something for Lent each year. Chocolate, wine, television, Facebook. The goal of these fasts 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. But this is the invitation of Lent. To learn that we can be loved and hungry at the same time. That we can hope and hurt at the same time. The deprivations of the wilderness teach us that when God nourishes us, the nourishment won’t be manipulative and disrespectful. It won’t necessitate a violation of God’s good creation. The food God gives 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 bask in glory under the stage lights: 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 have an uneasy relationship with power is a laughable 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 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 and obscure 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. His power is the power of self-surrender for the sake of love.
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 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 ones still bleed, still ache, still die. We are loved in our vulnerability. Not out of it. We are the children of a God who accompanies us in our suffering, not a God who guarantees us a lifetime of immunity. Why is this good news? It is good news because we are also the children of a God who resurrects. There is no suffering we will ever endure that God will not redeem. The story of humanity is not a story that ends in despair. It’s a story that culminates at an empty tomb, in a kingdom of hope, healing, consolation, and joy.
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 Jesus's forty days in the wilderness is a time of self-creation, a time for the Son of God to decide who he is and how he will live out his calling, then here is what he chooses: emptiness over fullness. Obscurity over honor. Vulnerability over rescue. At every instance when Jesus can reach for the magical, the glorious, and the safe, he reaches instead for the mundane, the invisible, and the risky.
The Gospel tells us that Jesus doesn't choose to enter the wilderness. The Spirit leads him there. But here's the kicker: Jesus chooses to stay until the work of the wilderness is 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 barren places amidst the wild beasts. Does this mean that God wills bad things to happen to us? That God wants us to suffer? I don’t think so. Does it mean that God can redeem even the most painful 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.
Debie Thomas: firstname.lastname@example.org
Image credits: (1) ChrisCookArtist.com and (2) FineArtAmerica.com.