The upstate of South Carolina, I lived before moving to Madison, was very near the Blue Ridge mountains. And although I often joke that we lived in South Carolina for ten years and were trying to leave for 9 ½, the area does have its attractions. The many trails of Mt. Pisgah National Forest were less than a two-hour drive away, and even closer were state and county parks in South Carolina. In many of these parks, a few steps away from the highway and the parking lot were areas of steep and treacherous trails. We often went on day hikes and found ourselves suddenly on trails that were barely passable, little wider than a single foot print, with a steep decline on one side. We ventured down trails ten years ago that we wouldn’t attempt today. There were trails that we hiked on all day without encountering another soul.
Sometimes, we would hear of an accident, or a lost hiker, in an area we ourselves had passed very recently. There were times when a hiker went missing less than a mile from the highway, having lost their way on aside trail, or tragically, having been hurt. Sometimes, it was days before the hiker was found. It was stories like this that reminded us how serious our little excursions could be. A missed step, an unmarked trail could easily lead to disaster. Even though civilization was nearby, the mountains of North and South Carolina can be very dangerous places.
When we hear the word wilderness, we think of untamed expanses of landscape, untouched by human civilization, filled with the dangers of uncharted territory and wild animals. Of course, the wilderness of our imaginations rarely matches the reality. The mountainous areas of the Carolinas may have their dangers, but most of it is within cell phone range. And even the wilderness of the Americas before the coming of Europeans was home to the cultures of Native Americans who learned to live and thrive in its midst.
The wilderness of scripture is also, in many ways, the wilderness of imagination. Biblical writers speak of wilderness but even those it mentions are not the deserts of the Arabian peninsula, but areas where human habitation was present, at least to some degree, some of the time. It was a place where shepherds might tend their flocks, for example. The most important wilderness of Biblical imagination was the wilderness of Sinai, where the Israelites were said to have wandered for forty years before entering the Promised Land. Above all, the wilderness was a place of struggle, where the Israelites struggled with God, where one might have to struggle to surviveIt was the place where John the Baptizer went, where he preached, and baptized, from which he offered his powerful critique of the religious and political establishment. The wilderness was also a place where danger lurked and evil resided. Quite natural then, that when Jesus went into the wilderness he encountered Satan.
The language with which Luke introduces the temptation is suggestive of all of those connotations of wilderness. The length of time, the forty days that Jesus spent there, echoes the forty years that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness. That Jesus fasted, and that at the end he was famished, reminds us of the tenuous nature of human existence in such dangerous and foreboding places. But unlike Mark, who tells us that the Spirit “drove” Jesus into the wilderness; in the Holy Spirit leads Jesus, implying that even here, the divine presence is with him.
But it may be that Luke wants us to interpret Jesus’ temptations in light of the experience of his baptism. Having received confirmation at his baptism that he was the Son of God, the temptations stand as a profound question mark at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, challenging Jesus and us to reflect on what it might mean to be the Son of God.
These temptations presented to Jesus can be understood in different ways. On the surface, the Devil is challenging Jesus about his ministry, what he will do, how he is the Son of God. Twice, Satan begins with the phrase, “If you are the Son of God…” There’s a contest here over what it means to be the Son of God—is it about power, glory, self-aggrandizement? Or is it about something else? For now, Jesus answers the question, but at the end of the story, Luke tells us that the devil departed from him until an opportune time—that time being his betrayal by Judas, and his prayer in Gethsemane, when Jesus asks whether he might avoid the fate that awaits him. For now, though, Jesus emerges from the wilderness, filled with the Holy Spirit and empowered for ministry.
Lent is often a time when we focus on self-denial, repentance, resisting temptation. We ask, or hear, the question, “What have you given up for Lent?” There’s nothing wrong with such sentiments, indeed they can be helpful disciplines, inviting us into a more focused spiritual life, a closer relationship with God. But Jesus’ temptations are not about self-denial. In a very real sense, they are temptations that get at the heart of he is and was—they are challenges to his very identity.
Who am I? Who are you? Last week, as we baptized Delany, we heard again that wonderful affirmation, that in our baptisms we are God’s beloved children, marked as Christ’s own forever. It may be that Lent, this is Lent, should be for us an opportunity to rediscover who we are and who God calls us to be, as individuals and as a community.
Yesterday, at our vestry retreat, we heard a wonderful story told about a Russian Hasidic rabbi, named Zusia. There are a number of different versions of this story; I’ll share one of the briefest of them:
A rabbi named Zusya died and went to stand before the judgment seat of God. As he waited for God to appear, he grew nervous thinking about his life and how little he had done. He began to imagine that God was going to ask him, “Why weren’t you Moses or why weren’t you Solomon or why weren’t you David?” But when God appeared, the rabbi was surprised. God simply asked, “Why weren’t you Zusya?”
The temptations faced by Jesus were temptations to be someone other than who he was, someone other than who he was called to be. And even though our own selves and our callings are very different from his and from each others, we are also tempted in the same way.
We are tempted by many things—envy of others, the constant barrage of advertising that molds us into consumers and claims our self-worth is tied to what we own or what we wear. So much else claims our allegiance—from our nation-state with its assertions of global power, or presidential candidates who play on our fears. We are seduced by visions of wealth, self-gratification. There are so many things and forces that seek our attention and to mold our identities.
One reason we began to hike in the mountains of Carolina was to get away from the stresses and distractions of daily life, to leave behind for a few hours the worries of our jobs. The mountains, the wilderness was a place where we could be together, and alone, in the beauty of nature and be nourished and restored closer to God’s presence.
Lent is a wilderness. It is an opportunity to encounter ourselves and God away from the distractions and temptations that prevent us from knowing our selves and living fully in God’s presence. This Lent, in the midst of the noise and pressures of the world, in the midst of all the things and messages that entice us away from ourselves and from God, may we find the opportunity to remember who we are, who God called us to be, and may we see in Jesus, the one whose calling led to Calvary, the one whose love for us led to Calvary, may we see in him the possibility of our full humanity, and through him, may our humanity be restored, our natures restored, so that we may reclaim and experience our selves as God’s beloved children.