Are you ready?
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And 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. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
You are the way, Holy One.
Through the night of doubt and sorrow
Through the valleys of fear and despair
Through the hours of waiting
Through all of that wilderness wandering
You are the way of peace, wholeness
You are the way to peaceful dreams
And the embodiment of God’s dream for humanity
Show us you again today, so that we might see the way
I’ve always wondered about this part of the story. This whole, “The Spirit drove him into the wilderness.” The “him” being Jesus.
I’ve wondered about it because I wonder what exactly drove him there. I mean, did the Holy Spirit lead him into the wilderness, like as in actually take him there on purpose?
Or rather, did the call of God upon him weigh so heavily that the very idea of being the Messiah caused Jesus to enter into this period of desert wandering…discernment?
You know, kind of like how when Jonah was asked to do the hard thing by God he went the total opposite direction, was that kind of Jesus’ first response, too?
Theologians and Biblical scholars have debated this for years. How much, how often, and how fully did Jesus know who he was?
Did he first fully realize what God had in store for him, who he really was, at his baptism? If so…well…it’s no wonder he ran into the wilderness. Such a heavy burden, to embody God’s love for an ungrateful people…anyone would run away.
And yet, there’s something to be said for those wandering times in our lives, where we walk through the metaphorical wilderness, not knowing which way is up and which way is down.
As I grow older, as I meditate more, as I grow deeper spiritually, I have come to embrace the wilderness times in my life as being full of what I call wild blessings.
Now, remember previous sermons Beloved, do not confuse blessings with bliss. So much of American Christianity does. Blessing is not when you get what you want. That’s bliss. True blessing is when, regardless of what you want, you find you already have what you need, by God.
And because the wilderness times in our lives hold deep, wild blessings…even though they’re hard to see in the moment…it might be a natural next step for the Holy Spirit to intentionally lead Jesus into the wilderness because, well, he had to figure some things out.
And so in thinking of why Jesus had to head into the wilderness, whether running there in fear or being intentionally led there by the Holy Spirit, I have to think that:
He needed to wander the desert like Moses if he was going to learn to rely on God’s grace alone. Recalling a lonely night in the wilderness would get him through Gethsemane.
He needed to spend some time with the wild animals, like Noah in that ark, if he was going to learn to rely on God’s grace alone.
He needed to be attended to by angels like Elijah if he was to find out how to rely on God’s grace alone.
Because, here’s the thing that so easily happens with God’s gifts of grace, love, forgiveness, and peace: we are tempted to make them conditional, to see them as conditional, to operate as if they are conditional.
For Valentines day I posted a poem on the Book of Face by the provocative Persian poet Hafiz.
In the 14th Century he penned:
Even after all this time
The Sun never says to the Earth
“You owe me”
And look what happens
With that kind of love
It lights up the whole sky
Leave it to the poet to say what needs to be said about the world, because we so easily become a transactional people. Humanity is quid pro quo by nature, and so there is a desire to turn God into that “do for me and I’ll do for you” kind of being. A God who coerces love instead of coaxes it; coaxes it like we see Jesus coax it from the disciples, the world, from you and me.
In fact, in many circles of Christianity, we have already turned God’s work into a transaction. “Just say the believer’s prayer and be saved,” someone told me once in my own wilderness wandering period.
Huh…then it kind of seems like I’m saving myself, doesn’t it? By saying the prayer.
And I wonder if Jesus was tempted to turn God’s work into a transaction, as in, I wonder if he was tempted to give grace and love only to the people who gave him grace and love.
Which leads me to this last part in Jesus wilderness wandering: Jesus wrestling with evil and temptation. We may wonder what wild blessing might be had by contending with evil in this sort of way and I think that:
Jesus needed to really be tempted, to know what it felt like to want to give into a path other than God’s, to turn grace into a quid pro quo, to abandon coaxing love for coercive power, to rely on feats of strength rather than feats of the Divine heart…
He needed to be tempted so that he might know what temptation looks like. He needed to wrestle with evil so that he could name it when he saw it.
These are the wild blessings, Beloved. The things only learned in those wilderness times of wandering. Today we accompany Jesus into the wilderness not to watch to see what he will do so much as to ponder what we do in our wilderness times.
Do we run from them? Give into them? Avoid them for safety and security? Or put one foot in front of the other learning to rely on grace, confident that we will learn from these wilderness times?
These wild blessings.
This last week our whole family was, once again, in the throws of sickness…like so many of you this winter. Flu and pneumonia have left their mark on us.
And last Sunday as the boys were sick at home, I was running from services to go relieve Rhonda for a few hours so she could grade some exams before I had to head back here for evening services, and I was dropping in Harris Teeter for a hot second to get some milk. And just as I was crossing the walk to head into the store, and oncoming car slows down and pulls up right next to me, almost running over my toes.
“Are you a priest?” the woman asked me as she took a drag of her cigarette. She looked like she hadn’t slept in a month.
“Sort of,” I replied…it was too long to explain and I was in a rush. Any other day I probably would have said just a plain, “no”…but I had the collar on and there was no hiding it now.
“Yeah, well, my brother hung himself last week. And a bunch of you all said he’s in hell. Father…do you think my brother’s in hell?” she looked at me. And I could see anger in her eyes and she took another drag of her cigarette.
“No. I don’t think your brother is in hell. I think he must have been in some sort of hell here to want to hurt himself like that. What is his name? I’m so sorry…” I said. And the line behind her got longer and longer down the stretch as cars waited for us to have this conversation, but none of them honked…as if they knew this needed to happen in the moment.
And she started to cry and said, “I don’t think he is either. Not my baby brother. He was a good kid, he was just sick. Thank you.”
And she didn’t even say his name, she just slowly drove off.
And in the moment of rush and sickness, in that time when I felt like I was wandering in a haze of responsibilities and illness, here comes this other pilgrim, wandering through a wilderness of her own, and we met along the path.
I helped alleviate her pain. She made me slow down. And in the moment, a wild blessing was shared.
Do you see, Beloved? In our wildnerness, in our wandering, in our rush, we must pay attention. We must take time to dig for the wild blessings.
You know, digging for these wild blessings in wilderness times, it’s one of the reasons that we have Lenten services on Wednesday nights here. Yes, I know, you’re all very busy. Very, very busy. Another church obligation doesn’t sound like a wild blessing.
But sometimes you gotta slow down to speed up, Beloved. And if you can’t take time to pray, you have to make time to pray, to discern the wild blessings of whatever wandering you’re going through.
It is not for nothing that we start out Lent wandering into the wilderness with Jesus. As I said, this is practice. This is the time we practice naming the wild blessings of wilderness wandering so that when we find ourselves in the wilderness of our teen years, in the wilderness of middle age, empty nesting, retirement, our final act.
Or, as we all are now, when we find ourselves once again in the wilderness of another school shooting which we must, must, learn from…
Lent is the time when we practice as a church so that we can do it in our own spiritual lives when we need it.
Because Lent always leads to Easter, which means that all wilderness wandering will be resurrection in the end. And we’ll get there eventually, but we have a ways to go.
In this way Lent, in and of itself, is a wild blessing my friends. Accept the gracious gift.