Sunday, March 9, 2014

Wilderness Gift

Did any of you grow up with a place in your neighborhood called The Woods? The Woods were a place of great adventure. We liked to go there and play Tarzan or Robin Hood. We set animal traps and tried to catch little critters. We climbed trees, swung on vines, and built forts. In The Woods I learned things, too. Like, what poison Ivy looks like and how the nectar from honeysuckle tastes and what it looks like inside things like milkweed pods and hedge apples and acorns, and how you really don’t want a grasshopper to spit tobacco in your hand. The best thing about The Woods was that it was an adult-free zone. So I suppose it was our way of going off the grid.

But The Woods was also a fantastical place that scared me. I’d spend time there with my friends, but there was no way I’d go in there solo. There were snakes and wolves and monsters and all kinds of spirits living there. When I was alone, I would walk way out of my way to avoid The Woods. This was my first experience with the whole idea of the wilderness. For a long time, whenever I heard the word wilderness, I thought of The Woods.

In the Bible the wilderness is more of a desert. It’s a desolate place where there isn’t much of anything. Definitely off the grid. And yet, the wilderness is also the place in the Bible where some pretty big things happen.

The Israelites spent 40 years in the wilderness. But they did more than just wander around in a nothing kind of place waiting for the next big thing to happen. The wilderness served a purpose for them. They couldn’t go from Egypt directly to the Promised Land. They weren’t ready. They needed time in the wilderness, time to form an identity as God’s people.

The wilderness served a similar purpose for Jesus. Notice where it happens in Matthew’s gospel. It comes between Jesus’ baptism and his public ministry. At the Jordan, he heard the voice of God proclaim, “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased.” And he needed to sort through what that meant for him before he was ready to begin his ministry. So, Jesus doesn’t just stumble upon the wilderness, and he isn’t banished there because God is displeased with him. The Spirit leads him there!

And so, while he’s still wet with the water of the Jordan, and the words from heaven announcing he is the beloved Son of God are still ringing in his ears, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. And immediately, the first test the devil puts before him is a direct challenge to his identity. “Oh, so you’re the son of God, eh? Then let’s see you prove it!” But, the thing is, Jesus already knows he’s the Son of God; he doesn’t have to prove it. What he’s struggling with is an entirely different question: What does it mean for me to be God’s beloved son? How shall I live out that identity in the world?

“Son of God” had more than one meaning in biblical writings and in secular culture. The Davidic kings were called “son of God”, and “sons of God” or “children of the Most High” could also designate angelic beings, members of the divine council. In the Greco-Roman world “Son of God” became an honorary title for the Caesars. The devil’s testing flows naturally from these well-known uses for the term.

So what does it mean when the voice of God announced that Jesus was his son? How should he interpret that? That’s what Jesus is struggling with. Has God bestowed divine privilege on me? Have I, like God’s people Israel, been set apart as holy and called to reveal God’s character to the world? What does it mean for me? What will my life look like as Son of God? Jesus needs to work through these questions before he can go out into the world.

Each of the temptations is primarily about identity. And Jesus refuses to define himself or seek power apart from his relationship with God. His identity can be found in his absolute dependence on God. That also means that he puts himself in relationship with others who are dependent upon God. Being the Son of God did not mean abusing his power, or dazzling people with his tricks, or being seen as the one who can provide people with everything they want or need. He would never be Jesus Christ Superstar. That’s not the kind of ministry he would have. He would be content to be hungry, dependent on God’s Word and grace, to be at risk and vulnerable, finding his safety in the promises of God. For him, being the Son of God meant identifying with people.

Jesus needed the wilderness to prepare him. But this wasn’t the end of his time of testing. It continued throughout his life. In fact, these temptations foreshadow the main themes of Jesus’ ministry. He refuses to turn stones to bread to end his own hunger, but before long he will feed thousands in the wilderness with just a few loaves of bread and some fish. He refuses to take advantage of his relationship with God by hurling himself down from the heights of the Temple, but at the end of his earthly ministry, he endures the taunts of others and trusts God’s power upon the heights of a Roman cross. He turns down the devil’s offer to be king of the world, and instead offers the Kingdom of God to his followers. The wilderness tests prepared Jesus for the tests he would face throughout the remainder of his life.

The wilderness was not a punishment for Jesus. It was a gift. Just as it was for Moses and the Children of Israel. There was learning in the wilderness. There was preparation for what was to come. There was the establishment of identity as God’s people. So, it leads me to wonder…

How does it go for you when you find yourself in a wilderness time of your life? Do you look at it as a punishment? Or can you see the gift in the wilderness? Do you resist it? Do you try desperately to put it behind you as quickly as possible? Or do you settle into it? Do you use it as an opportunity to wait for God’s next move, to trust in God’s mercy? Can you see it as a time to grow in your understanding of who you are as a Child of God?

The thing about Jesus’ time in the wilderness we might miss is how difficult it must have been. We can focus on how he duked it out with the devil and was victorious like the superheroes we see in the movies who fight to avenge evil. But, in fact, he is a thirty year old carpenter who hardly has the strength left to stand. Physically, he’s at the end of his rope. Socially, he’s alone and friendless. Spiritually, he is struggling with his identity as the glow of his baptism recedes into the hazy past.

The wilderness isn’t easy. It’s a lonely place. It’s where we come face to face with our demons. And for many of us it’s terrifying. So we keep ourselves busy with distractions and avoid it at all costs. But the wilderness is necessary if we want to know who we are. We can run from it. But eventually it finds us one way or the other. Through a deep loss. Or an illness. Or a crisis of conscience. Without choosing it, we find ourselves there.

We can run from it or we can embrace the wilderness as a gift. Our Sabbath experience can serve as a mini-wilderness time for us when we stop walking the long way around the wilderness and avoiding it because we’re afraid of what me might find there, much the way I was with The Woods, as a kid. The season of Lent is an invitation to enter the wilderness, as well. We may skirt around it all year and pretend that it has nothing of value to offer us, but every year it reappears, inviting us to enter into a place where we can learn again how dependent we are upon God. It’s the place where we can rediscover who we are by recognizing whose we are.

At baptism, God said to each of us, “You are my child, my beloved.” Is it possible to ever know what that really means without spending time in the wilderness?

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