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I wonder if anyone here has ever been to the wilderness? You know the place where you are so numb you can’t even remember what it feels like to feel? The place where you are so hungry, you are convinced you will never feel satisfied again, so broken you don’t really want to bother dreaming anymore? You may have wandered in when you fell ill, or lost your job or wrecked your marriage, or alienated your children.<a href=”#fn1″><sup></sup></a> Sometimes the journey to the wilderness is more slow and subtle, until one day you realize you’ve forgotten how to dream and nothing around you looks familiar. “Wildernesses come in so many shapes and sizes that the only way you can really tell you are in one is to look around for what you normally count on to save your life and come up empty. No food. No earthly power. No special protection–just a Bible-quoting devil and a whole bunch of sand.”<a href=”#fn2″><sup></sup></a> The wilderness lays us bear, leaves us nowhere to hide. There is no choice in the wilderness but to be present to the moment, your very survival depends on it.
We don’t choose to enter the wilderness. I don’t know anyone who would choose to be led there as passively as Jesus seems to, but I dare you to look back on your life and think about the lessons you have learned well, the insights and aha moments that have led you to change your course or to root yourself more deeply in trust and I’m wiling to guess that more often than not you arrived at the aha through the wilderness. It’s not that we are sent to the wilderness by some preordained plan. It’s just that wilderness happens and when it does it’s a real invitation for us to show up and learn something.
The Spirit of God leads Jesus into the wilderness with the explicit purpose of being tested. Next comes forty days of wandering, praying, fasting, until finally Jesus is face to face with the devil in a battle of wit and will. These are the scriptural texts that keep me coming back for more. If Jesus can end up in the wilderness then it’s good enough for me. If Jesus can end up in the wilderness I guess I can’t avoid it.
It’s no accident that Jesus spends forty days there; it’s meant to remind us of the countless others who’ve been there before. It recalls Noah and his family, forty days and nights of their boat being pummeled with drenching rain, until finally the rain stops, the waters recede, and God makes a promise that this will never happen again. It’s reminiscent of Moses, who fasted for forty days on Mount Sinai, before finally returning to his people with the tablets containing the covenant, the Ten Commandments. Elijah too spent forty days fasting in the desert before receiving his commission from God. And don’t forget the forty years the Israelites spent in the wilderness, until finally when hope was all but lost they arrived at the Promised Land. The forty days of Lent are steeped in a long and rich tradition.
Historically, we don’t really know how many days Jesus actually spent in the wilderness but it was written this way with an explicit purpose: to invite us to remember, to remember the countless other times individuals and whole nations found themselves in the wilderness.
The wilderness is the place where memory is stirred. Jesus draws on the stories that fed him as a child, the stories of the struggles and visions of his people. And as he remembers he is able to navigate the alternative facts that the devil is throwing at him. The alternative facts, the lies that say: you need to make bread from stones because we live in a world of scarcity and who’s going to look out for you if you don’t look out for number one. The alternative fact that insists you can’t trust the love of God or the powers of the universe to hold you. Instead you need to be ready to test whether God will really be with you in this moment. The alternative fact that insists wealth and possession and political control must be attained through the idolatrous misuse of power. “The temptation is not that food, power and leadership are inherently wrong, but rather that they can be used for the wrong ends, or at the wrong time.”<a href=”#fn3″><sup></sup></a> The wilderness is a place that stirs our memory so that we can discern the lies coming at us with something more than our personal best guesses.
By placing this story right up against the story of his baptism, placing these forty days right beside the baptism day, the editors of the gospel are ensuring that we don’t misinterpret this whole wilderness experience as a necessary test for God’s approval and grace. Jesus didn’t earn God’s love in the wilderness he merely practiced trusting in it. On his baptism day Jesus heard: you are my beloved child. Those words assure us that the wilderness is no divinely determined merit based test. It doesn’t earn us the affection of the Holy, that is a given, that is a fact. The wilderness just helps us reorient our lives to divine Love: you are my beloved child. When we find ourselves in the wilderness it is not so much about the bad choices we made or the bad luck we’ve had. It’s mostly about reorienting our lives again to what matters, and a big part of how we do this is by remembering who we are and in Christian language remembering whose we are.
Poet John Donne once suggested that memory is the shortest and surest way to God. Plato too had a theory of memory, “he believed that our souls began elsewhere and came at birth from the realm of the eternal. The soul, he said, brings with it a recollection of that eternal world, and hence is able on hearing the truth to resonate with it.” To be sure Plato’s views have never made it into the doctrine of the church but there is something compelling about his “beautiful effort to account for the immense capacities of the human spirit.” I think we do remember, deep down. On Ash Wednesday when an ash cross is imposed on our foreheads and we are invited to remember that we are dust, really it’s an invitation to remember that we are stardust. We are made of the same stuff as the stars, the oceans, the mountains, the same stuff as one another, we are beloved. Somewhere we do remember that we are all one and this myth of individualism is just that, a myth an alternative fact, a lie.
The beautiful thing about the wilderness is that it doesn’t actually matter when you enter it if you consciously remember that you are part of the stars and oceans and mountains and your neighbour. It doesn’t matter if it’s been so long since someone looked you in the eyes and named you a beloved child that you can’t remember what unconditional love is meant to feel like. It doesn’t matter if you’ve made so many small or big bad choices that you are convinced you aren’t worthy of the attention of the devil, let alone the divine. Because the wilderness is the place we go to remember the memory that is actually always there, within our reach, within our hearts, within the very fabric of the universe and our souls.
There is a pervasive and even persuasive story in our culture that none of us are fully immune from. It tells us that we can’t trust: we can’t trust anyone but ourselves and our inner circle. But this is an alternative fact, it is an authoritative proclamation not an empirical reality. The reality is we are beloved, all of us. When we remember that about ourselves we can begin again to remember it about our neighbour.
Buddhist activist and scholar Johanna Macy once said that, “the most radical thing any of us can do at this time is to be fully present to what is happening in the world.” There are plenty powers that be in our world today that have a vested interest in us not being fully present to what is happening, a vested interest in replacing that beloved story with one of fear and anxiety and division. We need the wilderness, now as much as ever. We need it to strip us bear of the lies we tell ourselves. We need it to stir our memories and fire our dreams. We need it teach us how to endure the long haul one devil at a time, to teach us from the heart up instead of the head down.
The church in her wisdom introduced this practice called Lent countless generations ago to give us a little nudge so that we might walk with Jesus into the wilderness of our own soul and the soul of our culture and trust that angels will wait upon us on the other side. If we do dare to step into the wilderness this Lent, keep the words of the Spirit in your heart, you are my beloved, you are my beloved, you are my beloved… because when we can remember that about ourselves, we begin to remember that it is true about everyone else. Amen
4.Fred B. Craddock “Preaching: An appeal to Memory,” in What’s the Matter with Preaching Today, Mike Graves ed., Westminster John Knox Press, Lousiville, 2004.