Readings are from Lent 1, and can be found here.
St. Luke’s, Holy Family, and First Trinity decided to share preachers this Lent. Each of the five preachers brought one sermon to each place, which is why you might notice that the lectionary is out of the traditional order.
Jesus is under water, chest tight from holding his breath, body heavy in the hands of his mentor-cousin-comrade John who lifts him up out of the Jordan into the open air where he exhales [breathe out] takes in a deep, gasping breath [breathe in]. With shimmering droplets still clinging to his wooly hair, water beading, luminescent on his dark skin, with the heaviness of his clothing floating around him in the river, the Heavens break open. God’s Spirit swoops down with the grace and precision of a dove in flight, and rests upon him. And a voice echoes in the skies with words, “This is my begotten one, my beloved.” Words bigger than the cosmos, as intimate as a whisper, closer than a heartbeat.
After this Spirit descends and perches on a still soaking Jesus, after this voice rings out as he is still sparkling with the bits of lights being reflected in the drops of water in his beard, after this legendary moment, a still damp Jesus is led by this same Spirit who cascaded out of the clouds away from the river and out to the arid, dry desert where we find meet him today.
The story of Jesus in the wilderness is found in all three synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In Mark’s version we feel more of the urgency of the moment when Mark makes clear that “immediately” the Spirit “drove” Jesus out from the water of the Jordan and into the wasteland. The geography of the Judean wilderness is marked by mountains and ravines and terraces and cliffs and dry riverbeds, called wadis, that only fill during flash floods. Today we call that area the West Bank, a Palestinian territory under occupation that frequently faces arbitrary water shut offs at the hands of the state. If Jesus were to try to return to Galilee from that region in our own time, he would face a wall, have to have the right papers, go through major checkpoints with armed guards. The Spirit led Jesus from the water of the Jordan River into this wilderness, the Judean desert.
We know from our reading what awaits Jesus after 40 days out in the wilderness. Jesus will face down against the devil. But it was the Spirit who sent him there. It was the Spirit who led him, who drove him into the wilderness where the devil was waiting for him. Why would the Spirit do this? Why would God send Jesus, God’s beloved, into this place?
I am disturbed by the idea that God tests us or leads us into temptation or somehow sets traps for us. And, my time in community organizing has shown me that it is times of tension and discomfort that bring me clarity, by rooting me in my identity and purpose, and driving me forward. We call this intentional raising of tension “agitation.” Agitation in this sense is not just like merely annoying someone. When done well, it isn’t about shaming or bullying them. Agitation is supposed to be grounded in a deep relationship, where the parties know each other and trust is established. Agitation in these cases is done out of love, wanting to help people overcome the things that are holding them back. The Spirit sends Jesus out into the wilderness to be tempted and endure some hard questions in part so that Jesus can get clear before starting his ministry.
Our conditioning has taught us to recoil from discomfort, to think of it as an inherently bad thing, something to side-step and evade at all costs. Instead of leaning into tension to see what we can learn from it, we often avoid it. But when we do this, when we turn away from tension, we fail to see the gift that this tension can be. We miss out on the clarity it brings with it, the opportunity to move forward.
And the first thing that Jesus has to get clear about is his own identity. The devil begins this confrontation with Jesus by questioning who he is. The devil snakes some slippery self-doubt into Jesus’ mind, hissing, “IF you are the Son of God. IF you are the Begotten One…”
Remember that before this, Jesus had just been told in the river who he was. In Jesus’ baptism, a voice from Heaven claimed Jesus as God’s begotten one, as one dearly beloved. We receive this same promise in baptism. As baptized people we are given the identity as one of God’s beloved children, a part of God’s own family, an identity that supersedes all other identities. And yet, like Jesus, we are often tempted to deny who we are.
When the devil says to Jesus, “IF you are the Begotten One, IF you are God’s child,” he is mocking Jesus. “You? The son of a blue collar worker? You? Born of a questionable woman? You? A race crushed under the Occupation of Empire, you denied citizenship? You? Beloved by God? Who do you think you are?”
But Jesus remembers that moment. The heavy soaked robe, the glistening droplets, the Spirit fluttering down, the announcement from Heaven, “You are my begotten one, my child, my beloved.” It is Jesus’ security in this identity, this clarity about who he is that empowers him to face down the devil and win.
The devil goes on to tempt Jesus with the sorts of things many freedom fighters and leaders of liberation movements face.
The devil starts by leveraging a fear of scarcity. You are hungry? Worried about feeding yourself and your family? Worried about providing for your physical needs? Many people never begin radical movement work because they let these very real fears keep them frozen. I know that a major barrier to my own movement building work is anxiety about mounting debt, about security for my children’s future, about having a steady job with health insurance.
Empires in Jesus’ day and in our own keep the populace from rising up and fighting back by keeping us poor and hungry and desperate for bread. But Jesus rejects this fear and proclaims that humans need more than bread. We need the word of God. We need truth and freedom and joy and beauty and art. We need to be focused on that world and build it, not be intimidated into making our dreams smaller so we can focus on meager survival never guaranteed to us anyway as long as our oppressors are in charge.
Next the devil brought Jesus to the top of the temple and told him to throw himself down so that the angels would catch him. It would be a miraculous sign that would catch the eye of many. Jesus was tempted to use this cheap gimmick to gain the attention of the masses instead of putting his head down and doing the real, hard, grassroots work of building relationships. But Jesus knew better than to test God, Jesus knew that real and long-lasting influence comes only with established trust. Instead of using some contrived stunt or the force of his own charisma, Jesus chose to live among people, to heal them and speak with them, and then to invite them into the movement.
Finally, Jesus was tempted to believe that the devil had control of the nations of the world, that the devil could turn them all over to Jesus if only Jesus would sell out. We face these same temptations, to bow to the false gods of capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy and all of their empty promises. The devil was clever, he knew that Jesus was powerful. But Jesus had a choice; would he build power for selfish reasons, for ego? For money or fame? Or would he build power out of his own sense of identity as a human being worthy of dignity, out of his devotion to the divine and because of his great love of humanity?
Ultimately Jesus cast out the devil and sent him away. Jesus chose to make his mission about God and God’s people and not about his own pride. Jesus gave up a glamorous pseudo-movement based on his own glory and instead got clear about building a gritty, grassroots movement centered in God’s vision of Love and Liberation.
It was these crucial turning points where things got real for Jesus. He faced tension about his identity, about his motives, about his purpose, and he made decisions in the desert, rooted in the truth proclaimed to him in baptism.
The stakes for Jesus here? They are high. After Jesus returns from this trying time in the desert, he learns that his comrade, cousin, and mentor, John, the one who baptized him into this revolution…he has been profiled, targeted, hauled off, arrested. He is sitting in a prison cell. This arrest, coupled with Jesus’ clarity from his time of tension in the desert, leads to Jesus’ radicalization and the beginning of his ministry. Once Jesus is clear on who he is and what his purpose is, what his self-interest is is all about, he is able to begin to build his base and gather disciples for his radical movement.
We are spending our own 40 days driven by the Spirit into the wilderness. Lent is a season in our tradition where we disrupt our own comfort, our own routine in order to gain clarity about what is holding us back from loving God, ourselves, and our neighbor. We opt into a time of agitation in Lent, trusting that it will make us more sure and more grounded and more creative and more free.
As we march closer and closer to Holy Week the stakes of our discipleship become clearer and clearer. The truth of the cost of the work we are called to should make us feel tense. If it’s not, we aren’t being honest about what lies before us as followers of a Christ headed towards the cross. Our challenge then, this Lent, is to strategically and faithfully live into the disciplines that give us clarity, and to dwell in the discomfort inherent in the process, resisting the urge to turn away from it.
Praise God that we don’t do this hard work alone.
We do it with Christ, our sibling, who journeys with us in the desert, who faces these very same trials in solidarity with us. We have the witness of the saints, our ancestors who came before us, who beat down this path to show us the way and let us know we are not alone. We have company of our community, our stories of liberation, our songs of freedom, marked here in this oasis with the waters of baptism and nourished by the meal of Christ’s own body and blood.
This, THIS, is where we draw strength to endure the hard questions of this life, to get ready for the revolution.