WE WERE at one of my favorite places on earth—Shrinemont! The whole family was there for our parish weekend in August. Wendy and the girls were at the pool and the boys wanted to join the hike up to North Mountain. I had to finish something for the program that evening so told the boys to go ahead and I’d catch up to the group. I set out about half an hour later, and it was a beautiful walk in the woods. I love the woods, being in nature, the light of the sun dappled through the leaves. I’d hiked the trail so often my mind drifted, and before I knew it I was lost. The marks on the trees were different. I could feel the sun behind me, which meant I was heading east instead of west. I started to double back and, not paying attention again, tripped over a root and bashed my knee. As I sat up, I looked around, really for the first time all afternoon. I didn’t have a phone on me, or water. I didn’t know where I was. As I used a kleenex to clean the blood off my knee, the hairs on the back on my neck stood up and I instinctively froze and watched as about 20 yards ahead on the path a large black bear meandered slowly across the path. I was no longer in the woods: I had entered the wilderness.
THE WILDERNESS is a space that occupies extraordinary power and significance in human cultural history. It’s the place where some of our most powerful stories take place: Dante’s Inferno begins lost in the wilderness; Tolkien’s motley band and Homer’s Odysseus each journey through the wilderness of forest deep and ocean wild. When Luke Skywalker needs to learn how to master the force and become a Jedi? He travels to the wilderness of Degoba. Much of American popular culture and literature thrives on the theme of Wilderness, whether it be the frontier or the road trip or in space. Wilderness is a place of shadows and night, trial and challenge. We experience defeat, loss, grief. Our loyalties are stress tested. Our allegiances are put on trial. What do we really value? What do we really believe? The wilderness is where we go to be tested. The wilderness is where we got to be defined. The wilderness is where we go to meet our destiny. The wilderness is where we are sent to find out who we really are.
WE ARE ALL TOO FAMILIAR with being tested in the wilderness. What has the past seven hundred and forty days of our lives been but a journey through the wilderness of Covid? What have we learned about ourselves as individuals these last two years? What have we learned about ourselves as a community of God gathered here at Emmanuel? What have we learned about ourselves as a nation gathered here in the United States? What have we learned about ourselves as a species these past two years?
AND WHAT ARE WE LEARNING about ourselves—as individuals, as a nation, as a species—as we seemingly have left the warm summer of the past thirty years and reentered the wilderness of Cold War, waking up seemingly after a long slumber to the harsh realities and hard logics of mutually assured destruction and great power competition in a nuclear age?
IN TODAY’S GOSPEL, Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by Satan. This is no surprise: the wilderness as a place to not only be tested but as a place to encounter God is a persistent theme throughout the Hebrew Bible. Abraham encounters God in the wilderness; Jacob wrestles with the angel, is renamed Israel, and dreams of God in the wilderness. Wilderness is not just forest deep or desert dry, it’s also the wilds of the open sea, as Jonah discovers. It’s the place of exile from society, as Job discovers. It’s where the prophets go to receive their inspiration and encounter God, whether Elijah at the mouth of the mountain cave, or Ezekiel in the valley of the dry bones. It’s where God leads Moses and the people of Israel to be tested, and, having failed the tests, take forty years before they are worthy to leave. The third book of the Bible that describes that journey of a generation, that in the Christian tradition we call Numbers? In Hebrew, it is known as the Book of the Wilderness.
So of course the very first thing that happens after the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus as he is baptized is that he is led into the wilderness beyond the Jordan River. Today we hear Luke’s account: Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, crosses the Jordan and is led by the Spirit into the Wilderness where for forty days he was temped by the Devil.
There is a lot for us to ponder here. The first is the presence of the devil. Here, evil isn’t a disembodied thing: it’s active, it’s present, and he’s tempting Jesus. It’s the same voice, presented the same way, as the character who tempts Job in the Old Testament to curse God. And we need to pay attention to the temptations themselves. The devil tempts Jesus three ways. You’re hungry? Turn this stone into bread! You thirst for Justice? Here are all the empires of the world!You desire for God to be known? Show yourself for who you are!
What the devil is offering Jesus is very tangible: you can feed the world, by turning the stones to bread. You can bring what seems to be justice to the world, but you have to do it his way. You can make yourself known, but you need to create miraculous spectacle.
And Jesus said no. No. No. No.
THAT’S THE MYSTERY and hope embedded in this story: Jesus said no. God’s way is not our way. God’s way is not the way of the world. Jesus did not choose to heal the world by turning mountains into bottomless supplies of bread, empires into social service agencies, and religion into spectacle. He did not choose the path of righteous empire. He did not choose the path of transformation at the point of a sword. He choose the path of obedience, he stuck to the plan. He taught, he healed, he broke bread, he laughed and loved with his friends, and when his time came, he journeyed to Jerusalem, he died, and he was resurrected from the dead, bringing the Holy Spirit, the comforter, into the world as the way, the truth, and the life.
THE BEAR DIDN’T EAT ME. Sitting in the wilderness of western Virginia, I breathed slowly and after awhile I heard the gentle sound of running water. I walked to the creek, drank, and then heard the unmistakable sound of a truck downshifting downhill. I followed the sound to the road and back to Shrine Mont, well in time for dinner. I think that’s the secret here: we are in the wilderness to be test. We need to breath slowly, remember the path and the plan, and choose the way of God, as it brings us home on our own journey to Jerusalem.
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog