by Benjamin M. Stewart
Gordon A. Braatz Associate Professor of Worship, Director of Advanced Studies
I remember as a child, at one of those famous boxing movies, watching Rocky Balboa go to the wilderness.
After a slump, in order to get back into shape for the big fight, Rocky headed to a dilapidated shack in the remote wilderness for something like 40 days, to resist the temptations of junk food and idleness, to run up and down mountains, and to do lots of chin-ups from the rafters. I think I remember him holding a huge rock, hanging upside down from a tree branch by his knees, and doing crunches. Rocky came back from the wilderness ripped and at the top of his game.
Before he begins the demands of public ministry, Jesus goes to the wilderness. All three synoptic gospels have this strange story unfolding on a remote wilderness training ground. Before Jesus calls his first disciple, preaches his first sermon, before he feeds or heals anyone, Jesus goes to the wilderness to prepare.
Here is a strange thing. The devilish temptation Jesus faces is not to be idle, or to slack off on the spiritual equivalent of bench presses. In the strange story that Luke tells, the devil doesn’t tempt Jesus to be weak. Satan tempts Jesus to be strong: turning stones into bread, ruling the nations of the world, claiming superhero powers to throw himself down from great heights and still soar to safety.
Jesus’ preparation for the grueling demands of his ministry seems to involve divesting himself of strength: Jesus takes no food, refuses political power, and won’t do magic tricks to get himself out of danger. Is he training to lose? What in God’s name is he doing out there?
In Jesus’ temptation, rather than charging up his batteries with superhuman power, Jesus begins in the wilderness to look more and more like the most needy of those he has come to serve and to save: the hungry, the politically powerless, those with no magic tricks at all up their sleeve.
Could it be that part of what we’re hearing in these temptation narratives from Luke and Matthew is one way of speaking the mystery that in Jesus Christ God is learning, in a sort of training, learning to be weak, learning to be weak with us—with all of us needy ones. Or maybe we might say: in Jesus Christ we are learning to see where God has always been all along, from the beginning: with the enslaved ones, the famished ones, with the dry bones in the wilderness.
The church invented Lent as something like the original new members class. In preparation for being baptized at Easter, people would spend 40 days or so in training for the Christian life. Recent scholarship is showing that one common pattern seems to have been that during the earliest sessions of this new members class, perhaps leading up to Lent, those preparing for baptism were not even welcomed into worship yet. Instead they were trained in a new lifestyle of... visiting prisoners and the sick… caring for widows… both giving up gluttony and handing out food to the hungry… and—universally for the first centuries of Christianity—renouncing any right ever to take the life of another person. This original new members class might be seen as a 40-days-wilderness-training in becoming weak, learning to live in solidarity with the needy. We hear echoes of this old pattern in those classic Lenten disciplines of fasting, prayers for the suffering, and sacrificial giving. The wilderness of Lent can still be a training ground for us.
It’s interesting though, isn’t it, how that wilderness can extend far beyond Lent: all those places where we are “in training” as we come face to face with our weakness.
- At the bedside in the emergency room, when the medical staff is now only exchanging worried glances with each other. The bright lights and the shiny floor and medical equipment all now become wilderness.
- Maybe it is that seemingly impossible concept—or the entire class or whole semester that confronts us hard with the limits of our own powers. Wilderness.
- Perhaps it is in community organizing, or at the food bank, or at the rape crisis center: those days when systems of injustice seem unstoppable compared to the few humble-looking resources we’ve cobbled together.
- Or maybe it is the public nature of leadership in the church or in the seminary and how our own stumbling is on display before others. A wilderness of our own making.
- Or maybe the wilderness is in that envelope that the seniors will receive tonight with their regional assignments. A wilderness (maybe wholly unknown, maybe known all too well) with an actual location on the map.
Of course, part of what Luke seems to be suggesting (in the wilderness temptation narrative and throughout the Gospel) is that in spending time in prayerful awareness in the wilderness of our own weakness and in solidarity with the weakness of others, there rises up a strange kind of strength.
This week we read in class one bishop’s description of a deaconess, in which the bishop tried to describe the strange pastoral power that flowed from this deaconess’ familiarity with her own weakness. He wrote:
“She knew herself so well, she understood so deeply her own need of God and her own sin, that she was never shocked by anything she ever encountered in someone else. Never shocked.”
To be so trained by the wilderness so as to encounter every human being with honor and reverence. Never shocked. I imagine some of us here long for that kind of strength and depth. We discover it, Luke says, in the wilderness.
Of course, there are times and places within our lives when the temptation to be too strong doesn’t even seem to be a possibility. When we have been driven into the wilderness by spirits that are anything but holy, but are threatening, debilitating, accusing, even crushing.
The gospels tell us: that wilderness is where Jesus most surely joins us. Up from the water in his baptism, it is the first place he goes. When Jesus became weak in that wilderness, he was drawing near to us. Jesus is in the wilderness still: in every wilderness we will know. Scarred, nail-printed, and living, with a strange kind of strength gushes up like a spring in the wilderness, his life flowing into ours.
There’s a place I know where from the bowling alley, the ice cream shop and the library, it’s only a mile walk through the woods to the wilderness boundary, where you can keep on walking for hundreds of miles and never cross a road, past a glacier-covered volcano, big horn sheep, bears, wolverines, and thousands of free-flowing cascades. The wilderness boundary is marked by a faded forest service sign and a huge fallen tree trunk, with a gap cut in it where the trail heads out. A friend of mine who lived in this village for many years, a tall and expansively enthusiastic person, during her first winter in the village was skiing with her partner toward the wilderness boundary, fully animated by her signature enthusiasm. As she approached the wilderness boundary, she stretched out her arms toward the mountains and said, “Ahh! Wilderness!” It was at that moment that her skis, in fact, arrived at the wilderness boundary, at that great tree trunk now covered with snow, but she was clearly not where the gap was cut for the trail. Arms out, face down, skis splayed, full prostration. Her partner helpfully interpreted for her: “bow to the wilderness!” Even today, decades later, every time they cross that great wilderness boundary in winter or in summer, they chant, as they cross over, “bow to the wilderness!”
Maybe that is what we are learning every year in the first week of Lent, when we tell this strange vision of Jesus’ time in the wilderness. Maybe we are learning to bow to that strange wilderness that is the very first place Jesus goes in his ministry, and is where we spend much of our lives.
- So we bow in humility for the way our own weaknesses and flailings and sin are exposed there, we bow to the wilderness.
- In awe for the way Jesus meets us in our weakness (along with all the other beggars), we bow to the wilderness.
- Those of us struggling with an image of church leadership that we think means being a spiritual prodigy, an Olympian, always being strong, we are learning to bow to the wilderness
- To the wilderness represented in that envelope that seniors receive tonight, and the people and the land there to be honored and loved, we bow.
- For how, even in our deepest wilderness—when we feel far from the land flowing with milk and honey—Jesus rains down manna in our desert, his own body, his life, to feed us.
On this first week of Lent, we learn to bow from Jesus, as he empties himself, though in the form of God taking the form of a slave, in solidarity with the least of these, in utter devotion to those who are considered the lost causes of the world, in training to bow down and wash the feet of sinners. It’s in the wilderness that Jesus first shows us a love that looks like weakness, but that is stronger than human strength, and that is, strangely, foolishly, not as we or the world would first define it, making us strong, raising us from death.