By Rev. Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 4: 1-13
I realize that I have shared before the story of my retreat more than 20 years ago at a Catholic Retreat Center in Sarita, Texas, less than two hours north of Mexico. The retreat center had once been a ranch. It’s situated within the 4,000 square mile Wild Horse desert. For me, nature is a big part of my spirituality and when I am in a brand new setting, like my first time in a desert, it just kind of awakens my senses. My first morning there I decided to go on a hike. After passing a couple hermitages, there were no other signs of civilization. The only thing I heard were some birds overhead. It was so peaceful. I breathed deeply as I walked; sun on my face (I’d been in the Chicago snow the day before). Among the scrub were Juniper trees and, as I rounded a turn in the trail, there under a Juniper was an animal skull picked clean.
That story serves to illustrate the fact that wilderness is ambiguous. Every year, on the first Sunday of Lent, we find ourselves with Jesus in the wilderness. In scripture, wilderness is, primarily, a desolate space without habitation. The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all note that Jesus is put to the test in the wilderness and that he is led there by the Spirit of God. But our gospels also tell us that Jesus seeks out wilderness from time to time when the crowds have been too much for him and he needs quiet time with his heavenly Father. In addition, Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell us that Jesus’ miracle of feeding the 5,000 took place in desolate, wilderness space. So you see why I say, once again, wilderness is ambiguous.
We have experienced a sort of wilderness over these past couple of years, right? Particularly during the initial lockdown and at other times when COVID has peaked and we’ve been encouraged to limit social contact, we have found ourselves in a desolate place. And it has been ambiguous also, right? Exhausted soccer moms – and dads – weary of racing out of work to pick up kids and throw cheeseburgers at them in the back of the van before they reached the practice field found themselves gathering around a dinner table. Commuters around big cities, who spent hours every day in their cars or on subways, suddenly discovered what it felt like to get a good night’s sleep. Yet college students, forbidden to even grab pizza with friends, succumbed to depression and anxiety in record numbers as did younger children who could not handle hours in front of computer screens day after day. Our COVID wilderness was ambiguous space.
Grief is also ambiguous, wilderness space. This year’s Lenten series is focusing on the stages of grief as first identified by psychologist Elizabeth Kubler Ross. We’ve all had a lot to grieve over the past couple of years. It goes beyond friends who got sick and died. Children and their families grieve all that they lost educationally and socially during critical developmental years. We grieve the closure of some of our favorite businesses and restaurants like Professor Joe’s. We grieve how this pandemic further divided us as a nation and as families.
Now when I say grief is ambiguous, I certainly don’t mean to imply that we should make light of death or any other loss. But, we can embrace how those experiences of loss impact us and transform us. Grief is a long journey through a wilderness of many stages that are anything but neat and tidy. Still, at some point we emerge from the wilderness. We must, in time, find our way to the final stage of grief: acceptance.
Jesus’ experience in the wilderness (in Matthew, Mark and Luke) immediately follows his baptism and immediately precedes the launch of his public ministry. As I’ve already mentioned, it is God’s Spirit which leads Jesus in the wilderness. But, it’s important for us to understand what that means… lest we find ourselves falling prey to bad theology that tries to convince us that God seems to get his jollies out of yanking our chain and seeing how much misery we can tolerate.
Jesus, in order to redeem human experience, needed to fully live our human experience. Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness are reminiscent of the Israelites’ forty-year sojourn in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan. And while God led the Israelites through the wilderness, it’s important for us to remember that it was the Egyptians with bows and chariots on their heels. Because wilderness is desolate space, it will inevitably involve a certain degree of testing. The Israelites didn’t hold up very well in the wilderness… if you’ll recall. In fact, they succumb to the very temptations Jesus resists in this morning’s gospel story.
Jesus, like the Israelites, experiences tests relating to bread, trust and loyalty. (I wish I had time in my sermon to do some bible study with you around that… but, I don’t.) Still, unlike the Israelites, Jesus does not succumb to temptation; he does not fail the test. And so, as the writer of Hebrews reminds us, Jesus was tested just as we are. He took on our human experience in every way. Jesus knew what it felt like to be in a lonely, desolate place… the kind of space in which we find ourselves during times of grief.
Now, as I’ve already mentioned, the story of Jesus’ testing in the wilderness is found in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. But, Luke’s account has a unique feature. Again, if we had time this morning, we could play that Sesame Street game “one of these things is not like the other.” But, we don’t. Nevertheless, I call your attention to the final verse I read this morning: “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from Jesus until an opportune time.” Only Luke’s gospel closes the wilderness scene with this ominous statement. Now, our gospel writer isn’t going to stand up and shout “bingo” the next time Jesus is put to the test; but it’s pretty obvious.
In Luke, chapter 22, at the time of Passover, following their meal in which Jesus likens the bread to his body and the cup to his blood, after the betrayal of Judas has been revealed, Jesus goes to the Mount of Olives to pray. His prayer is that, if possible, his “cup,” that is his crucifixion, might pass. But, he acquiesces and further prays, “Not my will, but yours, be done.” Jesus’ prayer is bookended by his warning to his disciples – that they should stay awake and pray that they might not come into the time of testing. They, of course, like the Israelites of old, fail miserably. They succumb to the temptation to protect themselves and flee like frightened little school girls and Jesus, once again, finds himself in a lonely, wilderness place, condemned to death. What a moment of grief that must have been for Jesus when those disciples scattered during his darkest hour. Can you imagine?
Yet even as Jesus knows he is about to be betrayed and abandoned, he shows compassion toward his cowardly disciples for there is another place of uniqueness in Luke’s gospel. To be honest, I didn’t even notice it was there until about fifteen years ago. Luke relays a conversation between Jesus and Peter at that Passover meal. According to Luke, it is Jesus who introduces the topic of Peter’s betrayal by saying this (in Luke 22:31-32): "Simon, Simon, listen! The devil has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, 32 but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers." That’s pretty wild, right?
So, let me sum this up for us all. According to this gospel writer, the devil’s appearance in the wilderness at the start of Jesus’ ministry is just the opening salvo. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the terminator, he’ll be back and not just for Jesus for we are all put to the test. Life presents us with more than our fair share of tests. Life presents us with more than our fair share of wilderness. Life presents us with more than our fair share of loss and grief.
But, we can emerge from the wilderness and fight through our grief to reach wholeness and acceptance because the one who has been tested just as we are did not succumb and he is praying for us, interceding for us, just as he did for Simon Peter. We are all sifted at one time or another. We feel like we’ve been put through the ringer, strained and torn. Wilderness is an inevitable part of our human ecosystem and grief is a universal experience. But we can emerge from the wilderness because Jesus is interceding for us. God’s Spirit leads us. We are not left alone in our wilderness of grief.
And when we emerge, when we return, may we – like Simon Peter – be a source of strength for one another. God does not inflict us with wilderness. But, it is our Lord’s desire that we use our journey through the wilderness to be a source of strength for others still battling their way through.
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