Into the Wilderness
photo P.GillHow can we remove the obstacles to recognizing who we really are and what our life purpose might be? A gospel story tells how Jesus went into the wilderness for a long retreat, and there had quite a conversation with Satan. It offers some excellent advice. From a sermon for St Johns UCC Church on March 13, 2022.
This is a story of encounters: Jesus with John the Baptist and then the Holy Spirit. Jesus with himself. Jesus with Satan.
This is a wonderful story, of Jesus fleeing or sent to the wilderness. So many of us wish we knew something about the first 30 years of Jesus’ life. Did he find a teacher as a young man? Did he have some exposure to other traditions, for his world was rich and complex? Traders and merchants crisscrossed the whole region. After all this was the Roman Empire!
How did he learn who he was, and who he was called to be? How did he learn his “work” for his life? How did he become so certain even as an illiterate carpenter, a man who worked with his hands in a poor village a couple days’ walk from Jerusalem?
And I won’t even ask, why did the evangelists put this story in, and why there, right after his baptism in the Jordon? And then, how do we know this story? Remember, Jesus went alone to the wilderness. No one watched or overheard what happened and what was spoken. Did he tell someone?
I’m going to take the story as somehow, “accurate” or “true,” though I rarely agree to this interpretive move. But I want to read it as a guide, an instruction, for us, on how we prepare ourselves to follow God’s call to us, and how we might align with Spirit, to become who we really are.
So, the story. (And please note how the story sets up the last days of Jesus’ life, from Gethsemane to the trappings of power, the associations with kingship, and the cruel mockery about God’s protection of his beloved son.)
The story actually begins with his baptism by John, in the Jordan, along with many other country folks, when he receives a huge “download” of Holy Spirit. He is called a child of God, the Son of God. After the crucial encounter with John the Baptist and his receptive encounter with the Holy Spirit, he is sent away on retreat, presumably to take all this in..
Off he goes to the wilderness, in that region, a dry and barren desert. The gospel tells us, he is “sent” by the Holy Spirit. “Chased” might be another good word. I’m sure some of you recognize it. And there he fasted for 40 days, the Biblical number for “a long time.” This would be a deep retreat, with no distractions. Some accounts say, he had neither food nor drink during that time. And at the end, he was hungry.
Satan arrives, for the crucial encounter of this story. Satan is a Hebrew word, and it means “the adversary.” Its translations into Greek have given us “Satan,” and “devil.” I really prefer “adversary” and will stay with that.
There is a side issue here we could consider some day: Is Satan a Being? A force? A cosmic power? I don’t know or know how I could know. Ukraine certainly makes me wonder, yet again. But “adversary” allows us to recognize it as an inner phenomenon, an aspect of our inner landscape, and perhaps as one of the multiple voices and inclinations within each one of us. This way the story yields a great deal, I will argue, for each of us. It becomes “Instruction” for how to walk our spiritual path.
I know I’m saying things about Jesus which some of you will find impossible or annoying, and that don’t fit with your understanding of Jesus as divine and not at all like the rest of us. That he is already perfect and wholly without sin, a person who came from God, God’s only Son, the perfect sacrifice to restore humanity to God’s favor.
But there is an ancient understanding, which is also certainly to be found today among Scripture scholars and theologians, that Jesus was a human being, a fully human being. We see him in the gospel stories furious in the temple, kicking over tables, very sharp with his mother and his disciples and family. He was not an easy guy, certainly not the image we have created of him, like that painting over the altar – that very kind, serene Norwegian.
I’ll hand all these central theological issues over to Rachel when she returns! Meanwhile, back to Satan and his questions to Jesus.
Satan’s apparent mission is to persuade Jesus to turn away from his call, announced in the baptismal moment, and so offers him three really good deals, usually named “temptations.” Satan offers him material abundance and wealth, political power, and unmistakable religious legitimacy as the ultimate miracle worker. He is promised not only rule over the Temple and its rituals, but also all the kingdoms of the earth. He is promised all will recognize him as the ultimate Son of the Most High.
And what is all of that? Ego, ego, ego. It is our insatiable energies of greed, arrogance, and power. It is ego gone mad in its desiring, and in its absolutely fruitless quest for security, permanence, and immortality. It is not pretty. And it seems to be part of every human being, with only the fewest exceptions. I would certainly say, though I believe without question in our fundamental goodness, it is also true to say, we also all have these shadow energies driving a lot of our perceptions and behavior.
And these are the obstacles to following the call of Spirit, to become whole and so able to become whom we are meant to be and to do what we are meant to do. Jesus is sent to the wilderness to confront these aspects of himself, such as they might have been, and wrestle with them until they were fully defeated. He goes to the wilderness to win and claim his freedom, to actually manifest in his life that he is indeed the beloved child of God. He surely passes the test!
And I believe it is exquisite advice for each of us.
Let me explain all this a little more, because, for me, at least, this is where the story becomes extremely powerful and useful. It is a condensed, succinct map of the spiritual journey, of the long trek from a regular, half-awake, “normal” life, to a life shimmering with light, not only drenched by Great Love, but fully aware of that Love.
So, wherever you are on your path or whatever tough issue you are facing right now, or whatever underlies your sadness or fear, these three questions from Satan might shed some light. Paying attention to them might help you get “unstuck.” Wrestling faithfully and honestly with one will likely dissolve the obstacles to aligning with Spirit and its call to you.
Since Jesus is hungry after his long time in the desert, Satan urges him to “turn these stones into bread.” He answers, “you shall not live on bread alone.” Ask yourself, what are you hungry for? What does your heart long for? Which hungers and needs are visible, up on the surface, and which might be buried deep within you? Do any of those lead you away from God, from Spirit, or from your own wholeness?
When Satan chides Jesus to show he is the Son of God, by throwing himself down and trusting the angels will catch him, Jesus responds: “You shall not test the Lord your God.” Are there places in your life where you settle for some counterfeit praise? Do you surrender your own powers and gifts to mitigate risk and danger, settling instead for forms of distraction – substance abuse, entertainment, resignation, irresponsibility, defeatism? Do you make yourself way too small, to avoid that great call from God?
And last, Satan offers Jesus rule over all the earthly kingdoms, if only he will bow down before Satan. Here is the great temptation to grasp power and control over our life and the lives of others, even over death. We all indulge in that one, for sure, and it cripples our hearts and our ability to trust and surrender to the Holy. We pay a terrible price for that old habit. Look at our world, tormented by struggles for control and power. There is tremendous freedom in Jesus’ response: “You shall bow down only before the Lord your God.”
These invitations from Satan function like a search light allowing us to peer into our own depths, and to see where we are stuck, shut down, unconscious, and surely, suffering. In this simplest of stories, Jesus shows us how to let go of those structures of fear and to allow their deep healing.
And there is one more profound gift Jesus receives from this encounter with Satan. The questions and his answers have revealed to him, mirrored for him, his deepest truth of who he truly is and how he is to live his life. This too each of us on our path of healing must receive – this careful mirroring, from an authentic witness. Who better to witness to Jesus, than Satan?
And so, we are invited to bask in the freedom and integrity of being open to the great Encounter – not with the devil, but with the Presence and Call of Spirit, to each of us.
Over and over, we are invited to taste that freedom, to dissolve our ancient fears, and to know ourselves as the beloved children of the Holy One. Find what hinders you, and gently wrap it in deep compassion, and then release it. We can mirror each other as we walk our paths. As Ram Dass said: “We are all walking each other home!”