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Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. -Matthew 4:1
The devil takes a while to get to the scene of temptation.
Did you ever wonder why?
The common understanding is that the devil waited until Jesus was weakest. That makes sense, anyway – why not wait until your adversary is most likely to be defeated?
Perhaps that is the reason.
I remember, a little too clearly, what I was like in college: a white girl from a privileged Boston suburb, attending a city school, the University of Pittsburgh. I remember watching my black classmates sit together at dinner, and wondering why I found it so hard to break in to their circle. I remember participating in specifically feminist activities and events on campus, all the while being very proud of myself for not “needing” to attend a women’s college. I remember being sure, somewhere inside myself, that if God loved all of us, and if we were to love each other, we needed to spend time together. And not in segregated spaces. This, it seemed, was the point of discipleship: hadn’t Jesus called people from all over, from all walks of life, to be together in the Kin-dom? Hadn’t Paul called us members of one Body, and reminded us to eat together, to worship together, to shelter and feed each other?
When I was in college, I strove to be colorblind, to learn to compete and achieve in a man’s world. When I was in college, I believed in a meritocracy, and grounded that belief in God.
Jesus goes out to the Jordan to be baptized by John – his cousin, according to some accounts – who had been preaching prophetically, out there beyond the cities, in his own wilderness. John preached, calling out hypocrisy, reminding us of our need for repentance, which is more than just saying we are sorry, but but changing, within our hearts, in irreversible ways. This prophet knows Jesus, in a very profound way; knows not only the man, but the spirit that is within him. Perhaps it is in the face of this Spirit, that he tries to decline, tries to convince Jesus he doesn’t need this water baptism, doesn’t need to be made new, doesn’t need to know God’s grace. But Jesus insists. Jesus, fully human, needs the rebirth of baptism. And then: perhaps, only then, can he follow the Spirit.
It strikes me, reading this text, that we need to feel the need to change before the wilderness is going to do us any good at all. We need to be aware of our need for repentance before we start the fast, before we seek after grace, before we go toe to toe with the devil.
It is human nature to filter our understandings of the world through our own experiences. It is human nature for people to not see or understand what they have not themselves experienced, to assume that others experience the world as they do, and that that way is “normal.” It’s why I didn’t understand the need for the black students at Pitt to find community in common experience. It’s why I didn’t truly get the power and potential of a women’s college for finding a voice that is too often silenced. It’s why so many of us don’t fully get the outrage at young black men, disproportionately stopped, arrested, and imprisoned. It’s why so many of us don’t quite understand the need for marginalized groups to be with those who don’t need to be educated, those who aren’t going to speak in well-meaning micro-aggressions. It’s human nature to see our lives as “normal” and therefore discount the experiences of others.
And human nature is hard to overcome.
It takes real acts of grace, in the face of our dismissiveness. It takes real acts of repentance and renewal to even begin, especially when we’ve been used to seeing our human nature as God’s will.
And although human nature is hardly washed away in the waters of baptism, that seems like a pretty good place to start, if one is preparing to walk along the path that God has laid before us. Even if you’re Jesus. Because it’s not only at Christmas that we need to take the incarnation seriously: the reminder that the divine came to reside within humanity in all of its messiness. And if we do take the incarnation seriously, we need to remember that Jesus was human, with all the biases and struggles that entails; with all the need for repentance, and wilderness, and grace.
Because listening for the call of God is pretty easy, when God says what we want to hear; when we hear God speaking in our own voice – the voice of good intentions.
It took me a long time to see beyond my own privileged experiences. It took a lot of arguments before I learned to shut my mouth and listen; to recognize my own biases, my need for repentance. It took a lot of grace, from those willing to challenge my hubris. It took a long time before I was prepared even for that first step, that plunge into the water, let alone to take those first steps into the wilderness, that place of introspection and self-awareness, that place where we remember that the voice of God isn’t always calling us in ways that echo human nature. It takes a long time for human beings to recognize the particularity of our experience, especially when it’s considered “normal.” It takes a long time for humans – incarnate beings – to see our privilege: the things we can take for granted, the things that are handed to us, whether or not we deserve them. I t takes a long time to recognize the grace that we so often don’t deserve; to feel, in that grace, the need to change our hearts, our perspectives, in irreversible ways; to come face to face with the temptations this world pushes on us and recognize them for what they are.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. But the devil took a while to get there; or at least, to be recognized as such. Time enough for Jesus to take a good hard look at the world around him, in which he’d been raised, at the biases of his own human heart. Until finally, one day, in his hunger he looked at the rock and knew that he could use his power for his own benefit, but that true nourishment lies in community, not in isolation.
And that day he knew that he could leap from the highest point imaginable and not be hurt, but that true devotion was not making God fly to him, but standing with God at the margins to support those who fell easily off of pebbles. That day, he saw clearly the trappings of power, of privilege, wielded for their own sake – even with the best of intentions – served as tools of oppression, and that the true power was held in open hands, given freely and without counting the cost.
It takes time, for us to approach the Jordan.
It takes time, for us to hear the Spirit’s pull into the wilderness.
It takes time, before we are ready to grapple with the tempter.
It takes time. Sometimes, it takes 40 days, often it takes more, to make the real, irreversible changes, to bring about repentance in the face of God’s grace that calls and accompanies us throughout our preparation for discipleship.
It takes time, but at the end, we walk out of the wilderness. At the end, we walk away from temptation, into the resurrection, and the kin-dom life of God’s eternal promises.
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” -Luke 21:5-6
Jesus is such a killjoy sometimes.
Here they are, going into Jerusalem, Jesus and those who have followed him. Jerusalem, bigger by far than the places they had so far been; the sights unusual for so many of them. Many of the Galileans, and certainly the Judeans in the group would have been to Jerusalem for the festivals; yet we know from Luke that there were non-Jews among Jesus’ followers as well, perhaps some who had never been there. We don’t know who, among this group, spoke with such awe; what we hear is simply the understandable amazement. The temple, that almost impossibly huge, beautiful, solid structure, would have seemed almost as though it had always been, would always be; as though it had not been created by human hands. It would have been hard to imagine its not being there, this building which dominated Jerusalem skyline; this building which housed God.
It would have been overwhelming, if not impossible, to conceive of the disappearance of such an important structure: how could something so present, so much a part of life, no longer be?
When you’re in place of transition – even good transition, even expected transition – imagining an “after” is nearly impossible.I know something about this in my own life, and suspect many of you do as well. Transitions mark end points in many ways, even the transitions we have most desired; they invoke grief, with all its associated emotions and stages. Living in transition, we find ourselves living in the unimaginable; feeling our way forward, and having the familiar become suddenly strange. Both Jesus’ followers, and those who author of Luke in 85CE, inhabited such transitional periods, as indeed we do now. Theirs were comprised of the power plays between Jewish autonomy and Roman occupation; between factions of religious and secular authority; between regions; between classes; between sects… all trying to imagine an unimaginable reality, in a way that would bring the most benefit to their own.
In either time, Jesus’ words prophetic. Not because he was predicting a future reality, for the destruction of Temple had already taken place when Luke wrote, but because he was, in tradition of prophets, speaking the hard truth of the current situation. Jesus spoke the truth that nation has already begun to rise up against nation, betrayal has already occurred. Jesus spoke the truth of our reality in which the ground is shifting beneath us; in which people are hungry, in which people are suffering; in which speaking truth does not make you popular, but dangerous.
Jesus speaks the truth that does not make him popular, but dangerous.
Jesus speaks the truth, right before this passage in Luke, that the widow who gave her last coin – her entire livelihood – to the Temple treasury, was betrayed by a system that was supposed to care for her rather than starving her in the name of God.
Jesus speaks the truth, in the passage before the widow, that there have been authorities in all times who prioritize social standing and visible piety over acts of compassion and grace; who would more easily devour than build up.
Jesus speaks the hard truth, throughout the scriptures, that we will be judged not by our finery, not by our beautiful buildings or our social or political or religious achievements, except insofar as we use these to care for the marginalized: the ones whose blood and sweat built the edifices we so admire, and the structures in which we so easily house God.
Because even the places we build for God; even the structures that we make for our dearest hopes, our sweetest dreams, our noblest visions; even these are simply structures of human design and construction.
Certainly, the God who consented to be contained within human flesh has consented as well to dwell in human buildings, for our God does not require perfection as a prerequisite for presence… or for grace. But we must not mistake God’s presence for approbation, just as we must not mistake God’s grace for a get-out-of-jail-free card. Rather, as the 20th century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, grace should be that undeserved gift that changes our lives, which makes us strive to live up to that which has been freely bestowed.
God’s free gift of grace should have some cost on our hearts.
So indeed, God’s presence in our human bodies and structures should be that which makes us strive to build as God would, in the image and likeness of the divine, rather than in the reflection of human failings.
God’s willingness to dwell in our imperfection is not cause for calling our efforts “good enough” and letting go the rest; rather it should be a constant impetus to do better: to acknowledge the imperfections, the inequities and injustices on which we have built; the lives and bodies that our impressiveness have cost; and to find new ways forward.
God’s willingness to dwell in our imperfections is no reason at all for us not to take it all apart: to live into the transitional time, as hard as it will be. For as nation rises against nation, as we are tempted to fight for our own short-term self-interest, as we are tempted to see other as inherently enemy, God calls us to build something new. God calls us to stand on the side of the widow, the hungry, the homeless, the excluded, the marginalized, in ways that tear down the systems that have been used to exclude and dehumanize.
God’s willingness to dwell in our imperfections should not make us less willing to speak the truth: that we are imperfect, yes, but that we can do better than these human structures that serve the powerful to detriment of the least of these.
For as frightening as it may be for us to acknowledge that our great structures, which inspire in us such awe and reverence still have their flaws, still might not stand; as painful as it may be to see that the structures we love and in which we find God might be built upon the suffering and oppression of those deemed “lesser”, “other”, “enemy”; we recall that God’s grace both forgives and changes us. God’s grace turns our hearts to follow the one who showed us what human flesh is truly capable of doing and of being.
As impossible as it might feel to dismantle the huge, beautiful stones until not one stands upon another; as tempting as it may be to turn inwards, to side with our own; to build, upon existing structures, walls to keep out other nations as they rise up: in so doing we risk being, not betrayed but betrayers of this beloved Creation.
It feels impossible, especially in this time of shaky ground, of transition and uncertainty. But this is the call of our God of grace, for whom and in whom we do our building.
For the stones of human construction cannot stand. The stones of misogyny and racism, of fear and suspicion, cannot contain God, larger than any human creation. The stones of xenophobia and exclusion, of hatred and distrust must fall before we can begin to build the kin-dom. The promises of God cannot be built on that which has been used to exclude and oppress. Rather that which has been must fall before the new city of God, the holy place of peace, can come into existence.
We must learn to choose carefully the stones for our construction. We must learn to build upon compassion, inclusion, equality. We must learn to rely upon God as architect and builder. For only when we have removed the blocks of fear and hatred from our structures; only when we have dismantled the suspicion and fear in which we have tried to contain our God and ourselves, can that time come when the wolf and the lamb lie down together; when the lamb need not fear being devoured and the wolf has no need of getting fat off of the vulnerable. Only then can the marginalized live without the fear of attack, and the privileged share freely their power. Only then shall all eat and be satisfied. Only then shall all live well their days upon this earth. Only then shall we all know the true peace that is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of compassion and justice.
The promises are before us, that the ways we have known – though familiar and sometimes comfortable, though solid and seemingly immovable – need not be our way forward. There is a better way: a way that is good, rather than “good enough”; a way that follows the path of God’s grace; a way that will require something of us, which will cost us; a way to which our uncontainable God is calling us right now.
God’s grace is before us, giving us the words of challenge and of promise. Will we listen? God’s path is before us, leading us along the road to a New Jerusalem, a promised realm of justice, equality and peace. Will we take the first step?
Glory to God in the highest!
Unto us is born this day
a Savior: helpless
upon our compassion
our willingness to give room
to the presence of God
Unto us is born this day
who bears the image of God
who contains the blessing of God
wrapped up, swaddled,
snuggled into the softest bed
And angels sing, if we have ears to hear
the eternal song of counting
fingers and toes,
the coos and whispers beyond language
to soothe a screaming newborn,
the universal lullaby
where we set aside,
for a moment,
the harshness of the world.
If we have ears to hear
what the earth-bound angels
then, God of mercy,
may we open our doors
to desperate strangers,
even if they’re from Nazareth
that backwater town
from which nothing good
could possibly come;
because we might be giving room
If we have ears to hear
the joyous, raucous,
exclamations of shepherds –
dizzy with the new-baby-smell
that clings, still, to their hands
despite the dirt –
if we have ears to hear,
beyond the impulse to dismiss
these evangelists who disturb our night
proclaiming the impossible
that God is here!
Right here: even here!
then, God of all,
may our eyes be opened
to the presence
of light in shadow
of eternal in temporal
of the Body of Christ
still walking this earth.
Creator God, source of life,
may we have ears to hear
the song of angels
in the voices of all
who call us to care for one another
as though we were caring for you;
who invite us to see
in unexpected human flesh,
who remind us that there is no
“us” and “them”
just your love incarnate
in a diversity of bodies.
Abiding God, resting,
in our frail human protection,
may we have ears to hear
the proclamation of the shepherds
who guide your children
to see you
in Bethlehem feed-troughs,
nosed-at by sheep;
in hospital bassinets,
shaking with addiction;
in donated carriers,
outside closed borders:
in swaddling clothes,
God-with-us now as then,
on earth as in heaven.
God of Grace, upending power,
in whom vulnerability overcomes fear
and love triumphs over death
may we have ears to hear;
If our minds and bodies can be
for long enough
to hear the ordinary,
blessings of incarnation.
may we run, like shepherds
to hold the child
so that Mary can get some rest
knowing her baby is in good hands.
Glory to God in the highest!
For unto us is born this day
One who will
heal the sick
house the homeless
nourish the hungry
release the prisoner
teach our children
care for our parents.
Glory to God in the highest!
For unto us is born this day
a Savior, a babe like any other:
given into our care.
Tiny fingers curling around ours
calling us anew
so that there might
be peace on earth.