by Pastor Sarah Stadler
I wrestled with the Bible this week.
Each year on the first Sunday in Lent, we read the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, and I have always had more questions than answers. Does God allow the devil to tempt us? Is this story calling us to resist temptation? Why would the Holy Spirit lead Jesus into the wilderness? Is the devil affirming Jesus’ identity as Son of God, or is he questioning that identity? What exactly is the devil? This week, I added some questions because of a new, seemingly obvious insight: this story is about Jesus. Not about me, not about us but about Jesus. This is not a story that ends “Go and do likewise” as the parable of the Good Samaritan does. Jesus does not require a wilderness journey of temptation for followers. Jesus does not send the disciples into the wilderness with only the clothes on their backs and a knife in order to determine their worthiness as disciples. No. Jesus’ journey into the wilderness is his own—no one else’s. I had always assumed that this story was about me, about us and about our temptations and trials. If that isn’t the case, then, what does this story have to say to us?
In first century Israel, in a time before electric light and a highway system, the wilderness threatened anyone who traveled there. Perhaps for the first time in his life, Jesus leaves his hometown by himself and enters the wilderness, full of the Holy Spirit. He is likely 30 years old at this point, middle aged for that time, and he discovers the limits of his physical body. He fasts and survives an environment rife with reptiles and dangerous animals, constant sun and little water. Jesus faces a challenger or, from my perspective, challenges. A challenge to eat while fasting. A challenge to use his power to domineer. A challenge to test the faithfulness of God. Jesus rises to each challenge. But he does not grasp for power. He does not call upon God for a miracle. He does not find comfort in food.
Jesus’ experience in the wilderness resembles that of other religious people in the wilderness, mystics and sages who went on vision quests, trips characterized by emptiness. No food. No companions. No defenses.
In my wrestling with the Bible this week, I myself experienced a new kind of emptiness. I thought, maybe, I would show up this morning with nothing to preach. After hours of study and thought, prayer and meditation, I considered skipping the sermon entirely because I did not have anything genuine to say. I was going to try and solve my problem by preaching something disingenuous. I was going to give easy answers to my own difficult questions. I thought, maybe, I could slide one past all of you, and you wouldn’t notice. …and then I realized that this was similar to Jesus’ journey in the wilderness. Jesus doesn’t fight his challenger, the devil. He really doesn’t engage the devil. He allows himself to be challenged. He allows the emptiness of his experience.
Emptiness is okay. Being challenged is okay. Not having the answers is okay. Being uncomfortable is okay. When we rush to answer those questions, when we run away from challenges, when we turn always to comfort, when we run from the wilderness, we miss the gift of the wilderness.
The American poet Wendell Berry writes:
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
Now in the season of Lent, we have come to our real journey. In our mid-week Lenten services, we will be exploring the topics of death and grief, topics we rarely discuss in our culture, I think mostly because we don’t know what we think or because we are so uncomfortable with these topics. In many of our lives, we are up against things we don’t understand—illness, the inexplicable actions of people we love, violence and war, depression and addiction. I just attended a meeting this past week about a difficult problem in the church at large, and we were meeting to brainstorm a way forward. Someone offered at the very beginning of the meeting a long and detailed outline of how to solve the problem, all in one fell swoop. And I was annoyed. If the problem were really that easy to solve, why haven’t we already solved it? I wondered. Upon reflection, I had to laugh because providing answers to our questions, even ineffectual answers, even answers grounded in nothing, often seems to satisfy us more than the truth that we simply don’t know—about death, about illness, about relationships, about problems in the church at large. But when we no longer know what to do, no longer know which way to go, when our minds are baffled, we are able to let go of our certainty. We have come to our real journey. Instead of filling this journey with gimmick and quip, we enter into Lent facing what is real and hard and empty. Just as this emptiness prepared Jesus for his ministry, so too will this season of emptiness prepare us for the complexities of this life. On this first Sunday of Lent, emptiness will have to be enough. Amen.