I was in a conversation with one from a nearby seminary a few days back.
She’s in charge of philanthropic giving. She’s new to the work, at least in this particular place, and so she is spending this time getting acquainted. In particular, she has just been picking up the phone and reaching out to church leaders, pastors mostly, whose congregations have given a gift of one kind or another over the last few years.
So it was that we spent 45 minutes on a zoom call the other day. She told me then that she has talked to 28 pastors in as many days. And that 25 of those 28 are seriously struggling, weary, discouraged.
I wasn’t surprised as I expect you aren’t either.
For we have been ‘in the wilderness’ for some time now, haven’t we? Which is why, it seems to me, that we would do well to stand still in the story before us now before jumping on to the next as we launch into Lent this season.
And this is always the way of ‘wilderness,’ isn’t it? It is almost by its very nature a time of testing, of considering with intention who we are and who we are meant to be, of relying on what we have learned in other such times, of turning to resources internal and external, of going deeper and then going deeper still. And yes, while we may not have fasted from physical food over this particular ‘long time,’ we have surely been deprived of other things we formerly relied on. It’s hard to say whether Jesus chose this time of testing, for while in Mark’s Gospel it says that the Spirit drove him there, in this reading we hear that he was simply led. Like Mark’s Gospel though, we hear that he was tempted or tested the whole time that he was there.
And we get that now, don’t we? Perhaps more than ever before we know:
- What it is to be tempted to rely on things which do not in the long term (or the short term either) ultimately give life…
- What it is to want to receive as our own whatever it is ‘the devil’ is offering now, if only for just a little while to not have to constantly be speaking and acting over and against the voices of the world which would give us a temporary (but in no way lasting) kind of authority…
- And oh, what it is to ‘test’ God when it might just seem easier to give up the struggle, to walk away once and for all from this constant place of listening, discerning, wondering, not to mention trying and trying again.
Now this is so. The temptations we are invited to consider again this Lent may or may not parallel that which you have experienced in these last ’40 days’ — this last ‘long, long time’ not unlike those times through which God’s people have encountered and lived through and been shaped by so many times before. And I know I only speak for myself here, but perhaps what I offer now mirrors where you have found yourself as well:
For yes, I have sometimes been tempted to despair, wondering where God is and how God is working.
I have from time to time been tempted to give up even listening any more for God has seemed silent.
And it is so that I have been tempted to quit doing the hard work which has been required over and over again:
- This wearing business of paying attention to how I am responding and wondering where those not always helpful gut responses are coming from.
- This hard work of revisiting old losses which have inevitably and sometimes painfully surfaced as new ones and too many at that, call them up again.
- This very real grief work somehow made necessary as we recognize the ‘old ways’ which were at least comfortable if not always loved, will likely never work as they once did.
And yes, this wondering if God will actually give us what we need this time:
- Not only to respond to the ongoing effects of a global pandemic
- But the need to do something with the deepening awareness of the countless inequities for which we are accountable: in health care, in housing, in education, and on and on…
- And now, again, a war where countless innocent will suffer and die and which will have very real implications (if ‘only’ economic ones around the world) which will again, no doubt, land hardest on those who can least afford it.
And there is this as well. I yearn for a different telling of this story this time through, I do.
One where we hear about angels ministering to Jesus the whole time he is out there grappling with with hunger and exhaustion, with identity and meaning and purpose. The ones we hear about in Mark 1:13 and in Matthew 4:11.
That does not mean those angels were not there in Luke’s imagination, of course, although we cannot know for sure. Either way, I am curious this time to notice this. That in Matthew’s telling and in Mark’s, too, Jesus is led or driven into the wilderness immediately in the wake of hearing the voice of God at his baptism declaring his beloved-ness. And while, yes, the same happens in the same order in Luke’s Gospel, too, this time through something else comes in-between. Indeed, this time right before we hear about the temptation in the wilderness, first Luke offers a reminder that Jesus was not only beloved by God, that Jesus was not only God’s son, but that he also stands in a line of countless other human ones, some known to us and most not.
- Others who had heard the voice of God and who failed to hear.
- Others who had also surely found themselves in wilderness times, in times of testing and trial as well.
- And who had emerged on the other side, too, as Jesus did, with an even clearer sense of who God was and is and who they were.
For right before this, we have Luke’s account of Jesus’ family tree.
So it is I wonder now if Jesus took the echo of God’s voice with him into the wilderness. The one which spoke with unwavering clarity of who he was and how much he was beloved.
- And, yes, I wonder now at the difference it makes if we allow and invite ourselves to do the same.
And I wonder if Luke is reminding us now that Jesus also took with him all those ancestors who had gone before — and if in doing so he also took with him the powerful imprint of who they were, what they had seen and known and done and failed to do and how they had been picked up again and again by God’s grace.
- And I wonder what it means if you and I are able to do that, too. Both those named today and certainly in Jesus, but also in all those stories, those countless experiences held by centuries of others who precede us which are imprinted on us as well. Both those heroes of the faith which are named in the Biblical witness, but those others, too, which are particular to us each one.
No, Luke does not name angels, but maybe ‘angels,’ God’s messengers coming to us in countless gifts, are still carrying us, inviting us to lean ever deeper into the certain promise that God will provide what we need, even or especially in this particular wilderness time — this particular ‘very long time’ of 40 days many times over.
For God always has before.
And so I wonder with you now:
- Have these ‘forty days,’ has this ‘long time’ simply worn you out as well? What has been called up and out in you that you never before imagined?
- What has it meant for you to ‘go deep and deeper still?’
- Indeed, what gifts have you encountered along the way? Have you known the very angels of Matthew and Mark? Or in the fashion of Luke, have you sensed the imprint of all the ancestors, including Jesus, on you and in you in this time, enabling you to bear up, to trust that which is trustworthy, to keep leaning on and into the promise that God always gives what is needed?
And I wonder this as well:
How will all of that which has been imprinted on you in this ‘very long time’ be passed along to generations to come so that they might have what they need to do the same?
Indeed, how will the gifts which mark and carry you now, how will all that has been learned, how will the countless ways God’s grace has picked you up be passed along as precious gift to those who come after who will also be called to bear and be and do the same in their own ‘ very long times?’