Last week I preached about an important location in scripture: the mountaintop. Today we get two more important locations: the wilderness, and the Garden of Eden. I seem to be focused on locations… must be time for me to travel.
I spoke about the mountaintop and nature in idealized terms, but the wilderness in scripture is not the John Muir, idealized wilderness where we get away from it all. The wilderness in today’s gospel is not where you go to get away from it all; it’s where it all comes to get you--beasts, starvation, heat, lack of water, etc.
But the wilderness also has a purpose. It is where Moses leads the people of Israel on their way to the Promised Land. It is where the prophets go to prepare to preach the Word of the Lord. The wilderness is the place of testing and temptation, but also the place of self-reflection, and the discovery of strength. The wilderness is the place where we confirm God’s call to us; where we confirm that we are indeed the People of God, the Prophet of the Lord, the beloved Son of God.
The Garden of Eden is in some ways the opposite of the wilderness. Eden is paradise—it is a garden, enclosed by a wall, with Adam installed as its gardener. The punishment for eating of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil is expulsion from the garden—is being sent into the wilderness.
But they are not entirely different; there are still angels in the wilderness. And there is still sin and temptation in paradise. Real life means coming in contact with serpents and Satan, as well as angels and divine voices.
The Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness immediately after his baptism. Spending time in the wilderness is part of the spiritual life. Lent is 40 days in a wilderness of sorts—40 days of reflection, self-examination, and contemplating what temptations come before us. 40 days to help us confirm and determine our calling as followers of Jesus.
And as we embark upon this wilderness journey of Lent, I ask us to reflect on what our temptations are today. What tempts us to move away from God, instead of coming closer to God? I want us to think about the temptations that Jesus faces today, but in the opposite order that Jesus faces them today:
Satan tells Jesus to kneel before him, and then Satan will give Jesus power over all the kingdoms of the world. Well, that sounds familiar. It is a real temptation to believe that if we just kneel down briefly to evil, we will be able to take up power and use it wisely; to believe that when Satan offers us the power to do spectacular actions, we should do it; to believe that power derived from evil can be used in service of the good. . Henri Nouwen wrote a wonderful book about the temptation and identified this one as the temptation “to lead rather than to be led”. I’m a leader in the church, but I am a leader precisely because I remember that I am a follower of Jesus. God is the real leader, not me, and not Satan.
The second temptation, to jump off the pinnacle of the temple as a way of testing God’s ability to cushion our fall strikes me in a new way this year. I feel like this is the temptation to nihilism for me—the temptation to just check out, give up, and step off the temple tower because I no longer care. It’s the temptation to apathy; the temptation to put our heads down and say if some injustice doesn’t affect me then I can ignore it.
The first temptation, to change stones into bread, is the one that is always most challenging to me… I mean, if I could turn stones into bread and feed every hungry person wouldn’t that be good news? Here in our own context, if I could magically find all the money to solve Epiphany’s budget issues and improve our ministry, and fix our building… wouldn’t that be good? But I think what Jesus is resisting here are easy solutions to hard problems. God doesn’t solve the problem of sin with an easy solution. God allows his only Son to be executed to redeem us from our sins. We can’t solve our problems without self-sacrifice and effort. Jesus shows us to how to resist.
A few months ago I went back and reread all the Harry Potter books; I originally started reading them about the time that the third one came out… but once I got into it, I became one of those people who bought each new hardback book on the day it came out, capped by buying the last one, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, in the airport in Dar es Salaam on my way home from visiting our Carpenter’s Kids partners in Tanzania and reading it immediately, completing it somewhere between Dubai and NYC.
I loved them before. But reading them this year was even more poignant because of how JK Rowling deals with the challenge of evil in the world. They are, like Narnia, the great Christian books about the power of love over evil—I know there are many Evangelicals who believe the books are evil because they feature magic, but to me they are profoundly linked to the Christian story. Last night Nathan and I watched Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (because he’d just finished reading it), and Dumbledore’s words at the end of the movie, when Lord Voldemort has returned, sent me scrambling to find a pen and post-it note: "Dark and difficult times lie ahead. Soon we will all be faced with the choice between what is right, and what is easy."
Because that is that temptation, isn’t it? In the Harry Potter universe, but in our own lives as well. In Harry Potter, that challenge of the choice between what is right and what is easy is explored in the fifth, sixth, and seventh books, which I really encourage you to go back and read. Harry and a small group of friends choose what is right—at great cost to themselves. The followers of Voldemort, the death eaters, gain strength, by doing what is easy. The really interesting part upon rereading it, for me, was how the great institutions of the day—the Ministry of Magic, the press, even Hogwarts school of Witchcraft and Wizardry—are torn between following their instinct for self-preservation, and doing what is right. All too often, they choose what is easy, even though they know it is not right, because they believe it is in their ultimate interests. It is people who are outside the institutions, and who resist being coopted by the institutions, who are able, eventually, to conquer evil through the power of love and self-sacrifice. People who over and over again, make the choices on the side of love.
Last week when our group was discussing Hillbilly Elegy, we spent some time on one of JD Vance’s key themes: that his friends growing up, and many people in Appalachia and beyond did not believe their choices mattered; they didn’t believe that if they worked hard, they would get ahead; or that if they quit jobs, showed up late, etc. they would suffer.
Jesus is telling us today—along with Dumbledore—that our choices matter. We are faced with temptations that we can choose to resist, or that we can choose to give in to. There is a theological paradox in this: our choices matter, but even when we choose evil, Jesus is still there to redeem us. As Paul writes in the passage from Romans today: “one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous.” God’s choices, and God’s actions are the most central and profound act of love; but in the meantime, the choices we make either move us closer towards the kingdom of God, or further away.
During this Lenten series in the wilderness, may we strive to choose what is right over what is easy.