Wednesday, March 16, 2011

In the wilderness

Matthew 4:1-11

After just a quick survey of fine art resources on the web, I think I can say that the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness is one of the most depicted events in the life of Jesus. An art search engine I use found art pieces created from the 9th through the 21st century, many of them from the 16th and 17th centuries with a serene Jesus, rosy-cheeked even as he faced the tempter, a halo still glowing over his head.

However, this week we found a more recent depiction of the temptation that we just had to share with you. British artist Simon Smith was experiencing what he described as a wilderness period in his creative life. He says he felt like he "was on some sort of unending treadmill." His work was getting "stale" and "unadventurous." He decided to stop and pray, and what he prayed for was wilderness - in his words, "Time to stop, to be still and to breathe and to dream a bit, and to be refreshed."

One of the things that came out of that time was his own depiction of Jesus' wilderness time. The idea came from another artist, Stanley Spencer, who created 40 pictures, one for each day of Lent, of Christ in the Wilderness. Si Smith did the same thing, creating 40 images, in a way almost a cartoon strip, but somehow unexpectedly powerful. Open your eyes and your hearts to this understanding of Jesus' wilderness experience.

Forty days and forty nights without other human contact. Forty days and forty nights without food to nourish the body and mind. Forty days and forty nights of extreme temperatures and exposure to the elements. Forty days and forty nights for intense prayer and intimate exposure to God. The desert weighed on Jesus over the course of the 40 days and 40 nights. He weakened as his body and spirit were battered by what they experienced.

Our congregational prayer list tells me that desert times aren't impossible for us to imagine. Whether in our own lives or the lives of those we know and love, we have seen desert times. Times when the elements of disease, the economy, and tragedy have weighed heavy on our lives. We have seen times when spiritual food was scarce; some of us have even experienced times when physical food was hard to come by and stomachs growled nervously and hungrily. We have known loneliness brought on by the isolation of diminishing physical capacities, death in our families, or even the solitude of our singular experiences to which we imagine no one else can relate. Likewise, as the news reports, videos, and images continue to roll in from Japan, we can only imagine the kinds of hunger, isolation, emptiness, and devastation that people are living with after the natural disasters they have lived through.

The wilderness weighs us down. The wilderness piles up on our backs like heavy loads we are forced to carry for an unimaginable, unknown length of time. By day 30 or 31, maybe even earlier, our lips and spirits understandably dry out and start to crack. Our backs bend over. Our bodies get tired. We are famished.

And when we get tired and hungry, when we feel isolated and alone, when we are in spiritual and emotional deserts, parched, craving anything life-giving, we are tempted by any little thing at all that seems to offer a solution to the immediate problems. We look for the winning lottery ticket, the easy (but truthfully non-existent) quick fix. We are tempted to deny the wisdom of God, tempted to abandon our faith in God our creator, tempted to abandon God who we have been tricked to believe has abandoned us. We are tempted to trust other paths, other voices, instead of trusting God who formed us from the dust of the ground, who placed us in the garden of life, who provides out of abundance for our every need.

Jesus comes to the desert with the waters of his baptism still wet on on his forehead. He comes to the desert having just heard the very voice of God declare, "This is my Son," but the first words he hears aloud when he is weakened in body, mind, and probably even Spirit, is "If you are the Son of God." It would not be hard to fall prey to the tempter's trap. A desert experience doesn't FEEL like we dream the life of a son or daughter of God will feel.

The biggest temptation of all is not to magically make food appear, or call down angels to save him, or even to gather all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. The biggest temptation of all is really for Jesus to ignore what God has said is true, for us to deny what we have been told by our creator, to let the tempter steal our very identity as children of God, by tempting us to question the truth of God's love based on our experiences in the desert.

Until now I have assumed the tempter is someone outside of ourselves, but Si Smith's artwork shed some new light on the story for me. Did you notice the image of the tempter in his pictures? Did you notice anything about him? The traditional color of red for the devil was used, first in a lightly tinted apple hanging from an otherwise barren tree on day 24, alluding back to the fruit that the first man and woman were tempted to eat in the Garden of Eden. Next the color comes back in snake that crawls across days 27 and 28. Lastly, the color red is used for the image of the tempter because otherwise you couldn't distinguish him from Jesus himself.

The tempter is identical to the one being tempted. While it is our first impulse to identify with Jesus in the wilderness in the story, Si Smith points out in his art what a few others have pointed out in writing. If there is anyone with whom we should identify in this story, it is probably not the one being tempted; it is the one doing the tempting. The tempter in the desert questioned Jesus' very identity by questioning the way he exercised (or didn't exercise) his divine power. The tempter tried to steal Jesus' identity and turn him into the kind of God he expected instead of the kind of God he was sent to be.

Do we not try to tempt Jesus in these same ways all too often? Do we not question his identity based on our understanding of what he should be doing?

If you really are the Son of God, why do bad things still happen?
If you really are the Son of God, the object of my faith, why do my friends die?
If you really are the Son of God, why is disease taking over my body?
If you really are the Son of God, why is their suffering in this world?
If you really are the Son of God, why didn't you stop the earthquake, the tsunami?
If you really are the Son of God, why don't you just stop it all, stop the suffering, stop the pain? Why don't you stop the bickering and the fighting? Why don't you step in, intervene, step up and be the ruler we think you should be?

No, even more than we are the tempted, we are probably the tempters, trying to push and pull and bargain with Jesus until he fits our understanding of what it means to be the Son of God, what it means to be relevant, to be spectacular, to be powerful. (I've been told these three are Henri Nouwen's descriptions of the temptations) We try to make his life, his response to our lives, fit our understanding of his identity, instead of trusting what he heard at his baptism, and what we were told at our own.

Because ultimately, trusting who he is and understanding who are is all wrapped up together in our baptisms. The declaration of God as Jesus rose through the water is the declaration that is made true when the same element is dropped, poured, sprinkled, or drenched on our own heads. You are a child of God. You are a child of God. What the tempter tries to do more than anything else, what we try to do when we are in that role, is steal Jesus' identity. He tries to tell him what he thinks being the Son of God is really about. He tempts Jesus to forget who he is, because really who he is, is completely dependent upon WHOSE he is.

Jesus' survival in the wilderness isn't dependent on his own ability to turn stones into bread. He isn't tempted to find an easy way out, calling down angels to carry him away from a deadly situation. He doesn't claim for himself powers that would turn the favor of the world in his direction. Jesus survives the wilderness by remembering the very words of God. Jesus survives the wilderness by remembering to whom he belongs. He is the son of God.

We are the children of God. This is the good news for us as both the tempted and the tempter. This is the good news that both convicts and comforts us. We are not in charge. We are not the authors of God's identity, but we are the subject of God's creativity. We are the book God is writing. We are the children of God. We are beloved and cared for, nurtured and forgiven even in the deserts of our lives, even when we tempt Jesus to do it all our way.

We are not God; we are the children of God. Our way through the wildernesses we face is to remember this key to our identity, to not let it be stolen by others, to not let it be distorted by our own dreams of grandeur. Who we are is completely dependent upon whose we are. We are children of God.

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