Daniel P. Strandlund
St. John’s Episcopal Church
Lent 1A; Matthew 4:1-11
March 5, 2017
Hunger, Abandonment, Weakness
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. (4:1)
The Devil tests Jesus in three ways in our passage from Matthew today: first, if you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread (4:3). Jesus has been fasting; he’s famished. Simple enough. Second, the devil puts Jesus on the pinnacle of the Temple and says, If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here [so that God’s angels will swoop down and save you.] If Jesus has the unique relationship with God that we are to believe he has, the kind of oneness attested to in the psalms the Devil quotes, then this should be no problem. God will reveal himself and come to Jesus’ aid, thereby providing undoubtable assurance that Jesus is God’s Son. Third, having been thwarted thus far, the Devil offers to make Jesus the World King, ruler of all kingdoms of the earth and their splendor.
In short, the Devil tempts Jesus with food, divine assurance, and power. Food, divine assurance, and power. Now let’s think about this for a minute: if the Devil is tempting Jesus with food, divine assurance, and power, it is worth considering whether God’s holiness in this passage is not somehow involved with the opposite. In other words, if the Devil tempts with food, divine assurance, and power, perhaps the path to holiness involves hunger, divine abandonment, and weakness. I’m going to take these one at a time.
First path to holiness in the wilderness: hunger. Physical hunger has a way of changing our priorities. Sometimes when we get hungry, we also get hangry. Hanger: the kind of crankiness and impatience that comes when it’s been too long since lunch. When you get really and truly hungry, nothing else seems to matter. If I’m hungry enough, you could come to me with your hair on fire asking for help, and with all the confidence in the world, I could think to myself, Big deal! Your hair is on fire? How could you be so selfish? Can’t you see that I need a snack?
Hunger has a way of sharpening our priorities because real hunger is not abstract: the body knows what the body knows. When our gut gets that hollow, urgent feeling that says it’s time to eat, our physical bodies seem to leech away all of our anxieties about an uncertain future or a bitterly remembered past: they’re drowned out by the rumbling in our stomachs. Our bodies never live anywhere but here and now. This is, I think, one reason why fasting is such a longstanding Christian practice. By bringing us back to our bodies, fasting brings us back to the present”and it is only in the present that we can commune with God. God is not with you in your past or future simply because you are not in your past or future. You are here, you are now, and that is when and where God is.
To fast is to be here and now, and only hear and now. To fast, to be intentionally hungry, is to be reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return. It’s an act of humility, of embracing our finitude and our cosmic smallness in the course of history. Yet in so doing, we carve out room for the presence of God”the God who is capable of making a creature as wonderfully interesting as you out of mere dust, the God who even after you have been dead and buried for years, after your body has returned to the dust from which it is made, a God who still, miraculously, calls you into life.
How fitting, then, that Jesus should know his own hunger so deeply that his very body becomes bread and wine, food for the life of the world. If you have ever fasted for a day and broken that fast with communion, then you will know viscerally how even the blandest wafer and slightest sip of wine can sing on the tongue.
Second wilderness path to holiness: abandonment. Since our Gospel tells us that it is only after he has fasted and been tempted that the angels show up to wait on him, it seems safe to assume that Jesus hasn’t been in the company of heavenly beings or delighting in the pure presence of the divine. Rather he’s been out in the desert, alone, looking for shade, searching for a decent cave to sleep in, a trickle of water to drink. The wilderness is devoid of conversation and community.
In short, Jesus is alone out there, and we must presume that neither God nor his angels are keeping him company, at least not in any way of which Jesus is aware. I imagine it’s only a few hours before the voices start in: you know, that chorus of beraters and doubters and worriers and egomaniacs we all carry around with us.
What are you doing out here? What in God’s name do you hope to accomplish by this? You’re mistaken; you’re a fraud. How could you be God’s beloved?
I imagine, too, that Jesus hears that most subtle of voices, the one who craves spiritual achievement. I imagine that Jesus, worn out from hunger and heat, is looking for a nice, cool shady spot in which to lie down for a while. And just as he finds one, that voice of spiritual achievement chimes in and says, Oh come on. The shade? I thought you were God’s chosen. Surely if you loved your Father in heaven, you wouldn’t cop-out and lie down in the shade, would you? Come on! A nap in the shade is something a Sadducee would do. Surely you’re better than that!
In the wilderness, there is no voice from Heaven proclaiming Jesus is God’s beloved, no heavenly voice drowning out those other voices we carry around with us. God never abandons us, but it’s simply true that many of us have wilderness seasons where everything suggests that God might as well have. No voice from heaven; our inner reserves of confidence and joy and purpose depleted; the very marrow of life turned to ash in our mouths. We have no evidence or spiritual experience to suggest God is here.
In the geography of the soul, the wilderness is where God and all that is good seem to have abandoned us. When we are there, the only thing to do is to keep going, keep doing the next right thing. Continue getting out of bed. Continue making the bed. Continue to live with the deafening silences and empty chairs of your house, and yet also continuing to break those silences with the sounds of coffee being made, of your plate and fork being washed”the clinks and scrapes and dripping faucets of a life continuing to live.
If it does anything, this sense of abandonment purifies our desires. We cease to desire even that we be rescued from our plight, and instead we begin to desire that God show up and justify our circumstances to us. This is a significant shift: to have the object of our desire become directly and undoubtedly God. Not comfort, not spiritual experience, but God. We come to realize that all those doubting and berating and egocentric voices we carry around in us all the time”those voices are insubstantial. They are not even the voices of real human beings but merely shadows of our lesser selves. No, the voice we want is far deeper, far more terrifying, far more irreducible. Like Job, we want to stand before the whirlwind and hear the voice of God”Who is this mortal who darkens counsel before me? Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth and set the heavens in their spheres? (Paraphrase, opening verses of Job 38.)
By entering into the abandonment of the wilderness, our false and flimsy desires are pared away. The only thing we have ever really wanted is for God to be God. No one has ever confronted this desire more fully than Jesus of Nazareth, who felt himself abandoned even to the point of crucifixion. And why? The only answer can be this: because God is God.
The third path to holiness in the wilderness is weakness. The Devil offers Jesus rule over all the kingdoms of the world if only he will do him homage. But if Jesus were to assume that kind of kingship, then any obedience the world’s citizens might show him would ultimately be the result of coercion. You do what the king says because the king controls the most swords. What the king wants, the king simply takes.
Instead, Jesus travels the way of weakness. When you are weak, you lack the agency to which you are accustomed. You depend on others. You can’t do for yourself what you once could. Illness, emotional distress, recovery from surgery”these put us at the mercy of others for transportation, getting to the restroom, putting our socks on. We start to feel like a burden. As if our illness or injury were something we had chosen! But it is never wrong to do only that of which you are capable.
So what happens? Jesus refuses, the Devil departs, and the angels of God appear and wait on Jesus. They feed him, clothe him, clean his face, clip his fingernails, watch over him while he sleeps. It is never wrong, even for Jesus, to do only that of which you are capable. After Jesus’ ordeal in the wilderness, he receives aid.
When you are in the wilderness, the path to holiness may look like weakness. Do only what you are capable of doing, and trust that the Lord and his community called the Church are going to show up and mow your grass or clean out the basement when it’s time. The wilderness has a way of removing our illusions of power, and in so doing we are reminded that no one, not even Jesus, is the source of his own blessing. We need others to do that for us.
Hunger, abandonment, weakness. None of these is a pleasant topic. None of these seems to fit with what we usually say about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But remember: this is what holiness looks like in the wilderness. Jesus is Lord of other geographies as well, and we’ll explore those another day. But in Lent, we mustn’t flinch from the wilderness, where what we say about God does not always seem to make sense.
We should not expect it to. If the good news of God in Christ had all the trappings of our usual self-helps, if it promised to make us highly effective or if it promised to entertain”if it promised that, we could not trust that it truly belonged to God. Nothing would distinguish it from the machinations of our own egos. And worst of all, it would suggest that if we ever do find ourselves in the wilderness, it must be because we’re doing something wrong, that we don’t have enough faith, that God has judged us unworthy.
Rubbish. At Jesus’ crucifixion, the last, worst pieces of humanity were subsumed into the Godhead. It’s as if the crucifixion of Jesus dilates through history, bringing into union with God even the worst and most painful pieces of our own human experience. God has annexed even the wilderness into His Kingdom. Hunger, weakness, even the experience of feeling abandoned by God Himself”none of that is alien territory to the Son of Man. None of that can revoke the citizenship which you have in heaven.
Hunger, divine abandonment, weakness. Even these are being sublimated by the power of God. Remember the rest of the story: Jesus’ hunger will become loaves of bread and baskets of fish to feed thousands. Jesus’ abandonment will become the assurance that God is with them in the transfigured Christ before his disciples. Jesus’ weakness will conquer the world, as he sends out his apostles two by two, into every nation and territory, even the wild places where we don’t like to go.
So. If you find yourself in the wilderness, don’t try to leave before it’s time. There’s a fullness to forty days, be they literal or figurative. The easy ways out are probably not the best ways. Resurrection, like blessing, isn’t something we do to ourselves. It’s only something we discover, with surprise, has happened to us. At the end of the dry season, when without knowing it we’ve left the wilderness and turn and look back at it from another perspective”it was arid; it was as bad as we remember. Yet it was rich, too, in its own way.