A Wilderness Road
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
The first Sunday in Lent feels a long way from the cherished stories of incarnation we read at Christmas. Mary spoke to Gabriel. An angel counseled Joseph in a dream. The wise men followed a star, and the shepherds were led by a choir of angels to the manger in Bethlehem. But for me, it’s not the manger but in the wilderness, where the Word becomes flesh and Jesus becomes someone I can relate to.
There were no heavenly anomalies on the day of my birth after all. No dove or heavenly voice to split the heavens at my baptism. But this wilderness story is different. I do know what it’s like to be in an environment where there is no clear path, where I feel overwhelmed, where circumstances make it difficult to decide what to do, or even know what the choices are. Maybe you can relate too.
Jesus is still dripping wet from baptism when the Spirit led or compelled him into the desert. It’s as if God couldn’t wait a moment longer. He goes there to be credentialed. He goes to the DMV, the Department of Mission Validation, to get his Messiah’s license. Jesus passed the test to show he understands the proper use of divine power.
Jesus proves he is not a fickle, self-serving friend. We can rely upon on him to be there with us and for us no matter what. This fact inspired Martin Luther to write A Mighty Fortress. God is like a warrior to fight beside us in the wilderness to vanquish those who would wish us harm. “Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child, or spouse, though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day, the kingdom’s ours forever!” (Martin Luther, ELW #504)
In the wilderness, Jesus showed us how to be human, not divine. He showed us that being human is enough. Like us, Jesus had to learn how to experience love when life feels like a bleak and lonely wasteland. He had to trust he could be beloved and famished, precious and “insignificant,” valued and vulnerable at the same time. He had to learn how to find God’s indwelling care within his flesh-and-blood humanity. He had to learn how to distinguish truth from lies.
We have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever in baptism. And also, we are marked with a cross soot on Ash Wednesday to remember that we are dust and to dust, we shall return.
It’s easy to tell the truth when the truth is welcome. It’s easy to be generous when you have enough. Easy to be compassionate when you’re not desperate. In the desert, Jesus gives us courage to make faithful choices even when our life is at risk, to speak the truth even when the truth is not welcome, to choose compassion for others even while we are drowning in our own fear.
If you aren’t in hell already due to real life and circumstances of your own, then Lent is your invitation to take a 40 day walk with Jesus in a metaphorical wilderness. “The goal is to sit with our hungers, our wants, our desires — and learn what they have to teach us. What is the hunger beneath the hunger? Can we hunger and still live? Desire and still flourish? Lack and still live generously, without exploiting the beauty and abundance all around us? Who and where is God when we are famished for whatever it is we long for? Friendship, meaning, intimacy? A home, a savings account, a family?” (Debie Thomas, Human and Hungry 3/3/19)
Specifically, this Lent, I invite you to stand and walk as you are able into the wilderness as we explore together the shape and depth of systematic racism. This issue haunts and plagues our life, our city, and our nation. I believe we must put our heads, hearts, and prayers together, to find a path forward or go deep enough to get at the root of this affliction.
Judging the movies, we seldom talk about racial reconciliation, and if we do, we prefer to tread lightly. We’re more Green Book than BlacKkklansman; more Driving Miss Daisy than Do the Right Thing. All four movies are funny, inspiring, and well written, but the two chosen as Best Picture depict a white character’s version of a black person’s life.
In 2019 the winning film, The Greenbook, doesn’t go far enough as a story of racial reconciliation. The transformation of a bigoted white man who becomes friends with a black man while traveling through the American south in the Jim Crow era may be heart-warming, but we cannot confuse it for the work we are so urgently called to do now. The truth is systematic racism will not be dismantled no matter how many inter-racial friendships we have. That is because systematic racism is not really an interpersonal issue –it is a social, economic, cultural, and political one. It is real and pernicious, not only in the South, or in the past, or in the hearts of white nationalists, but in the very air we breathe and the life we all live and lurks in every corner of our society today.
We can be loved and hungry at the same time. We can hope and hurt at the same time. “In some ways, Jesus’s struggle in the wilderness brings the ancient story of human temptation full circle. “Can you be like God?” is the question the snake poses to Adam and Eve in the lushness of the first garden. “Will you dare to know what God knows?” In the wilderness, the devil offers Jesus a clever inversion of those primordial questions: “Can you be fully human? Can you exercise restraint? Abdicate power? Accept danger? Can you bear what it means to be mortal?” The uncomfortable truth about authentic Christian power is that it resides in weakness. Jesus is lifted up — but he’s lifted up on a cross.” (Debie Thomas)
Today we must follow that path. We walk the way Jesus laid out not knowing where it goes but that it is the right road. The road through the wilderness is the way of the cross. For each of us, following this winding path was not so much a choice, but a matter of life and death, a means of survival. What joy there is now to discover so many companions along the way.