Jesus is baptized. Rising from the water, he beholds heaven torn open, receives God’s Spirit, and hears God’s voice. Then he steps up on the riverbank, determined, destined to follow the Spirit. And where does the Spirit lead, “drive” (shove) Jesus? The wilderness to be tempted by Satan. (Apparently Jesus needed encouragement! Who wouldn’t?)
Matthew and Luke, in their accounts of Jesus’ temptations, provide details of the 40-day fast, the conversation with Satan, the particular temptations. Mark, in his characteristically spare style, cuts to the chase. What matters is not the specifics, but rather that Jesus was compelled by the Spirit to contend against everything that denies and defies God, so to come out of the wilderness with clarity of vision and mission.
I don’t remember heaven ripped open, the Spirit’s descent, and the sound of God’s voice, but I do remember when my father died in 1996, I accepted a call to care for my mother afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease; a test, increasing in difficulty year to year, ending in her death last month.
I don’t remember torn heavens, descending spirits, and the vox Deus, but I do remember being called as rector of St. Mark’s, Capitol Hill in 1998, and, as an African American in a white congregation, engaging in that ministry, from which I recently retired, the active testing of a community being real about race and racism and becoming more conscious of the dynamic process of tolerance and acceptance.
I don’t remember heaven opening, dove-like spirits, and a divine voice referring to me as “son” and “beloved,” but, in the crucible of conflict in the church and the world, I have heard a call to be open to “the other”, all those with whom I disagree, and to be tested by the discomfiture that such encounters inexorably yield.
Every call comes with testing. I guess that’s why Jesus needed to be encouraged, shoved into the wilderness. Me, too.
I like baptisms. Not wilderness. But that’s where Lent calls me. To enter my soul’s wilderness to encounter my “wild beasts” – my haunting memories of unforgettable mistakes, my impulsive inclinations that undermine my highest, most honorable hopes, my anger, rage at my unfaced fears, unmet needs, and unresolved pains.
I’d rather try to continue wearing the mask of my polished, practiced persona of peace and good cheer. The mask that conceals my spiritual poverty of a lack of clarity of vision and mission. A lack that leaves me to respond to frequently self-posed questions – Who are you? What are you doing? Where are you going? – I don’t know.
But Lent, God calls once again to a prayerful, purposeful walk into my soul’s wilderness to face my self, in the words of the hymn, “just as I am without one plea.”
My wilderness where I face Satan, all that is within me that denies and defies God, so to know my self “just as I am poor, wretched, blind.”
My wilderness where I also hope to find, face a Savior, the One who, having gone before me into the wilderness, accepts me just as I am “though tossed about with many a conflict, many a doubt, fightings and fears within and without.”
The One to whom, in relief and release, I can sing, “O Lamb of God, I come.”