We cannot escape wilderness; for wilderness comes to all of us as surely as life and breath. Individuals know wilderness places. Families, cathedrals, and nations know them too: dangerous, uncomfortable places of great hunger, thirst and longing; places of loss, loneliness and pain; places of testing and temptation to live as less than God intends.
Betty Casey had survived a bout with cancer. She had enjoyed—as she called it—a second life. Everyone who knew her said the same thing. Betty lived as inspiration.
Ask the sixth grader at Luna Park Elementary in San Antonio’s poorest school district. Betty took him for testing; arranged a scholarship to a more challenging school. Today, he practices medicine. Ask the young woman, high school sophomore, whose parents put her out when she became pregnant. She needed a Lamaze coach. Betty volunteered. Ask the young man who came to Betty’s hospital room to tell her his wife was expecting their first child. The baby would make it harder to complete his advanced nurses’ training. He refused to quit. “I would never have come this far without your encouragement” he told her. Despite her considerable pain, Betty managed to send him off with one of her brilliant smiles and words of assurance. “I know you can do it.”
Betty’s breast cancer came roaring back, metastasized into her bones. I found her in the hospital one morning, looking exceptionally drawn, pale and weary. “Betty, you look tired” I said. “Can’t imagine how I look “she replied. “I could just die.” And then laughing: “Listen to me. I am dying Come and sit with me. I want to talk.”
She told me about her night. “Last night was terrible. The drip bag on my morphine pump emptied, and for some reason the signal didn’t sound. No one came to check on it all night. I could hear the nurses talking and laughing down the hall. I could break a bone trying to get out of bed; I am too weak to cry out and I couldn’t find my call button.”
“I was really suffering and started to panic about having no one to help me. It was tempting to feel sorry for myself. You know. ‘After all the good things I have done for you, God, how can you to this to me? How can I be here so alone, so scared; hurting.”
“I thought about Jesus and his pain; told myself to settle down, to try to find God in the dark and in the pain. Gradually, I began remembering everything I knew by heart from church; the 23rd Psalm, the Lord’s Prayer, my favorite hymns. I kept going over and over everything I could remember until finally I remembered ‘Betty, you are baptized. You belong to God. You are God’s. And I want to live as God would have me live until the day I die; no matter what.’”
That, my friends, is the work of wilderness. In the most trying of times; in the bleakest of circumstances; abandoned and alone; to remember what we know of God; to remember what we know by heart; and to choose God’s way forever and for always.
The Spirit of God leads Jesus straight from the blessing of baptismal water into the wilderness; straight from “this is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased” into a place where it hurt: too hot by day, too cold by night, too little water, no food; a very lonely place.
And as Scripture tells it, for forty days and forty nights the Spirit does not lift a finger while Jesus works things out with the tempter. Jesus does his wilderness work alone.
Ever wily, ever savvy, the master of suggestion; the tempter waits until Jesus is at the end of his resources; worn, weary, fatigued. The tempter waits until Jesus is hungry, hungry, hungry. Anna Carter Florence says that wilderness lies just there: in the space between being full and being famished. The tempter makes a move.
“Son of God, you could turn these stones into bread. Take a leap off the temple and let everyone see God save you. And with a little bow to me, you could go places. Think politics. Think power. Think about it.”
All Jesus has to hold on to in this time of testing is God’s baptismal promise. “My beloved, My Son, well pleased.” God’s promise and some remembered Scripture. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test. Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
Wilderness exists as a landscape of the heart. Much wilderness work is internal and deep. In a series of stunning renunciations, Jesus rejects the tempter’s bait—food, safety, power—and chooses, instead, to use his power only in obedience to God’s purposes and plan. And when he does, the ministering angels come to care for him.
In wilderness, a question arises. What we will do with the rest of our lives? Wilderness invites us to consider the possibilities of faithfulness. Notice how this story of Jesus’ temptation ends. Notice that, in the end, Jesus becomes bread; bread for the whole world; becomes the way of salvation, the embodiment of God’s saving grace; in the end, Jesus himself becomes God’s politics and power incarnate, reigning over heaven and earth: the difference between the tempter’s seductive suggestions and the way of God being, of course, the cross. (Johnson)
Last week after evensong, as the retiring procession moved through the north transept aisle, I glimpsed the sculpture of Abraham Lincoln, at the top of the par close stairs. I’ve seen it many times before. And yet, the pathos of it washed over me this particular night. Not the towering Lincoln we find in the back of this Cathedral; not the enormous, brooding Lincoln of the mall memorial. This Lincoln is small, slight, kneeling in prayer; head down, broken, alone. The burden that fell upon this man in our nation’s wilderness of slavery, division, and war captured in bronze. Imagine the pressures on him to choose less than God requires. Imagine the suggestions from tempters at every turn.
Having made his position very clear—a unified nation, free of slavery, Lincoln concludes his Second Inaugural address: with malice towards none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may assure a lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” (Harrison)
Just over a month later, Abraham Lincoln would be assassinated.
With the ashes of Wednesday on our brow, the Spirit drives us forward into forty days of Lenten Wilderness. There, we engage in our own struggle with the tempter. There we remember what we know of God, what we know by heart. There, we work out what it means for us to serve God and God alone. There, we decide who Jesus is for us; and if we choose to belong to him, we set our faces towards Galilee, Capernaum, Jerusalem, Golgatha. We may not pass by the suffering.
These are sermon notes and are not intended for the purposed of publication. —Gina Gilland Campbell
“Temptation”, E. Elizabeth Johnson, Journal for Preachers, Vol. 27#2 Feb/March 2006
Alive Now!, March/April 1987.
Anna Carter Florence, Lectionary Homiletics, Feb/March 2008, Vol. XIX #2.
Cathedral Age, Epiphany 2014, “Proclaiming Peace”, M. Leigh Harrison.