Not Abandoned

tattoo image courtesy of Kay Strom

Every year, the Sunday after Ash Wednesday, preachers share stories from scripture that revolve around the theme of “wilderness.”

Today, we remember David, to whom the 25th psalm is traditionally ascribed. To us, he is the greatest of the Old Testament kings, a shepherd, a musician, a warrior, the monarch to whom God pledge pledged an everlasting covenant of steadfast love. But, from David’s perspective, his reign must have seemed tenuous. There was that time with Bathsheba when his passion tripped him up, then he compounded the error with the sin of conspiracy to murder. Before that, he was at risk of losing his life from people like Goliath and Saul, enemies from outside and inside the kingdom. He spent a lot of time traveling from one battleground to the next, never quite sure what the boundaries of the kingdom would be, or where he might feel safe. That is one kind of wilderness.

The Sunday after Ash Wednesday, we usually recite one of the gospel texts that tells what happens after Jesus presents himself for baptism at the River Jordan by his cousin John. He comes out of the water, and hears a voice from heaven say, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Immediately, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness.

It’s a curious thing that the One who is revealed as the Messiah in a beautiful epiphany on the crowded banks of the Jordan is so quickly driven to a lonely place. The Spirit who descends upon him like a dove, moves him from baptismal waters to desert drought in two verses. Some commentators describe Jesus’ desert experience as a time during which he faces a choice between vocation and temptation. On the one side, he hears God’s call, God’s description about his life’s meaning and direction. On the other side, he hears a different voice posing an alternative purpose and path. It’s as if Jesus’ baptism starts a fresh battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil, and in the wilderness he has to prove again that he is Messiah by making the right choices when many wrong ones are possible.

The struggle between right and wrong choices is a common one. If you have any doubt, then all you have to do is read the newspaper.

  • This week, there was a story about Lance Armstrong, once lifted up as a model of character. Not only has he been stripped of his medals, and banned from professional cycling, but now also he has lost ten-million dollars in a perjury case for lying about his drug use.
  • There was a letter from baseball star Alex Rodriguez, disgraced in a similar way, accompanied by a debate about whether his letter is a sincere apology or a shrewd public relations tactic.
  • Everywhere I looked, there was one more opinion printed about the troubles of news anchor Brian Williams, who embellished an episode from his past so often that it’s difficult for him to distinguish fact from fiction.

Read these stories, and you’ll realize how common it is for people to believe in a narrative about reality that turns out to be false.

In contrast, Jesus’ wilderness experience is instructively and inspiringly different. Unlike the rest of us, he successfully resists temptation. When the Tempter tells tall tales, Jesus tunes his ear to hear the one voice that tells the truth.

The New Testament word for “wilderness” may be translated more literally as “the abandoned” place.[1] Usually, it’s a place of danger. It’s David in a valley, anticipating an enemy over the next rise. It’s Jesus walking without the comfort and support of his mother Mary, his cousin John, or his family and friends from home. Preaching professor Karoline Lewis suggests that, in the wilderness, the absence of people may tempt us to believe that even God has abandoned us.

Perhaps that is great temptation that lies behind all the rest. A voice tells us to turn stones into bread, make ourselves the center of attention, accumulate all the power and possessions we can, and don’t give any of it away. God isn’t going to feed you. God isn’t going to remember you. God isn’t going to help you. God isn’t here, the voice says. Perhaps that’s the lie underneath all the other lies the devil tells, the falsehood that gives power to the temptation to be self-governing, self-reliant, self-sufficient.

We can live that way for years, but eventually something happens that undermines our stoic self-sufficiency. We’re walking through our private wilderness preserve when we hear the unwelcome howl of a wild beast. Perhaps it’s the wild beast of economic uncertainty: the prospect of a lost job, a depleted bank account, or inability to make a monthly payment. Or perhaps the howl we hear is the wild beast of an illness or accident, and suddenly there we are all alone in the emergency room, or MRI chamber, or surgery prep room. Any of these circumstances can make us feel more lonely than we ever realized we could feel, more alone than we ever wanted to be. Then we realize that living without God is not an option.

Karoline Lewis says that in the battle with evil – whatever your particular battle may be – “the game is changed because God is present. We are not asked to do this out on our own, which can be one major misinterpretation of giving up things for Lent. God tears away our every attempt to say, ‘While I appreciate your help, God, I’ve got this. I can figure it out.’”[2]

I’m grateful that God is present in my encounters with evil, because I’m not smart enough, good enough, or strong enough to battle them on my own. I say this not as an abstract theological principle. Rather, I say it as personal testimony to God’s saving power at low points during my life’s journey.

I am certain that some of you have faced far worse. When I read in the news about what happens in our world, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you have dealt with harassment or threats the details of which I cannot imagine.

I wonder, though, how many of us have an experience that could compare in horror and sadness to the case of Coptic Christians murdered this week by ISIS. They were laborers who parted from their impoverished families in Egypt for the promise of making a living in Libya. The reporters who spoke to their families found them to be men of deep faith and devotion, hardworking, and responsible.[3] The terrorists who had targeted them for capture made a point of looking for those marked with the traditional tattoos on the inside of their right arms that identified them as members of the Coptic Church, one of the oldest in our Christian tradition, stemming from the ministry of Mark, the author of our gospel text. Wearing orange jumpsuits, led by terrorists clothed in black, the Christian prisoners were paraded along the southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, surely imagining the fate that awaited them.

If we were in that kind of wilderness, what would we give to get out of it? Would we compromise our moral integrity? Would we pledge allegiance to a false god?

Beshir Kamel is the brother of two of the murdered Christians: Bishoy and Samuel Kamel. He told reporters that his brothers were a badge of honor to Christianity. He thanked the terrorists for not editing out the declarations of faith of many of those slain, whose last words were affirmations of trust in our Lord Jesus Christ. Beshir said: “This only makes us stronger in our faith because the Bible told us to love our enemies and bless those who curse us.”[4] Pope Francis spoke of the faith of the martyrs, saying, “Their only words were, ‘Jesus, help me!’”[5]

Today, some of us are living through a wilderness experience. On the one hand, we’re tempted to believe that God isn’t with us. On the other hand, we realize that we don’t have the courage or strength to travel alone. It’s in the wilderness that the disciplines of the Lenten journey make sense: the ashes, self-examination, confession; the support of worshiping in a congregation, meditating on scripture, singing hymns, and praying until our trust is renewed in God, who is real, who does not abandon us. In the wilderness, the prayer of fresh martyrs is our prayer. “Jesus help me!” Jesus help us.

[1] “h erymos,” Kittel & Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. II, pp. 657-659.

[2] Karoline Lewis, “The Greatest Temptation,” http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3537

[3] Sophia Jones, “ISIS Boasted Of These Christians’ Deaths. Here Are The Lives They Lived.” The World Post, 18 Feb. 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/02/18/isis-christians-killed-_n_6703278.html

[4] Mark Woods, “Brother of slain Coptic Christians thanks ISIS for including their words of faith in murder video,” Christianity Today, 18 Feb. 2015, http://www.christiantoday.com/article/brother.of.slain.coptic.christians.thanks.isis.for.including.their.words.of.faith.in.murder.video/48412.htm

[5] Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Pope Francis denounces ISIS beheadings: ‘Their blood confesses Christ’,” The Washington Post, 16 Feb. 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/local/wp/2015/02/16/pope-francis-denounces-isis-beheadings-their-blood-confesses-christ/

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~ by JohnH1962 on February 22, 2015.

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