The congregation in which I grew up, St. John’s Lutheran Church in Des Moines, Iowa, used to take high school groups up to the Boundary Waters for weeklong canoe trips in the summer. We went through a Christian camping organization that provided the canoes, the backpacks, the food, and wilderness guides who were also trained to lead us in nightly bible studies. I don’t remember the bible studies at all, but I do remember the joy of floating out on the water in the middle of the cold, blue lakes that separate the United States from Canada. Watching hawks draw circles in the sky. Listening to the crackle of the campfire and the unfamiliar combination of sounds and silence in the night.
The forests of the boundary waters have been in the news in the last few weeks because of a forest fire started by a lightning strike in mid-August. For weeks afterwards the fire grew, covering as much as 16 miles a day and creating an enormous cloud of smoke that could be smelled as far south as Chicago, some 600 miles away. It was those wild lands and forests that came to mind for me when I heard the passage from the prophet Joel,
To you, O LORD, I cry. For fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness, and flames have burned all the trees of the field. (Joel 1:19)
In this Season of Creation, it’s this morning’s emphasis on the wilderness that I find most difficult to preach. The Sundays of this season move along a story arc that began with creation and alienation, and that end with passion and new creation. It was easy to talk about creation in the context of the forest trees, and alienation in the context of our relationship to the land. To try and imagine the wilderness as the place of passion is more difficult though – partly because we are so thoroughly entrenched in city life, not wilderness life; and partly because the wilderness is so densely occupied by metaphor that it’s hard to talk about the wilderness as it is without turning it into a symbol for us as we are.
The more I thought about it though, the more I realized that it’s not just difficult to talk about the wilderness without talking about humanity – it’s actually impossible. Consider this: the first Sunday of this season, we focused on forests which are filled with what? Trees. The second Sunday we focused on land, which is comprised of what? Soil. Next week we’ll consider the plight and the potential of rivers, which are made of what? Water. But today we are talking about the wilderness, which is filled with what?
Wild isn’t a thing, it’s an idea. It’s the place where we aren’t. It’s the runaway’s refuge, the criminal’s hideout, the refugee’s journey, the traveler’s nightmare. It is unmastered territory, which is precisely why it is often presented as the place where people go to master themselves. This, I suppose, is what makes the wilderness a place filled with passion. Passion, not only in the sense of being filled with desire, but also being filled with suffering – such as when we talk about Jesus’ passion and death.
That’s a pretty deep thought now, isn’t it? Desire and suffering are flip sides of the same coin, and the wilderness is the unmastered landscape where human beings go to master the untamed geographies of their hearts and souls.
That’s certainly what seems to be going on in the gospel reading this morning. Jesus rises from the waters of baptism to the sound of God’s voice declaring that he is God’s own beloved child, the one on whom God’s favor rests. Immediately thereafter, the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness precisely so that he can be tempted by the devil. During that time, Jesus fasts for forty days and forty nights, getting empty so that he can be filled, being hungry so that he can be fed. Then he returns to civilized areas and begins his work.
Very coincidentally, I took part in a bible study on this passage from Matthew the week before last. I was with a group of pastors discussing leadership in the church, and the trainer working with us used this story to talk about how healthy ministry takes place. It’s a three-act play: first the baptism, then the temptations, and finally the work.
Too often, when we think about leadership we jump straight to the final act, the part about the work. Sustainable leadership though, we were invited to think, comes first from the deep knowledge that you are baptized, that you are looked on with the eyes of love and claimed as one of God’s own children. This is critical, that our work comes from a place of security and confidence that we are already claimed by God. Our leadership, our work, our relationships, our pastimes – all of that can feel hollow, empty, unsustainable if we are using them to try and fill a hole left by anxiety that there is something unseen, unknown, or unloved about us. In his baptism, as in ours, Jesus learns that he is God’s beloved, now and for always.
But, what to do with that knowledge? What does it mean to be beloved of God? Is it license to conquer? Is it power to subjugate? Is it assurance of wealth or prosperity? Is it cause to look down upon others? Is it freedom from responsibility? The story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness reflect the very real struggles each one of us has to face in our own lives. As one of the pastors in the bible study said, “you can’t be tempted with things you don’t want.” Jesus is tempted with bread, religious authority and worldly power. Temptations ranging from daily necessities to lifelong ambitions, and certainly understandable desires for someone born, as a Palestinian Jew under Roman occupation, into hunger for change.
We might want different things, and so face different temptations. Perhaps we want stability above all else, so we are tempted to ignore opportunities for change and growth. Perhaps we crave freedom, so we are tempted to avoid commitments and obligations that might teach us steadfastness and responsibility. Perhaps we desire comfort, or admiration, so we amass wealth and miss openings to encounter God in the suffering of the world. Perhaps we want love so badly that we forego the time and honesty it takes to truly come to know and love ourselves. Perhaps we want power and respect so much that we treat those around us like objects, and trade community for control. Until we face these wants, these passions, these sufferings; until we remember that our truest identity is rooted in love, all our work in the world will be compulsive, unhealthy and unsustainable.
This three-act play of baptism, temptation and work can be applied in a variety of contexts. I certainly would invite you to spend some time thinking about your own life through the lens of this story, and consider your own wants, desires, sufferings and temptations. What do they reveal about the motivations behind your work, your rest, your relationships? What would happen if you brought a remembrance of your baptism into each of those arenas of life? How would your home, your office, your community be transformed for deeper ministry if it was rooted in love?
During this Season of Creation though, I want to apply this three-act story specifically to our relationships with God’s creation, of which we are obviously a part. In a webinar on presence-full leadership earlier this week, MIT teacher and researcher Otto Scharer shared three disturbing numbers that illustrate the state of division in our world today.
- The first number is 1.5 – Scharer called this the Ecological Divide, representing our disordered relationship with God’s creation. 1.5 represents the rate at which we are consuming the planet’s natural resources relative to how quickly they are regenerated.
- The second number is 2.5 – Scharer called this the Social Divide, representing our disordered relationship with each other. 2.5 billion is the number of people living below the poverty line worldwide, and represents a failure of values on the part of the global community.
- The final number is 3.0 – Scharer called this the Spiritual Divide, representing our disordered relationship to ourselves. The World Health Organization says that almost three times as many people die from suicide than from war and other forms of homicide.
Otto Scharer asserts, and I’m inclined to agree, that these numbers are connected. Our fractured relationships with the planet, each other, and ourselves reflect ways of living completely detached from any sense of being made in love for love, and point to the need for us to master the passions and temptations that lead to so much of our suffering and the world’s as well.
Too often conversations about the environment treat the topic as one in which information alone is the answer. As if, all we needed was to be told that our patterns of waste disposal or our reliance on gasoline was killing the earth. I think about anti-smoking initiatives though, and suspect it will take more than information to change our behavior. Decades of warnings from the surgeon general didn’t do much to deter people from smoking. It was acknowledging that cigarettes are addictive, it was public health campaigns that introduced the idea that smoking might take you away from your loved ones, it was legislation that shifted some of the costs of smoking-related illness back to smokers in the form of cigarette taxes that began to shift the tide.
I am convinced that the same things need to happen if we are going to change the patterns of behavior that are killing the earth. Yes, we need information about the rate of environmental degradation. We need movies like An Inconvenient Truth and Food, Inc.
Beyond that though, we need to call our addictions to cheap gas, cheap manufacturing, and cheap goods what they are. Addictions. We need to tell the truth about the ways that our patterns of production and consumption are alienating us from the rest of the world, where goods are produced in conditions few to none of us have ever had to endure. And we need to fearlessly enter the wilderness of our own hearts to ask what price we ourselves are paying in order to try and sustain these planet-destroying patterns of living. We live in illness-infused environments, anxious to know if there will be anyone to care for us once we can no longer fill our roles in the cycle of over-production and over-consumption, and as the World Health Organization’s numbers show us, we are literally killing ourselves.
In the wilderness, Jesus fasts for forty days and forty nights, getting empty so that he can be filled, being hungry so that he can be fed. Then he returns to civilized areas and begins his work. We, too, are invited to take stock of what we are filling ourselves with and to begin the process of emptying ourselves to make room for what God is doing in and for the world.
People of God, in this Season of Creation the message is clear: the planet is in peril, and there is work to be done. But we do this work by faith, not from fear. The scope of the task before us is too large to take on if we don’t plan for sustainability. As Christians, we find our sustenance, our most renewable resource, in the gift of life that comes to us at the font and the table, reminders that we are God’s own beloved and that in God’s economy there is always enough for everyone.