Voices in the desert—whose blessing will we heed?

Temptation by G. K. Hajarathbai
Gulap K. Hajarathbai (Indian), Temptation, 20th century. Oil on canvas, 18 × 20 in. Source: Herbert E. Hoefer, Christian Art in India (Chennai, India: Gurukul Lutheran Theological College and Research Institute, 1982)

“Tempted” by Eugene H. Peterson

Mark 1:12–13

Still wet behind the ears, he’s Spirit-pushed
up Jordan’s banks into the wilderness.
Angels hover praying ’round his head.
Animals couch against his knees and ankles
intuiting a better master. The Man
in the middle—new Adam in old Eden—
is up against it, matched with the ancient
Adversary. For forty days and nights
he tests the baptismal blessing and proves to his dismay
 the Man is made of sterner stuff than Adam:
 the Man will choose to be the Son God made him.

This poem was originally published in A Widening Light: Poems of the Incarnation, edited by Luci Shaw (Wheaton, Illinois: Harold Shaw, 1984), and is reprinted here by permission of the editor. www.lucishaw.com

***

Mark dedicates a spare two verses to this initiatory event in the life of Christ: the forty days of temptation he endured immediately following his baptism: “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him” (Mark 1:12–13, ESV; cf. Matthew 4:1–11, Luke 4:1–13).

I’m intrigued by Mark’s use of the word driven (ekballō) to describe the manner in which the Spirit imparts motion to Christ. Whereas Matthew and Luke use the gentler led (anagō), Mark implies something more forceful: ejected, cast forth, hurled. In his idiomatic translation of the Bible, The Message, Eugene H. Peterson uses push: “At once, this same Spirit pushed Jesus out into the wild” (emphasis mine).

So the same Spirit who had just alighted on Jesus in the waters of the Jordan, presiding over God’s pronouncement that “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11), now pushes Jesus into the Judean desert, away from civilization. Why? So that in the quiet, he could get to better know himself and God, to better discern the task to which he had been called. This process necessarily involved doing battle with the prospects of other paths, other identities.

“Turn these stones into bread.” “Jump; let’s see if God saves you.” “Worship me; I’ll give you the kingdom of earth.”

Satan tries to draw Jesus from a messiahship of self-sacrifice to a messiahship of power. Performing miracles for his own self-benefit, to avoid any discomfort or pain in life; performing miracles for show, like a magician, to impress the masses; becoming an earthly king, with political control and dominion—these are all temptations Jesus would face again. Here he has the opportunity to confront them head-on in preparation for his imminent ministry to the Israelites. Over this period of forty days, Jesus solidifies his mission, rejecting the vision of himself and his life that Satan lays out for him. Instead of gratification, pride, and riches, Jesus chooses purity, humility, and poverty.  

Some theologians say there was no possibility that Jesus could have given in to any of these temptations; this was just a test to show us that he was sinless. Furthermore, they insist, Jesus knew who he was since birth and didn’t need to retreat to the desert or undergo temptation to figure it out. I take issue with these assertions, because if they were true, then the “temptations” Jesus faced wouldn’t have been temptations at all, if there was no draw that had to be overcome. What solidarity is it to pretend to suffer psychologically, like the humanity you’ve come to serve? Does exposing yourself to stimuli so that your divine autoresponse can kick in really help you forge a kinship with those who are not programmed with such “cannot sin” parameters, but who rather must weigh and sift and discern the voices that whisper “pursue this” or “value that”?

Although we don’t know how self-aware Jesus was at different stages of his life, we do know that he “grew and became strong, filled [becoming full of, increasing] with wisdom” (Luke 2:40), and that “although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). I believe that Jesus’s time in the desert gave him a clearer sense of who he was and helped shape his resolve to go forward to the cross, and that Satan presented viable threats to this course.

Peterson’s poem “Tempted” appears to support this reading. It refers to Jesus as “the Man / in the middle” between the old Eden and the new. Satan “tests the baptismal blessing” that God the Father gave to Jesus, only to find that for all his smooth talking, he cannot persuade this Second Adam to disobey God, as he did the first. This Man is “made of sterner stuff” and “will choose to be the Son God made him.”

The desert ascetics of fourth-century Egypt, Palestine, and Syria followed Jesus’s lead into literal deserts to do battle with the demons lodged in their own hearts. They knew that conditions of external quiet help you to better hear and address internal noise.

Prayer by Arcabas
Prayer by Arcabas (French, 1926–)

Wendy M. Wright, in her book The Rising: Living the Mysteries of Lent, Easter, and Pentecost, says that the patient process of untangling the threads of voices inside us—sifting through the motives, impulses, and values that guide our choices—is the work of Lent.

We are asked to venture into the wilderness of our own hearts and there listen to the many voices that beckon us in one direction or another. What are the sources of this multitude of voices? How do we tell the texture or quality of one from another? How do we choose which voices we should follow? What is the sound of the voice of God perceived there? . . .

Lent is a time for tuning our ears, for listening carefully, for discerning the texture and quality of our own demons, for attending to God’s unceasing, creative plea amidst the noise of cultural pressures, the busyness of life, and our own self-limiting habits. Some of our Lenten discernments may be fairly straightforward. We may have become inattentive to our eating or drinking and need to give our oversatiated bodies a holiday. We may need to curb a smoking habit that endangers the health of those we live with as well as ourselves. We may need to cultivate a more rhythmic pattern of prayer or bring the scriptures into clearer focus into our everyday life. We may need to mend the pieces of a broken relationship. We may need to take some of the time we hoard so tightly for work and lavish it on our children or friends. We may be called to respond to the cry of the poor, to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless, or to visit the prisoner. All of these can rightly be discerned as God’s prompting to a freer life.

But the ongoing process of discernment, which I think is the more subtle invitation of the Lenten season, is not always so straightforward. (28–29, 33)

She then goes on to describe the importance of being in step with the will—or, to use the word she prefers, the longing—of God for our lives, which she says is “not a puzzle to be solved but a mystery to be lived into . . . whose contours emerge as we journey on.”

In our baptism, God names us. He reaches down and says, “This is my beloved son” or “This is my beloved daughter,” in whom is my delight. Satan will often test our baptismal blessing, our status as God’s beloved child, telling us we could be better loved, better known, better fulfilled, if we were to do x, y, or z. He tries to get us to relocate our sense of self-validation in something or someone other than God.

We need to listen to the voice of the Father, not Satan. It can sometimes be difficult to discern whose voice is whose—that is, which desires and goals have been planted in us by God versus the Adversary. But we have the Spirit as an aid. When Jesus went into the desert, he was “full of the Holy Spirit” (Luke 4:1); so too are we.

Lent is a season when the Spirit draws us into the desert to reconnect with the Source of our life and identity.

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