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We have been talking about the wilderness experience throughout Lent. We talked about the wilderness of hunger, death, loneliness, the disenfranchised, and rootlessness. We have seen that the wilderness is where on the one hand we face hardships and on the other hand we meet God.
This whole series of meditations have taken me back to my quintessential wilderness in Ecuador, the high alpine grassy mountains of the paramo, a region above the tree-line except for the Polylepis trees, the tree that sets the altitude record for all the kinds of trees in the world. The peaks are rugged, the air is clear and cold, and it gets 400 inches of rain a year, and it will freeze solid any night of the year when the sky clears.
This is a place where good waterproof footwear is essential. Rubber boots were the preferred item. Gortex and other breathable waterproof materials were unavailable to us, so you just knew your feet would get wet. It was a choice between one’s own warm condensation moisture, or the near freezing temps outside the footwear. This situation forced us into a terrible choice every morning. On the one hand, the area is stunningly beautiful. Life in a cramped tent is not nearly as beautiful or entertaining. The real stuff to do was outside. But—putting on wet boots when the temps hover near freezing is not a task we relished with any anticipation, yet, putting on one’s boots was essential to enter the beautiful world outside. Boots had a way of forcing us into the wilderness.
Theologians like to look at the life of Jesus through the lens of the Passion. The story of the Temptation is no exception. One can say that the ordeal of the Wilderness Temptations is the same kind of thing as the ordeal of the Passion. In both there are great demonstrations of pain, suffering and even evil, and in both God is encountered in ways unavailable to us through the insulation of daily routines. In fact, we could even say the Temptation in the Wilderness was a foreshadowing, a trial run in preparation for the Passion.
Here, then, Jesus enters the last and final Wilderness. True to form, this wilderness is lived in the tension between great evil and even greater goodness. Standing in contrast to one another it is easier to see the true nature of each. Evil is malicious, intentional and self-destructive. Good is selfless to the point of self-emptying, but ends up victorious and life-giving—in fact, the destructiveness of evil serves the purposes of the good by stripping away all that is secondary and leaving only the eternal. It is the nature of evil to destroy, and it is the nature of good to bring life again from the midst of destruction.
We live in the same tension. In the Passion of Christ the whole of creation is drawn into the wilderness for the greatest and last time. The Cross is before us all. On that cross, like it or not, our own brokenness will be nailed. That action forces us into a terrible choice: Will we surrender to such a great forgiveness as the repentant thief, or will we taunt God like the other? You and I, sisters and brothers, are in the wilderness of the Passion with our Lord.
What, then, does it take to get through this wilderness? Jesus shows us the way.
First, he never lost sight of the end. I’m working furiously on my dissertation. I am poring through interview transcripts, analyzing them for essential lived experiences. These people are interesting people, and I really enjoyed the interviews. Their struggles as minority members in our churches tugged at my heartstrings. However, ultimately these feelings are distractions, a comfortable seduction, along with all the other distractions so readily available to me. I have work to do. I need to uncover their essential lived experience. This is what made them feel welcome and successful in our congregations, this is the story of something gone well that I want to tell. I hope people reading my dissertation will fall in love with these people as I have, but more importantly, I hope they hear the story, the story of successful multicultural ministry.
In Hebrews the author writes,
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
The lesson for us to keep the end in sight, but the end is often hard to keep in sight. In the mountains, when you lose your way, you go high so you can get perspective. When in life you lose sight of the end you go high—to Mt. Calvary, and the example of focus that Jesus gave us there. His self-giving love, his redemptive action on our behalf—that is the mountain top from which we regain a vision of the end: the reconciliation of all creation with God and itself.
Second, he never styled his behavior in reaction to the behavior of those around. Our oldest son is a very good driver. He is a good driver because if there is a stupid mistake to make on the road and live through it he’s probably made it. He taught me a valuable lesson a number of years ago. We were riding in the car when someone blew past us like we were stopped. He calmly said, “Zoom, zoom.” With one simple repeated word he severed his own emotional response from the actions of someone doing something dangerous. Gone is any need to show the other driver up, slow them down, get them caught by the police, or, worse, catch up to them in order to tell them how you feel! This is his way of practicing detachment. It’s the ability to stay engaged with your environment without letting it take control of you. It’s responsive rather than reactive. It keeps the center calm in the midst of the storms of the wilderness.
Jesus’ silence before his accusers, knowing they could get him executed demonstrates incredible strength, not to get caught up in the madness—and madness is all around. Some define the madness in terms of the current administration, and others in the resistance to it. I believe that underlying it all is a more profound madness. It is the madness that never quite takes time to measure our behavior against the law of love, probably for fear of what it might reveal. Consider the crowds in Jerusalem. A week ago they sang Jesus’ praises, and today they scream for his blood. The inconsistency of the two never quite dawns on them, lest they admit that they have been pawns in someone else’s chess game. This is the mindless madness that charges through life, careening off one violent rhetoric after another.
Zoom, zoom,…Jesus’ silence has a way of letting the noise go by without letting it wash the foundation out from under his feet. It grants us the room and the freedom to respond rather than react, and, exercising the God-given free will that lies at the heart of any true loving relationship, choose our behavior in relation to our love of God and of God’s handiwork, be it people or otherwise. Let us be pawns in only one game…God’s game.
Finally, he never lost his grounding in love. My nephew, who is now in his forties, was an intelligent and manipulative 5-year-old. My younger sister writes:
I was 19 and living with Becky and Germán in Quito. Dan was barely 5 at the time. Becky asked me to take him to the store with me. It was a small neighborhood store, actually, filled with people who lived around us. Danny often asked me to buy him little things and I did sometimes; but this time I warned him on the way to the store that I wasn’t going to be buying anything extra.
Of course, he saw something he wanted and asked, “¿Me compras eso?” (Will you buy me that?) I said “no”. His eyes got bigger and he raised his voice, “Pero Mami, ¡quiero eso!” (But Mommy, I want that!) Eyes were turning toward us, so I hissed, “¡No, y no soy tu mami!” (No, and I’m not your Mommy!) at which point crocodile tears started pouring and our darling nephew wailed very loudly, “¡Nunca me compras nada y ahora dices que ni eres mi mamá!” (You never buy me anything and now you tell me you’re not even my mother!) He got his toy, and I walked the extra three blocks to a different store the next time Becky needed something!
My sister matured into a great mother, like her sister-in-law. I always marveled at Karisse’s way of seeing through our kids’ tantrums to the real issues going on. Screaming, crying, kicking and bucking, she had a way of calmly sitting them down and giving them what they needed rather than that for which they cried. Often it was just to be held and rocked while the fire of the moment subsided into coals.
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Maybe they really didn’t know what they were doing. Maybe they didn’t know that they were killing the Son of God, maybe the fact that they were murdering the Prince of Peace didn’t quite sink in. This was in their mind, after all, only a troublemaker from Galilee. In another sense they knew exactly what they were doing. They were getting rid of this pernicious prick to their consciences. They were pushing away from the voice that called them to a deep, authentic, and profoundly compassionate way of being human.
Yet, here are his words, ringing through the centuries because it is so rare a message, calling us to step back a moment and take a look at the whole picture. He was dying for their redemption as well as ours. Mercy was available to us in the same measure as to them. He saw beyond this greatest of human tantrums to the desperate desire for healing that surges within each and every human breast.
His words are spoken in love, for they give hope to our hopelessness. No matter what the offense, what could be compared to cutting oneself off from the only source of hope, and yet mercy is extended even to these wretched souls. Whatever we might have done is not beyond the pale of Jesus’ mercy.
His words are spoken in judgment. After the Cross no one’s sins garner anyone eternal damnation by divine decree. Oh, one may choose such a fate if they so desire and God will oblige, but these words are spoken to all, without exception. Dare we disagree? Would not disagreeing with God concerning the fate of another be tantamount to rejecting the mercy we have received, and choosing instead the damnation we would pronounce on another? These words tell us all that in the end there is no moral high ground for anyone but God.
If he did it we can, too. The end toward which we look is the Kingdom among us. The life we live is lived in response to the Son of God in relation to those around us, and, having been forgiven, we offer mercy. This, my beloved people, will take us through Good Friday to Easter morn.