Wilderness Living by Rev. Dr. Michael Brown, Jr.
We live our lives in the wilderness. It is an unpopular conclusion at which to arrive, but it is true. We tend to think of such experiences as “interruptions” in our normal activity, disturbances that interfere with the normal flow of life. The Gospel reading for today suggests to us that there is nothing further from the truth. A few decades ago, Rabbi Harold Kushner published a remarkable book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. It helped millions of people negotiate the unexpected tribulations they inevitably encounter in life. Again, the underlying premise seems to be that “bad things” and “good people” cannot occupy the same comfortable space.
The theologian Karl Barth famously declared that ordination for ministry begins at baptism (Church Dogmatics IV/4, The Christian Life). Following the narrative thought, ministry begins with being ushered by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness. The wilderness, then, as a metaphor plays heavily in this week’s discussion. It is where Jesus demonstrates that his pedigree has prepared him for the trials that accompany ministry.
The wilderness has a long and complicated history in the scriptural tradition. It is the uncivilized place. The place where disturbance and confusion dwell. It is also a place of preparation. It is a place where one journeys through to spiritual maturity. It is a place where one anticipates God’s next move. It is a frightening, lonely, often savage, place to be.
The number forty also looms large in today’s text. As with many numbers in the Bible, it is not meant to be understood literally. In biblical shorthand, the number forty signifies that a great deal of time has passed, based loosely on how the Israelites understood the significance of the number four and its combinations. (For example, three often has a significance as a divine number. Four often has a significance as a human or earthly number. Combinations of these two occupy their own numerical and theological geography. Thus, seven—the sum of four and three—points to ideas of perfection. Twelve—the product of three and four—points to the number of Israelite tribes, as well as the number of disciples. Even the 144,000 described in the Book of Revelation is a working out of this combination of four and three.) Nevertheless, forty carries an important ring:
-Forty: the days and nights that Noah’s family withstood the deluge on the ark (Gen 7:4, 12; 8:6; 9:8-17);
-Forty: the days and nights Moses fasted on Mount Sinai waiting to receive the covenant from God (Exod 24:18; 34:27-28; Deut 9:9);
-Forty: the days and nights Elijah fasted before receiving his new divine commission (1 Kings 19:8);
-Forty: the years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness before entering Canaan (Exod 16:35; Deut 2:7);
-Forty: the number of days in the season of Lent that we experience on our way to our annual Easter celebration.
Thus, although not meant literally, the number forty has a very important symbolic significance. It says something about the length and degree to which human beings can participate in trying experiences before something has to change.
Peirasmos (“temptation”) is the mechanism that changes the reality of Jesus, as well as ourselves as believers. The influence of temptation is also found in the famous story from Genesis that serves as our Hebrew Bible reading. The serpent—only presented as an animal and not a supernatural figure—says to the unsuspecting Eve, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?” (Gen 3:1) As readers, we know this not to be true. The prohibition is simply on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (2:16-17).
The serpent is correct. They did not die. They did change dramatically, however. The promise came true. Eve and Adam became “like gods, ones who k-know good and evil” (3:5). God confirms this in Gen 3:22, when God decides humans must be expelled from the garden into the wilderness. Thus, the serpent, although “shrewd,” did not lie to the human beings. The serpent instead set up a confrontation between human beings and their God. Temptation, by its nature, sets up options that have consequences that may run afoul of the will of God. In this sense, Adam and Eve function as metaphorical reminders for our lives entering Lent: “death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses” (5:14).
Paul makes this clear in his argument in Romans 5:12-19. The story of Adam and Eve is a theological metaphor describing what it means to belong to a humanity alienated from creation and its Creator. In the Christ event, this alienation is overcome by grace. In other words, salvation is to about returning to the paradise of the garden; although it is one of the ways it has been depicted. Salvation is about healing the broken relationship between the Creator and the creation, including most specifically human beings. In fact, the great guarantee we walk away with in today’s reading is that no matter how bad our alienation is, the reality of sin is always weaker than the life-giving grace of God: “For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!” (5:15)
In the end, peirasmos is ever-present. It influences every decision we make every day of the week. We are called to face life in the wilderness knowing that despite the temptations that face us, God’s grace has already overcome the negative consequences of sin and death. We live in the wilderness, but the wilderness cannot destroy us.