In our gospel this morning we are invited to accompany Jesus, just after his baptism, as he is driven or forced or compelled—by the Spirit of God—into the wilderness, where he is surrounded by wild beasts, faces temptation, meets Satan, and receives the ministration of angels. Scripture tells us that he was there, struggling with Satan and doubtless with himself—for 40 days which, when you think about it, is a very long time to be left alone in the wilds of nature. 40 is a magic number in the Bible, recalling the 40 days and 40 nights of the flood during the time of Noah, the 40 days that Moses was on Mount Sinai alone in God’s presence, and the 40 years that Israel wandered in the wilderness.
I imagine that during his time in the wilderness Jesus felt and experienced the full range and scope of human emotion—fear, anger, despair, confusion, isolation, abandonment, but also love and comfort and strength. As presented to us in scripture it was, I think, a time of testing. Was he up to the task to which God was calling him? Did he have the strength necessary to take on all that would come his way? All the loss, all the pain, all the illness, all the death—even his own?
Matthew and Luke go into greater detail about Jesus’ wilderness trials than Mark does here. In those other gospels we read about the various temptations Jesus faced—the lure of power and wealth, food to satisfy his hunger, the adulation of crowds, protection from harm. Jesus rejected these. He rejected easy answers. He rejected the promise of false security. He rejected anything that might have drawn him away from his own life in and with God, even in those moments, like here, when God must have seemed especially distant, remote, and far away.
This has seemed a lot like a week spent with Jesus in the wilderness. Yet another school shooting, indiscriminately and mercilessly killing 17 wonderful people—youth and adults alike—reminds us that as a nation, we are wandering in a deep and dark wilderness, confronted by hungry, howling wild beasts, and temptations of every kind. Where is God in this horror? Where are the angels, who bring comfort and hope? Where is the rainbow in the sky we heard about in our first reading this morning, offering the promise of new life after the dark and tempestuous storm?
I shared in my parish email on Friday that I didn’t hear about the shooting until I got home from a long day at here at church on Ash Wednesday. If I had known earlier, I likely would have preached a different Ash Wednesday sermon. Doubtless still focused on God’s love, but reflecting in a different and deeper way on the profound brokenness of human life, on such painful, horrific display this week. The whole thing is just beyond comprehension or understanding, or at least it should be.
17 lives ended for no reason. 17 sons, daughters, dads, students and teachers who will never come home again, never pick up another pencil, never read another book or swim another lap, never hug a friend, never again laugh or cry. Another mass shooting in a country that prides itself on being a nation of laws, a refuge of safety, a beacon of hope, freedom, and justice.
How did we get here, into this wilderness? How do we get out?
How did we get here, into this wilderness? How do we get out?
Following the shooting, the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida offered the following statement: “There are no words that can adequately give voice to the madness and the violence done to those gunned down, and to their families and friends so cruelly robbed of those they loved. There are no words to describe the pain of loss and grief, of shock and horror, of outrage and anger… Only the anguished cries that well up from the very depths of our being. There are no words to make sense of what makes no sense, and in the face of such senseless killing we are numbed and rendered speechless.”
The bishop of the diocese offered a brief further reflection, saying: “We bring our longings and convictions for a different future. What happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is not the world as it ought to be, or as it needs to be, and we who follow Jesus accept the responsibility for being partners with God to bridge that gap between what is and what could and ought to be.”
“We who follow Jesus accept the responsibility for being partners with God to bridge that gap between what is and what could and ought to be.” I believe he’s right. I believe that it is precisely our call, as Jesus’ followers and disciples—to be partners with him, and partners with God, in bridging that gap—so that what could be and ought to be becomes what is. In real life. Not just in dreams. Not just in hopes. Not just in thoughts and prayers, however sincerely offered.
So for me, the question is what do we do? How do we act? How does God want us to act, to partner with Christ, with God, to transform the world?
I don’t have all the answers. Though I certainly have convictions about guns and safety, especially when it comes to semiautomatic, military style weapons—which have mass killing as their primary purpose. I don’t see how they have any place in civilized society. In 1963 the prototype for these weapons was presented to President John F. Kennedy, for military use, and he rejected them, not seeing the need. They were introduced in 1964—the year after Kennedy was assassinated, by a man with a rifle—for use in the Vietnam War.
The same kind of weapon was used in the Sandy Hook school shooting, and in the Pulse Night Club in Florida, and in the concert shooting in Las Vegas, and the church shooting in Texas last year. When a disturbed person wants to kill masses of people, whether in a nightclub, a concert, a school, or a church, it seems that this is the weapon of choice. That the military feels the need to use such weapons is bad enough. But there’s no reason for them to be in our homes and on our streets, purchased legally by 19-year-olds. If you can’t buy a beer but you can buy a weapon capable of killing so many in a matter of minutes, there is something wrong in our priorities, something wrong in our values, something wrong in our humanity.
And so, at some point, like Jesus, we will have to emerge from the wilderness in which we find ourselves. We will have to take on the tempting, seductive powers of death. We will have to partner with God and fight for life. We will have to fight for our very souls, and for the life of all of God’s people. We have to reject the temptation of thinking that someone else will do it, or that it couldn’t happen here, to us, to the people we love and care for. And instead understand that a part of us all dies when lives are so senselessly taken.
The present sad state of our life together as a nation does not have to be our story or our reality. We can reach for God, instead of guns. We can help each other be well. We can be people of hope and life, instead of death and despair. We can be. We should be. We need to be, if we want to be fully human, fully alive, fully free. And so, at some point, we will have to leave behind and finally reject the temptation of believing that we will find our strength and security through arms and war, instead of through the far more powerful gifts of healing and new life offered us in faith, in community, in Christ, in the life of God.
You know, Jesus used his time in the wilderness to overcome fear, to confront demons, even Satan himself, and to fight back temptations of many kinds. He used that time to emerge stronger, more faith-filled, more deeply grounded, centered, and rooted in God. He used that time to become even more the Son that God wanted and needed him to be. And I wonder if maybe, hopefully, we can use and utilize our time in the wilderness in which we find ourselves in much the same way—so that we, too, can emerge strong, faithful, committed, and full of hope, full of the life, full of the love and Spirit of God.
And so, like Jesus, we pray. We pray so that we can act. We pray so that we have strength. We pray to find hope. And we pray so that, like Jesus, we are filled with the life and power and Spirit of God. The life and power and Spirit that, through you, through us, will change the world.
May we find it so. May we make it so.
To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD