First Sunday in Lent
On Shrove Tuesday this past week I visited the place where Jesus was baptized. It is now a Jordanian national archaeological park and once again a pilgrimage site. One of the fruits of the peace agreement between Jordan and Israel nearly 20 years ago has been public access to the land alongside the Jordan, even though it took several more years before all the land mines were cleared. Archaeological work since then has revealed at least five churches, a monastery, and evidence of centuries of regard for this place as the site where John the Baptizer met Jesus. A small miracle of peace in the Middle East.
The gospel this morning tells of the days immediately following Jesus’ baptism. Approaching that site on the Jordan today takes you through a band of dense brush and small trees, not over 10 feet tall. It’s so dense that you can’t see the sky, the hills around or very far into the thicket, and so dry that you wonder about wildfires. It’s not like the open wild country here, moors or upland mountains or rocky coast. Wandering for forty days in a place like that would test anybody’s sense of direction. It’s an invitation to uncertainty – and doubt about the way forward.
As Jesus emerges from the river, he hears the voice from heaven reminding him that he is God’s beloved and God is already well-pleased with him, even before he begins his public ministry. He’s been propelled out into this vale of uncertainty to meet a challenging series of questions: ‘Are you hungry? Feeling alone? Looking for someone to get you out of this fix?’
Jesus is wrestling with what it means to begin this journey. Where is he going, what is his goal – and his role? The challenges he meets are about his identity. He’s been reminded that he is beloved and pleasing to God – as he is, before he’s done anything significant. Listen to his story, and hear the echo of creation in Genesis – and the dust in which Lent begins.
The beginning of that second creation story notes that there aren’t any plants or farmers because God hasn’t yet produced any rain, but there is a stream that floods the earth – like the Jordan overflowing its banks in spring. God creates a human being from the dust and breathes into the creature’s nostrils, and adham becomes a living being. Adam isn’t a proper name yet, it’s a description, earth creature. Then God plants a garden and tells the creature to tend it. Anything may be eaten except the fruit from one tree – if you do, you will die. God notices that this solitary human being needs a partner, so God creates birds and animals. Adham gives them names, but none of them is quite right as a partner. The earth creature is put to sleep, a rib is removed to produce another human being, and now there are two creatures, with a common origin in dust and divine breath. The crafty snake challenges the two human beings to ignore their created origin and their charge to tend the garden by eating the forbidden fruit.
The crafty tempter invites Jesus to do very similar things. First, ‘turn these stones into food, so you can satisfy your hunger.’ Stones may be created by God, but they haven’t had life breathed into them, and they can’t sustain life. Will Jesus pre-empt the creative role and deny their nature by turning them into something to be used for his own ends? The word of God is meant for life, for God’s ends and in God’s time, and Jesus declines the invitation, even if he is famished. He will wait on God’s creative time.
Next, the crafty one – and that word invites us to see the devil or tempter as a usurper, claiming to be the crafter or creator of life – the crafty one invites Jesus to forsake his lonely path through the wilderness for a moment of fame in the big city. ‘Are you lost and lonely? Want to be king of the mountain? Then do something that’ll get you on the nightly news – try some death-defying tricks. Abba will bail you out.’ Jesus responds by claiming his human identity as creature. He will take his journey through the wilderness, even if it doesn’t promise a quick flash of fame, even if he has no companion and can’t see much beyond the next few steps. God’s future will emerge, in God’s time.
Finally the false one takes him up another high place with a view of the entire world and says, ‘there, that’s your destiny – it’s yours if you’ll take my path.’ Again Jesus responds by claiming his relationship to the true source of life. ‘The end is not yet clear, I will take the road wherever it leads, knowing I have all I need, for I am God’s beloved, and that love is ultimately life-giving.’
The false one is the voice that ultimately denies life – it is more honestly called violence, whatever forestalls, diminishes, demeans, or discards the life of God’s continuing creativity. . God’s creation takes patience and true craft; it invites partnership, it isn’t instantaneous intervention, it does not preempt or direct or control. If creation truly bears God’s image, it must be free enough to become the unexpected.
Those who follow Jesus through that wilderness meet the crafty one all the time. We can ignore our status as creatures who share our lives and origin with all other creatures. We are tempted to lord it over others or demand singular attention, often when we feel alone, afraid, unvalued, or insufficiently alive. We continue to look for love in all the wrong places. Yet God has said the same to us – ‘you are my beloved, in you I am well pleased.’ When we know that, deep in our hearts, it shapes our own journey through the wilderness.
Lent is an exercise program for consciousness – about relationship with the one who calls us beloved. It isn’t about gritting your teeth and starving. It IS about recognizing the ultimate source of life, giving thanks, and becoming a fellow gardener who will plant and nurture more abundant life. We all meet the wilderness as a place of testing. We can try to dictate the journey’s every step, yet that only ends in violence to the life possibilities of others. Partners in God’s creativity need the kind of vulnerability and openness that is willing to meet the journey as it comes, looking for life and blessing and relinquishing any lure in other directions.
Jordan is something of an island of peace in a sea of conflict. The society has a distinctive openness to the lives of others, whether they are Muslims or Christians, and a respect for the dignity and spiritual depth of the other. Yet there is fear that violence and extremism in surrounding communities will intrude and take that peace.
We share the journey that begins in the Jordan River with all humanity. Our decisions about the challenges before us can contribute to greater peace or to violent denials of life and possibility. The way we meet a neighbor or stranger here can make peace or encourage war across the world.
You are God’s beloved. Will you choose Jesus’ way of creative possibility or the crafty certainty of violence and death? Lent is an invitation to cultivate an open heart. It is Jesus’ open and vulnerable heart that ultimately saves the world.
 The first creation story names those human creatures very good – blessed, as Jesus is called beloved.