Jesus' wilderness struggle for self-awareness a model for Church, Presiding Bishop says
Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold preached at the 11:15 a.m. Holy Eucharist today at St. David's Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas, where the Episcopal Church's Executive Council is meeting February 11-14. The full text of the sermon follows:
The Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church, USA
St. David's Church
February 13, 2005
Genesis 2:15-17. 3:1-7
Jesus emerged dripping wet from the waters of the Jordan river with the voice from heaven still ringing in his ears: "This is my son, the Beloved with whom I am well pleased." Without a moment's pause to catch his breath or take into himself the profound implications of what had just occurred, Jesus is led up by the Sprit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. The very same Spirit of God who bears down upon Jesus at his baptism, working within him an all-embracing awareness of his belovedness, now leads him out into the wilderness to undergo an intense season of testing and temptation: 40 days and 40 nights, as we just sang, reminiscent of similar seasons of testing and preparation in the lives of Moses and Elijah, as well as Israel's 40 years of being and formed and made ready to enter the promised land.
One might ask: how could this Sprit who in one moment bears witness to God's deep love for Jesus, and his delight in the one he calls his Son, in the very next moment lead him up – or in the more violent language of Mark, "drive him out" into the harsh and forbidding landscape of the wilderness?
I think the answer lies in the fact that before Jesus can enter into his ministry, his living of the mystery of his belovedness for the sake of the world, he has to sort and sift through the range of possibilities and potential misdirections that ministry, that belovedness, might take. Was he called to fulfill the messianic expectations that were very much in the air: expectations of a warrior-king, a new David, who would marshal an army and overthrow the power of Rome? Or, was he perhaps called to establish a separatist sect, aloof, ascetical, uncompromising in its adherence to the Law and untainted by any accommodations to gentile ways?
Before embarking upon his public ministry with all its demands, temptations and potential misdirections, Jesus had to know himself in the fullness of his humanity. He had to understand the ways we human beings can so easily be pulled off course, particularly when the evil one masquerades as an angel of light and we find ourselves tempted in the form of something that seems a greater good. The Spirit of God who led Jesus into the wilderness now draws him into an intense season of interior struggle in order to root and ground him in his newfound belovedness in such a way that he will be able to discern the way forward and resist the various tugs and pulls and ever present seductions to satisfy ego at the expense of vocation.
How easy it would have been in what lay before him for Jesus to have become enslaved to the expectations of the crowd lining the way and waving palms as he rode into Jerusalem. How easy it would have been for Jesus to have succumbed to Peter's rebuke as Jesus spoke of the suffering he was to undergo. How natural it would have been for him to have railed against heaven, resisted his belovedness, and given in to bitterness and self-pity as he encountered rejection, misunderstanding, misrepresentation, overt hostility, and, in many ways, failure.
Because Jesus fully shared our humanity he had to face and come to terms not only with his capacity for light, but his capacity for darkness and disorder as well. The whole range of human possibilities existed within him. He was, as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, "tempted in every way as we are..."
"Unawareness is the root of all evil," observed a 4th century follower of Jesus. This desert monastic was one of those who chose to make the wilderness his home. They went to the desert in order to be dis-illusioned -- that is stripped of illusion. And thus, unshielded by fig leaves, they were confronted by the naked truth of the human heart and the various movements within it: movements which can thwart and undermine the realization of God's unbounded love and justness and compassion in our lives and our relationships with others.
"In the desert the air is purer, the sky is more open and God is closer," observed Origen, another early veteran of the wilderness.
And so it is that Jesus is led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Here Mark adds, "and he was with the wild beasts." These were not just the wild beasts that inhabited the wilderness but the wild beasts that prowl about within our own human nature: aggression, grandiosity, anger, revenge, fear, despair, self-pity. We are familiar with these beasts. Jesus in the wilderness had to come face-to-face with the various dimensions and potentialities of his own psyche: those that would both lead him more deeply into the demands of his belovedness, and those that would draw him into himself.
In the wilderness Jesus had to acknowledge and welcome and befriend what the Anglican mystic William Law describes as the dark guest: which is the shadow side of our human nature. "When rightly known and rightly dealt with," Law tells us, "[the dark guest] can as well be made the foundation of Heaven as it is of Hell."
In other words, the task of the Spirit in the life of Jesus -- and in our lives as well -- is to lead us into truth: the truth of our belovedness, and the truth of those dimensions of our humanity which if denied or unacknowledged can play havoc with what we like to believe is our nobler and truer self. In the wilderness Jesus is brought face-to-face with the heights and depths of his own humanity. He comes to realize that even though he is the Beloved Son of God he is capable of collusion with the wild beasts of his human nature. He was not simply to reject these beasts, but to welcome, befriend, integrate and own them as parts of himself.
This was for him a preparation: in what lay ahead he would be obliged again and again to recognize the insistent presence of his own human neediness and wrestle anew with the emotions and urges that overtook him at the very heart of his desire to do the will of the Father and to accomplish his work. The most dramatic instance of this struggle is Jesus' prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane: "My Father, if it is possible let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want."
Here every urge toward self-preservation raged and voices cried out within him: Save yourself; this can't be what the One who loves you and delights in you truly desires. As he struggled, Jesus sought to situate his anguish and his doubts within the awareness of the Father's love for him, and his own answering love.
Without the self knowledge and the awareness of the spirits that moved within him, which were the fruit of his 40-day sojourn in the wilderness, Jesus the man might well have fled from the garden, animated by the logic of self-preservation. Instead he chose another way, a way that cost him everything, including his very life -- a way that confirmed the paradoxical truth of his own words: those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for the sake of the gospel -- that is for the sake of God's loving desire for the world -- will find it.
We ourselves, in our own ways, are often the prisoners of our own wild beasts, and the stratagem of the evil one is to keep us unaware and unknowing. In a state of self-deception we assume that our motives are noble and pure, without recognizing that we are animated by the unacknowledged dark guest within us. Left to our own devices, we have little sense that our perspective is distorted, false, or partial. Aggression, revenge, grandiosity, fear, selfishness are unacknowledged or masked by a rhetoric of virtue that compounds our self-deception.
Within the life of our church we can see how a sense of belovedness can turn in upon itself and become an isolating self-regard that can be easily threatened and manifest itself as hostile defensiveness. Such isolation and defensiveness can belong to any party or point of view but in all cases such defensiveness tears us apart rather than brings us together.
And so it is that God's loving Spirit leads us up, and occasionally drives us out into the wilderness -- away from our securities and certitudes, our firm opinions about ourselves and the world around us. A breach is made within us and we find ourselves undefended in the face of forces that threaten to undo us -- forces not simply outside ourselves, but within ourselves as well. Our reactions and responses to what presses upon us often reveal to us aspects of ourselves that we are loathe to acknowledge.
Such moments of potential awareness, as painful as they may be, are a gift, a gift from the Spirit who Jesus tells us will lead us into all truth, including the truth about ourselves. This gift is not given in order to weigh us down but rather to set us free from illusion.
"For freedom Christ has set us free," Paul tells us -- free in the knowledge of our belovedness in the eyes of God, a belovedness which enfolds and contains all aspects of our humanity, and makes it possible for us to befriend the dark guest who is always present within us, as he was within Jesus.
In the liturgy for Ash Wednesday we are invited "to the observance of a holy Lent." This means that we, not only individually but together as a community of faith, a church, are called with Jesus to go out into the wilderness -- into that open space of encounter where the air is purer, the sky more open and God in the full force of God's purifying and transforming love is ready to woo us and speak to our hearts. How different our life as a church can be, and what a healing and hopeful gift it can be for the world around us, as we live evermore out of a deep knowing of our belovedness, and in a sober awareness of the ways in which belovedness can turn in upon itself.
As Episcopalians shaped by the Anglican tradition of common prayer it is in our worship that we find ourselves and one another bound together through baptism in the risen body of Christ, a body whose life force is the love poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Week by week that same self-giving love draws us out of ourselves by becoming one with us. "This is my body; this is my blood. Take, eat, drink. I in you and you in me." Over time and through many wildernesses illusion gives way to truth and awareness replaces unknowing. And in the fullness of our humanity, with all its complexity and the interplay of light and darkness -- a humanity Jesus knew as well -- we find ourselves drawn forward into Christ's own urgent desire to reconcile, to restore, to heal and to make all things whole.
Therefore may we, dear brothers and sisters, as individuals, and as a church, be so drawn. May we as individuals, and as a church, be faithful to this call such that we together give ourselves to God's own work of reconciling, restoring, healing and making all things whole.
Glory to God, whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.