On Friday, Jim and I are hoping to take Luke to see the new movie Amazing Grace, which tells the story of William Wilberforce, John Newton, and the overcoming of the slave trade in Britain. It seems that Lent is an appropriate time for its release, because on Ash Wednesday we are called to humble repentance. We are asked to reflect on our inadequacies, our weaknesses, our temptations, the areas in which we fall short and fail – even historically. But ultimately, we are asked to do so in the light of God’s grace … amazing grace.
What can be very difficult in Lent is the wilderness. The wilderness within, or the wilderness we find ourselves in. We may be led quite involuntarily into the wilderness … and not just in Lent. What we call in spiritual speak “the time of testing” can actually feel like desperation, a loss of hope. We may cry out, “where is God?” in the face of random or meaningless suffering, immense stress, depression, illness, debilitating grief, war, and tragic death.
Reading about the temptations of Jesus, his “time of testing” in the wilderness might offer some guidance. All of Jesus’ replies to the devil come from Deuteronomy 6-8 and each temptation is a temptation to sin against the great commandment in Deuteronomy 6:5, to love God “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
Firstly, we read that Jesus was tempted to turn stones into bread. There’s a great humanity about this temptation. You have to remember now that he was hungry, he was exhausted; he hadn’t eaten for 40 days! This was a temptation to security. Immediate gratification, the quick fix, the easy answer. My kids know all about that temptation! So do I. In my constant efforts to be efficient, I am always looking for the easy instant solution. On a purely domestic level, it’s so tempting to buy the ready-to-serve juice pouches, the individual applesauce pots … but all that excess packaging!
Much of life is like that. We go to great lengths to have an easy life. It can be a daily temptation for us not to discipline ourselves in areas of greed, materialism, or even sensuality. Health and wealth – we want it now. We want God to speak to us now, to guide us now, to heal us now. And Jesus is saying: No, have patience. Be in the wilderness and discover how to rely on God. Simplify your lifestyle, reject the easy answers, and the wilderness journey will start to teach you something about trust in God and how to serve God with your heart, your soul, and your mind.
The second temptation was to power and wealth over and against loving God. Satan showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and said, “I will give you their glory and all this authority.” He’s promised of “all the kingdoms of the world” – if he will only bow down to the voice behind the principalities and powers. This is a particularly American temptation, the notion that America is indispensable, the one remaining superpower that is needed by the world. George Bush has given us plenty of reason to believe that he puts his hope in America rather than God and indeed can confuse the two. In his address delivered on the anniversary of September 11, he quoted from John’s gospel, “And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness has not overcome it.” The trouble is that he was not referring to the light of the world, Jesus Christ. Rather, he was referring to America and its ideals of freedom and democracy as the light and hope of the world. It’s easy to apply this to the administration and to George Bush, but we should also consider how it challenges us – this is especially true for the third temptation.
The third temptation was to the spectacular. Satan took Jesus to Jerusalem, placed him on the pinnacle of the temple and said, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down … the angels will bear you up.” This is the temptation to fame, or to the spectacular. Almost four years ago to the day, as many of you were working very hard to stop the war in Iraq from happening, the official Pentagon language was that an attack would leave Iraq and the world in a state of “shock and awe.” Three thousand bombs will be dropped in the first week. It doesn’t matter about the weather, we’ll amaze them with our technology … And America did the spectacular. But it was the devil’s temptation, and so much more evil abounds right now because the administration succumbed to that particular temptation.
God’s way of transformation is not spectacle, but the patient enduring of the wilderness and the cross. As I said, this temptation can hit home personally too. We can all be tempted to seek God in the spectacular and not in the struggle and the suffering. It’s also a challenge for Sojourners, particularly in the face of success, to remain humble.
Humility is difficult for people who think they are, or want to be, “radical Christians.”
Humility is difficult when you’re always calling other people – the church, the nation, and the world – to stop doing the things you think are wrong and start doing the things you think are right.
Humility is difficult for the bearers of radical messages.
When we’re always calling other people to repent and change, it’s not always easy to hear that message for ourselves.
I want to suggest that there is a real and very deep tension between humility and the prophetic vocation.
We can be tempted by the idols of materialism, power and spectacle, in the forms of war, wealth, prestige, and celebrity, just to name a few. But Jesus said, “Away with you Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only God.'” Then the tempter left him, and will leave us, too, if we stand our ground passing with Jesus through the wilderness.
Joy Carroll Wallis was one of the first women priests ordained in the Church of England, and is the author of The Woman Behind the Collar , published by Crossroads. She is married to Jim Wallis and is the mother of their two young sons, Luke and Jack. This article is adapted from a message she delivered during Sojourners’ staff Ash Wednesday chapel service.