The Spirit Catches Us and We Rise

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”Thereupon the Spirit sent him away into the wilderness, and there he remained for forty days tempted by Satan.”— Mark 1:12

He is driven into the wilderness. He is thrown into the vast distances of the desert. What was Jesus’ head telling him while the eyes of his soul cast about for any sign of his Father’s presence? Could he still hear God’s voice cascading down on him like summer rain, like the water John poured over him before he went under?

He is the beloved son of the Father. If by this time Joseph was dead, Jesus’ claim on God as his father — an extraordinary, mystical embrace that had begun when he was a child — is now complete.

The muddy Jordan is a warm stream; he rises from its waters as if from birth. He’s feeling his way along, unsure of what is next, but restless to be doing, to bring forth in some language he has yet to learn the conviction that is growing within him — that the kingdom of God is here and he will bring it to vivid reality.

Mark’s comment has the bleak clarity of a tree in winter: “He was among the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” The elements of this scene are few. Jesus is in the wilderness with the Spirit, with Satan, with wild beasts, and with the angels — all of them at the same time.

He is in the wilderness for forty days, but this is New Testament shorthand for a very long time. Truth is, we don’t know how long this wilderness experience lasted. It doesn’t seem to be Mark’s point anyway. He offers up the whole scenario with just enough detail to fire the imagination.

But why now? Why, after the glory of heaven’s affirmation, is Jesus thrown to the wild beasts and the towering silence of the desert? Couldn’t he be allowed to bask, if only for a little while, in the warmth of that love? Will it be enough to get him through this ordeal?

We can view the timing of this experience in different ways. Some Christians will see the desert after the river as a necessary come-down, a way of keeping Jesus from getting above himself. In this scenario, the loving affirmation of God is followed by trials that keep Jesus from pride, keep him tethered to God and passive. He will need to crawl before he walks.

We often hear something like this in the wake of a personal tragedy. This is the ‘Olympic Marathon’ approach to the trials that scourge us. The heavier the burden, the deeper the pit, the more God’s confidence in us will be seen they say. Try to see it as a backhanded compliment on how much suffering we can bear. Or so well-meaning people say.

The reality is that we are dropped in the wilderness, far removed from God. Far enough away that shock turns to guilt and then despair as we scrabble through our conscience to find the grievous sin that brought this on. But that is not how God acts.

There is another angle. Matthew and Luke fill out the story they borrow from Mark by picturing the three classic confrontations between Satan and Jesus: the hunger of great bodily need; the lure of suicide disguised as a false form of faith; and a naked play for enormous power. The trials and temptations that Jesus faces are those which harrow each of us to one degree or another. It is typical of us to see our limitations in stark outline and to desperately grasp at power offered, no matter the price. What Jesus goes through is a primer for meditation on the perversion of our bodily needs, our need to be recognized, and our need for agency.

Jesus is us in his full humanity.

Why now? Because to announce good news to the poor, to proclaim release for prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, Jesus needs to learn how to pray.

This is more than the saying of prayers in the synagogue along with everyone else. It is more than the prayers that open and close each day. It is more than the gratitude expressed for food and home and the necessities of life.

It is the discovery of his true self.

Call it prayer, call it meditation — this is how Jesus guts it out in the face of evil. To truly know himself and to understand who God is for him, he opens the door to all his fears and temptations. Meeting them — not denying them — is part of his combat training.

He comes to terms with the taunts he has faced all his life and the faces that go with them. He admits into his consciousness the dreams and fantasies he has buried. He shatters the idols of God that have distorted God’s justice into capricious judgment. He unlearns the harmful perceptions of God he has unconsciously collected all his life. All this takes time and effort.

This is how God loves him and the Spirit guides him. This is how he will meet his true self. And when he is cursed by the religious authorities, mocked by his family, harangued by the demons, and deserted by his best friends, he will reach back into himself for that assurance.

This journey into himself through prayer is the source of his exceptional imagination. We see it in his penetrating and sometimes enigmatic parables. He makes connections between phrases of scripture, the chance remarks he’s puzzled over, the stories he’s grown up with, for now he sees them in a new light.

When he later says, ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock,’ he speaks from experience. Through prayer, he has knocked at the door of his deepest self and entered in. Like the woman in the parable scouring her house for the lost coin, there is no part of himself he has overlooked or ignored.

So, when the devil comes to the end of all his temptations and departs, “biding his time,” as Luke puts it, Jesus is ready. Armed with the Spirit, he sets out for Galilee to begin the revolution of liberation and healing.

And what has this to do with us? We find ourselves in a desert place, famished and weary and surrounded by wild beasts. We don’t know how to pray, we can be knocked over by a feather when tempted, and we don’t see any angels around us.

When our spirit responds to the Spirit, when we open up to all that God promises, we feel ourselves to be children of God. If, after that, we feel let down, angry, disappointed, it is not unusual and it doesn’t mean we’re no longer within God’s embrace. It simply means that parts of ourselves are still living in fear of God. We may have a smile on our lips while our fists are still clenched. We are in judgement of ourselves, resisting the forgiveness of the Spirit that enlivens our hearts of stone.

To us Jesus says, “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”

The Spirit lifts us, sets us on our feet, and lightens the path before us. It’s a path through time, our forty days or forty years.

Immaculate Naïveté

Photo: Kalen Emsley, Unsplash

What do we imagine is the nature of God’s point of contact with any part of creation? Can God, does God, intervene? . . . Those who allow themselves to think about God and God’s relation to the universe find sooner or later that their feet are no longer on solid rock but walking on water with five fathoms of uncertainty beneath them.1 — John V. Taylor

I can still remember when I discovered that prayer might be good for finding things. A few friends and I were playing ball late in the afternoon in a glade near the acres of an abandoned vineyard. In front of the tree line behind us, there was a bank of grass, thick-bladed and tall, growing lushly. I was playing outfield, stomping around, waiting for a fly-ball. When it came, up and up against the orange light spurting through the trees, I lost it for a moment as I stumbled backward. When I thrashed through the tall grass, trying to keep my footing and still track the ball, I tumbled, legs in the air, arms thrown wide, my glove landing a few feet away. The runner was circling the bases and the ball, a gleaming white softball, had disappeared.

It couldn’t have gone far, but no one in the infield had seen where it landed. I crashed around for a minute or two, expecting to pick it up and hurl it to home plate. But it was gone, like it had been swallowed in mid-air by a pterodactyl. My friends shouted at me to hurry up; we were trying to even the score with one last inning before we all had to run for home and chores and supper.

I ran up and down that stretch of grass, tracing an expanding grid. I tried to calculate the arc of the trajectory. I stamped the grass methodically. I got down on my knees and combed the grass the way you would a horse’s mane. Nothing. A couple of friends ran up to join me as I felt around in the gathering twilight.

I had the memory of a Bible verse, something about, “He has counted the hairs of your head,” tedious and pointless work, in my opinion. But there was another one—“he cares for the sparrows”—that seemed the right level of detail for a loving God in charge of the universe, though I had to admit that by comparison, the loss of a baseball was in the negative end of the scale. But I was getting desperate and my friends had gone, leaving me and another friend to find it or go home. So I prayed, bent over as I searched, and when I straightened up there it was, nestled in a clump of grass I must have gone over several times. With a shout, I grabbed it up and we ran for home in the twilight, the ball glowing like a stranded moon in my hand.

With the eyes of a lifetime, I look back to that boy running joyfully for home, his prayer answered. Should I stop him to say that prayer is about more than finding lost toys? Should I ask him what he’ll do the next time he prays, say, for the life of a friend’s mother, and she dies? What is God’s providence? Does he have his eye upon the sparrow and the softball? Can we say with certainty that our lives and those of our loved ones are always within God’s reach?

I was grateful that God (as I saw it) helped me find the softball. I’ve had many other moments since, when looking back I saw that the pieces of my life at certain intersections fell into a coherent pattern. I don’t know how providence “works.” I certainly can’t predict the outcome looking forward nor should I demand the outcome that I want without putting my effort and my faith into it. “It is not meaningless to thank God for a particular event or for the course of a lifetime, despite being unable to explain the way in which God gave it that form,” muses John V. Taylor in his The Christlike God.2

***

Think of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting, ‘The Creation of Adam,’ with God extending a finger toward Adam, who lounges back against the verdure. He looks lazy and I want to say, ‘On your feet, man! This is God reaching out to you!’ But perhaps I am too hasty to judgement. God is the first being Adam has seen. He hasn’t even seen himself yet. If he doesn’t stretch to meet God’s outthrust arm, it’s probably because he’s only gradually becoming aware of where he ends, and God begins.

With an immaculate naiveté, Adam will trust the flying, whirling, wind-blown muscular God, who has launched himself across the heavens, surrounded by cherubim. Only later will he know distance and regret and shame. For now, he is awakening to the face of glory. This is the first day of the rest of his life—and all life, as it happens.

Let us say that God has called us in as consultants to Adam. Arriving from the future and with the hindsight of thousands of years, we’ve seen more good and evil than he ever will. What have we learned?

Evil is what sears itself into memory we might tell him, although once you’ve catalogued the primary sins, what follows is a tedious but deadly repetition, with the only remarkable deviations being those of scale. Yet, for all that we did not seem to learn from our history.

We first blamed the deities for the elemental forces of floods, avalanches, fires, earthquakes. Later, when we better understood the chain of events, we described them as the laws of nature, and we when we broke them there were consequences. It took time, a lot of time, but it became clear that there would be an accounting for our greed and lawlessness against the Garden. Some wanted to call it the judgement of God; it was rather that Nature would always redress our imbalances with a blind, impersonal power that was awesome and horrifying.

If we could offer moral advice to the First Man, what would it be? Do we want to say, ‘Don’t eat that fruit!’, and then have to explain what fruit is and how you eat it and what eating is, and then why he shouldn’t do the very thing we’ve spent precious minutes instructing him to do? Or maybe you want to say in a whisper, ‘God is going to give you a creature who is lovely and mysterious and has a mind of her own. Don’t presume for a minute that she is any less than your equal.’ Maybe we can head off the sin of sexism before it begins.

And then there were two. Eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, both of good and evil, is their primal step out over the abyss. Lovely to look at, intensely desired, this knowledge with which they take their futures into their own hands is irresistible. The serpent lies: they do not die. They are as beautiful and as vital as ever. Precariously, they take their first timid steps out across this narrow finger of stone. On the other side is the unknown. They are in this together, for better or for worse, until death they do part.

Adam and Eve stand on the other side of the abyss, trembling but exultant. “We made it!” Then as they turn to look back at the Garden they freeze, bewildered. The bridge is gone, they are alone. There is no going back; they face a featureless plain on which they must carve, in labor, their own future.

We might explain the expulsion from the Garden as recorded historical truth or simply a curiously nostalgic folktale. Or, better, we see the story laying bare the God-shaped hole inside ourselves as we toil in the city, far across the plains from the gate to the Garden. Then perhaps we will say to the two of them, ‘Live in your God-given freedom, let your mistakes be your own. Learn to trust going forward, for God can bring good out of this.”

‘Live with trust,’ we might say to them, ‘and love, for love casts out fear and violence is fear without a conscience. Temper your justice with mercy and apply both with compassion. Take on the suffering of others. Put yourself in the place of another, even someone you hate; there are many ways to seek justice.’

In the absence of the knowledge of good and evil, trust is unnecessary. Immaculate naïveté will suffice at first, but true freedom cannot develop. Within the constraints of the freedom God has given us to care for this earth and for each other, God works with us as agents who are responsive and responsible. In the strength of the Spirit, as we follow Jesus step by step, we learn to see the hand of God in the circumstances around us. We can accept the courage it takes to become God’s agents of providence for others. For those whose suffering is not answered and for whom God cannot intervene, “We who would like to say, and rightly, that God suffers with and in the victims must validate the claim by being, if possible, the agent, the body, in whom God does that sharing.”3

  1. Taylor, John V. The Christlike God. London: SCM Press, Ltd., 1992, p. 206.
  2. Taylor, p. 207.
  3. Taylor, p. 233.