Good News Lent: Wilderness Introduction

At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. Mark 1:12-13

Are you in a wilderness? It could be one of your own making—sin and shame isolating you from others. It could be a wilderness hoist on you through circumstance: the death of a loved one, a broken relationship, a debilitating illness, the loss of a job. Maybe you went to what you thought was the land of promise, and found yourself in a  barren wasteland. However, you got here, you are not alone. Jesus also walked in the wilderness. For forty days he was tempted by the devil.

Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the wilderness is a poignant image for Lent. It is this episode from Jesus’ life that the church got the ‘forty days’ that determine the length of the season. Forty days Jesus fasted, so we fast forty days (minus Sundays). There Jesus was victor over temptation, so we take this time to pursue holiness, attentive to our proclivity toward sin. Yes, Jesus’ wilderness experience is foundational for our experience of Lent. But does the wilderness hold good news for us? Jesus faced the devil in the dry arid air of the desert. He did so, for the joy set before him. I see five reasons the wilderness was good news for Jesus, and is good news for us!

The Wilderness is Where God Wanted Jesus to Be

judean_wildernessWe are told in Mark’s gospel that the Spirit “sent” Jesus into the wilderness.   Jesus emerged from the Jordan, dripping wet from his baptism and the Spirit sent him to the desert. The NIV’s ‘sent’ is a rather tepid translation of the Greek ἐκβάλλει. The word carries the force of ‘drove out’ or ‘expelled.’ Jesus was forced out to the wilderness, there by the Spirit’s compulsion. He was in the wilderness because God wanted Him there.  Why did the Spirit want Jesus there? Matthew gives the reason, “He was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by devil” (Matt. 4:1).

There was contest that needed to happen between Jesus and Satan at the outset of his ministry. The ultimate contest would come later, but this wilderness time was important. Jesus had heard his Father’s voice, saw the heavens open and felt the Spirit’s presence resting like a cooing dove on Him. He couldn’t go back to carpentry; his Kingdom mission was inaugurated. God sent him to the wilderness, but he didn’t expect him to stay there.  He went to quote Deuteronomy at the Devil and strengthen his resolve to face what lay ahead

Spiritually the wilderness is a liminal space, it is a place between places. Jesus was stepping out of the life as an obscure Galilean carpenter, to a lifestyle which included itinerant evangelism, divine healing and political rabble-rousing. This was a big change in Jesus’ life, even for the Son of God. The desert gave Jesus the space a place to transition.

Where does God have you? If you are in a wilderness right now, perhaps the Spirit has driven you there because He is transitioning you to something new, something significant. This is a time to pay attention and ask God what He is doing?

 

The Wilderness Clarifies Identity and Allowed Jesus Space to Connect to God

 

God took Jesus to the wilderness after affirming him in baptism. Jonathan Martin writes:

[T]he reason that God sent Jesus into the wilderness was not to weaken Him­—so that his showdown with Satan would become “the ultimate test”—but rather to strengthen Him and cement in His heart the truth of His identity. Fresh from hearing the words of confirmation on which His entire life and ministry would be built, there was no safer place than the wilderness for Jesus to go next. Even though His experience in the wilderness wasn’t easy—He fasted for forty days and forty nights and was confronted by the devil—the devil wasn’t the only one he encountered there. The Spirit sent Jesus into the wilderness, rejuvenated with the affirmation of His identity in God’s eyes, and allowed Him to step away from His day-to-day life until the noise ad hurry of the world around Him was stripped down to the point where He could easily distinguish the voice of the accuser from the voice of the Father. The same can be true for us. [1]

Belden Lane says, “Desert and mountain places, located on the margins of society are locations of choice in luring God’s people to a deeper understanding of who they are. Yahweh frequently moves to the boundary in order to restore the center, calling a broken people back to justice and compassion.”[2] As with Jesus, so with us. We move (or are moved) into wilderness spaces to discover who we really are. It wasn’t enough that Jesus heard the Father affirm Him in baptism. He needed space to clarify what those words meant—to be moved by the Spirit, to connect with Father. He needed time out of the limelight to clarify His identity, and to hear God’s voice.

You are a child of God! The Father declares His love for you, the Spirit of God rests on all who are His. We need this space to understand what it means that we are His. We need to ‘unplug’ and take time in obscurity to cement this and to learn to discern the voice of God for us.

The Wilderness is a Place of Preparation

When Jesus left the wilderness, his public ministry would begin. It would culminate on a Roman cross. Along the way he would cast out demons, heal the sick, announce good news, and challenge the religious and political structures.  He would gather a handful of followers that he would pour his life into, so that they would lead the movement in his absence. There was a lot of work to be done and it would take all of him.  Jesus spent forty days fasting and praying at the outset of his ministry.  This time in the wilderness was preparation for what lay ahead.  These wilderness spaces are our preparatory school as well.  As the desert clarifies our identity—we see ourselves in all our vulnerability, weakness, brokenness and wonder—we sense God’s call to step out in compassion for the world. The obscurity of the margins is where God prepares us for the work ahead.

Do you know what God is Calling You to? Do you have a sense of the type of work he would like to do through you? How are you being prepared for that task? Our wilderness is where we discern God’s call and gain the courage to step into it.

 

The Wilderness is a Place of Purgation

The wilderness is where Jesus is tempted by the devil (Jesus’ temptation is the subject of my next post).  This is also the space where we face those ugly bits in ourselves. The Christian tradition calls this purgation—a purification of the soul from sin. Jesus was the sinless Son of God, but even he faced temptation. The wilderness is the space where we can wrestle our demons all the way down.  We all have comforts and strategies we employ that we use which prevent us from examining our heart’s condition: we use the demands of work and commitments to crowd out self-reflection; we fill our down time with Netflix binge watches of our favorite series; we fill our bellies with a tub of cookie dough ice cream or engage in some retail therapy. We are good at distracting ourselves with work, food, and entertainment. Perhaps we self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. When all these are stripped away through fasting or circumstance, we begin to see ourselves for who we are and to deal with the parts of our soul we work so hard at avoiding.   Lane writes:

The way of purgation involves an entry into what is unnerving, even grotesque in our lives, into what quickly reveals our limits. It seems at first, like most beginnings in the spiritual life, a mistake, a false start, an imperfection in God’s planning, a regression in our own growth. Only in hindsight do we recognize it for the unexpected gift that it is.[3]

The good news of the desert is that as our defenses are stripped away and our sin is laid bare before God, He transforms us. When we emerge from this marginal, liminal space, we are made new. The wilderness is a hard place to be, but it is where God has his way in us.

The Wilderness is Where Jesus ‘Back-stories’ the Good News.

The good news about Jesus is made coherent as part of the larger story of God and Israel’s story.  N.T. Wright’s project has been to show how Jesus fulfills Israel’s messianic hopes.  Jesus does this in two ways: he recapitulates Israel and its sacred symbols around himself and he does the sort of things the Hebrew Scriptures attest that only God can do.  The Hebrew Scriptures, what Christian’s call the Old Testament, provides the backstory essential for understanding who Jesus is and why he came. When we look again at Jesus wilderness wandering, we see God reenacting Israel’s own wandering. The people of Israel went through the Red Sea and spent forty years in the wilderness; Jesus left the Jordan for forty days in the wilderness. Israel was led by God’s presence in a pillar of fire by day and a cloud by night (Exodus 13:21); Jesus was compelled forward by the Spirit. Israel was tested for forty years (Deuteronomy 8:2); Jesus was tempted by the devil. But while Israel grumbled, complained, and failed their wilderness tests, Jesus would emerge victorious.  Jesus’ reenactment showed him to be the New Israel, fulfilling covenant with God, walking faithfully with him.

Something new was happening in the Judean countryside. A Messiah was coming that would fulfill all of Israel’s hopes and longing. A man would stumble out of the desert that would embody everything Israel was supposed to be.

Jesus came. He suffered the wilderness, he overcame the time of testing and he would lead his people to the good land. Praise God that Jesus came to be what we could not be for ourselves. Thank you Jesus for going before us, marking the way through the wilderness and showing us the way forward as we trust in him.

 

Whatever your wilderness is, press into it. Jesus walked this road and there are good things in store.  God will take this time to show you who you are, to help you see clearly who He is, to guide you, to show you the way forward, to prepare you, to cleanse your heart of Sin.  The desert is harsh landscape, and these are difficult days. There are gifts here too.

[Note: I previous edition of this page, titled it “Wilderness Part I.” However I decided to break Jesus’ Temptations into several posts, and treat this an introductory post].

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Jonathan Martin, Prototype: What Happens When You Discover You Are More Like Jesus Than You Think. (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum, 2013), 51.

[2] Belden Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscape: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 46.

[3] Lane, 27.

Good News Lent: Baptism

 

It began with a baptism. Before Jesus’ forty-day fast—his wandering in the desert to be tempted by the devil—before he took the road to the Calvary, before even his earthly ministry, Jesus came from Galilee to be baptized by John in the Jordan river (Mark 1:9). Baptisms are always good news. They are a celebration of something new: a new birth, a new sense of belonging, a new work of God in the baptized. Jesus’ baptism is no exception. It inaugurated a new phase for the Incarnate Son. He no longer was biding his time until the preordained hour. With his baptism, something new began: Jesus came preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God.

Continue reading Good News Lent: Baptism

The Sour-Faced Evangelists of Lent?

It is Ash Wednesday. Today many us will attend a service to receive the imposition of ashes–a dark smudge across our foreheads. This is just the first thing imposed on us in Lent, a season of self-imposed discipline. We give up chocolate, meat, coffee, alcohol, smoking–or anything that makes us happy.  Jesus suffered in the wilderness and on his long, winding road to Calvary. The Church has deemed that appropriately, we should suffer too. We wander through today our faces marked with soot and scowls. Fasting makes us hangry. Our head throbs from caffeine withdrawal. We snap at others because all our go-to-coping mechanisms are declared off limits.

Is this what Lent is about? Here are excerpts for the top three Google hits answering the question, “What is Lent?”:

What is Lent? Lent is a season of the Christian Year where Christians focus on simple living, prayer, and fasting in order to grow closer to God. (from UpperRoom.org -Lent 101)

Lent is a season of forty days, not counting Sundays, which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday. Lent comes from the Anglo Saxon word lencten, which means “spring.” The forty days represents the time Jesus spent in the wilderness, enduring the temptation of Satan and preparing to begin his ministry. (from umc.org- “What is Lent and Why does it Last Forty Days?”)

Lent is a period of fasting, moderation, and self-denial traditionally observed by Catholics and some Protestant denominations. It begins with Ash Wednesday and ends with Easter Sunday. The length of the Lenten fast was established in the 4th century as 46 days (40 days, not counting Sundays). During Lent, participants eat sparingly or give up a particular food or habit. It’s not uncommon for people to give up smoking during Lent, or to swear off watching television or eating candy or telling lies. It’s six weeks of self-discipline. ( from gotquestions.org – “What is the meaning of Lent?)

These definitions augment one another. Lent is a season of self-denial leading up Easter for the purpose of our growing close to God.  Lent is one of the two great preparatory seasons of the church. But whereas Advent is full of announcement of the in-breaking of the Kingdom, Lent reminds us that on Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem  suffering and death await.

I am guided by the conviction that Christianity is Good News.  Christians are God’s Good News People.  We believe that this good news culminates at Calvary where Jesus set us free from sin, death and spiritual oppression. This isn’t just a season of self-imposed suffering, self denial and sour-faces. Here we mark Christ’s confrontation and ultimate victory over the Powers.

So we can take up our cross and follow Jesus because this isn’t just a death march. Jesus wins and on his way to be crucified, he exposes the lies that propped up the political and religious hegemony of his day. Jesus died for us so that we would die to ourselves and rise again with our life in him.  We participate in Lent because we know despite the hard road Jesus walked, the brokenness and violence he suffered, he would bring wholeness and shalom to all who trust in him.

Give up coffee. Give up meat. Give up pleasure and lay aside vice. But don’t do it with a sour face. Don’t do it with the shallow hope of becoming a better you. Do so in the strong confidence that Jesus suffered every shame, every pain, every hurt at Calvary because he had something better for you–abundant life, peace with God, reconciliation and justice for all. Fasting is an appropriate response both to prepare and to mark the sacred moment of what Jesus may be doing in you. He didn’t avoid pain, we shouldn’t either. But in the midst of sorrow we have joy because our salvation awaits.

Jesus is on the road, his face like a flint toward Jerusalem. Whatever holds you in bondage Christ has come to set you free. This is good news.

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If God Were More Christlike: a book review

In John 14, before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, he tells his disciples that if they have seen him, they have seen the Father (John 14:9). And yet often our image of God can look very different from Jesus. Our God could be a doting grandfather, a deadbeat dad or absentee landlord, a punitive judge, or some Santa Claus blend. If Jesus is God-in-the-flesh and our vision of what the Godhead is really like, then we desperately need to see this more Christlike God. This is just the vision that Brad Jersak casts in A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel. 

Jersak is an author I’ve read appreciatively in the past. His book Can You Hear Me? is one of my favorite books on listening prayer. He also wrote Her Gates Will Never Be Shut against the idea of Hell as eternal conscious punishment (like Rob Bell but with complete sentences) and has co-edited a volume critiquing penal models of the atonement (Stricken By God?). He was the pastor and church planter of Fresh Wind in Abbotsford, BC and got his PhD examining the political theology of Canadian philosopher George Grant. Additionally he edits a couple of online magazines (Christianity Without the Religion Magazine and the Clarion Journal). In recent years, Jersak has journeyed to Orthodoxy (OCA). He teaches New Testament and Patristics at the Westminster Theological Centre (Cheltenham, UK).  I do not always agree with Jersak. I tend to have a more of a classical evangelical outlook, but I appreciate his challenge and think he raises some important questions about how we understand God.

Jersak’s case for the Christlike God unfolds in three parts. In part one he confronts our images of God and offers a vision of God, shaped by the Incarnation and the cross. In chapter one Jersak relays a conversation with a teenager he calls Jess who rejected Christianity because of God’s judgment, damnation and his-Old-Testament-genocidal tendencies, etc. (16-18). Jersak’s answer to Jess is to say to her every objection  is, “God is exactly like Jesus.”  Jersak then goes on to confront the various caricatures of God western Christians often present (chapter two), and confront the voluntarism underlying much of theology proper in Western thought (chapters three and four). In chapter five, Jersak points us toward the incarnation as a means of retooling our vision of the God revealed through Christ.

Part two further unpacks what this Christlike God looks like and what he does, giving special emphasis on how the cross shapes our vision of God. Jersak paints God as loving first and foremost. Because of this, God operates in the world most often via consent (Divine and human consent). This has implications for how we tackle the problem of theodicy. In part three, Jersak ‘unwraths’ God by recasting ‘wrath’ in the Bible  as metaphorical language describing God’s consent to our non-consent (of Him). Much of part three is dedicated to unfolding the New Testament metaphors of the atonement as non-punitive.

Jersak contrasts the ‘God of Will’ in Western thought with the God of Love revealed in Jesus by his cross. According to Jersak. the God of Will emphasizes freedom of action (61). In this understading, everything God does and wills is right, because it is God that wills it. Likewise, If this is our vision of God, we also seek our own freedom to act as we choose. The theology of this willful God tends towards triumphalism. In contrast the God of love comes in the form of Christ: a God who goes to the cross and is crucified by humanity. He doesn’t force his will on his creatures but has opened up a way for them through his self giving, self-emptying (kenotic) love.

To my mind Jersak does one of the best jobs of confronting and critiquing the problem of voluntarism (the primacy of the freedom of the will in God) in a way that a general reader can understand.  I think he is right to push us towards a more self-emptying vision of God. This is a far cry of triumphalism. Jersak writes:

A theology of the cross admits the obvious: namely, God is truly all-powerful and immovable in his love but also (though not only), is surprisingly, we often experience him as all-powerless in time, in the world. ‘All Powerless’? I only make such a bold statement advisedly, not to diminish God’s omnipotent love, but to resist human conceptions of power-as-coercion erroneously imposed on God. (170)

This is a challenge to any sort of Omnipotent-Might-Makes Right, sort of Will-to-Power picture of God.   This doesn’t make God weaker, it makes him less coercive. As Jersak says, “Yes, Christ is mighty to save, since his love is a power far greater than force: the left-handed scepter of enduring mercy” (178).  I think he is right to let this vision of Jesus shape his hermeneutic of scripture as he explores the image of God.

However I wasn’t completely happy with his handling of the Old Testament.  He favors strongly New Testament texts and tends to only quote the Old Testament favorably when it coincides with his vision of this ‘more Christlike God.’ Passages that are more retributive (i.e. Numbers 31, the conquest, etc) are dismissed because they are out of character for this God revealed in Christ (16-18). Or the wrathful parts of the Old Testament are cast as an early, immature vision of God in early Judaism, using James Fowler’s Stages of Faith (putting early Judaism on par with Fowler’s description of  school children’s faith development). There is something to the notion of progressive revelation in the Old Testament but I think Jersak’s canon seems too limited. Because of this, I think he commits the same error that many of those he critiques do: he offers an overly simple picture of God that does not do justice to all that God is.

That isn’t to say I didn’t really enjoy this and found reading it fruitful. Theologically Jersak pushes me in a good direction. I applaud his critique of where we done mussed up gospel. I want the more Christlike God that Jersak commends and share his discomfort with the way God’s wrath is described by many in the evangelical world. I also appreciate his pastoral insights into places that our vision of God can be detrimental to our life and soul. I give this book four stars and recommend it to everybody who reads John Piper.

Notice of material connection: I received this book via Litfuse Publicity in exchange for my honest review.