We called her Freda the Witch. We called her that because she seemed so mean. There were dark rumors about her and her husband - the kind that gave a twelve-year-old pause before provoking her.
But I did provoke her, or at least my dog did. Pepper was an outside dog, a wild mut. And at night he would roam the whole neighborhood, often leaving rabbit or frog bits on the back steps in the morning. Freda didn’t want my dog in her yard, as was her right. And she warned me that I would be sorry if I didn’t keep him on his chain.
One morning soon thereafter, Pepper didn’t come home. We looked for him all day, roaming the neighborhood and calling his name, but to no avail. Then along about dusk, two kids I didn’t know knocked on our door and asked if we had a black and white dog. They told us that they had seen a dead dog on the road to the gravel pit. And I knew that it was Pepper.
My father told me to put on my shoes and get the shovel out of the garage. It was dark by then and the road to the gravel pit was darker still. And I was afraid. “Let’s go in the morning, dad,” I pleaded. But he was undeterred. It seemed he had another motivation beyond just burying the family dog. And so with shovel and flashlight, we set off. I remember that I was angry at my father for forcing me to confront the darkness.
We found Pepper right where the kids said he was. My dad said that he had been poisoned. And we all suspected Freda the witch. We dug a hole and said a prayer and buried our dog. And then on the way back home my dad asked me why I was so afraid of the dark. He told me that I would have to learn to face my fears and that it would only be in facing them that I would be free of them.
The Gospel lesson today is about a journey into darkness. And it begins with one of the strangest verses in all of the New Testament: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Did you hear the disconcerting juxtaposition of good and evil? Jesus our Lord was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness in order to be tempted by the devil. Now only a few chapters later Matthew recorded what is commonly referred to as the Lord’s Prayer, with its famous line, “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” So we pray for deliverance from evil while at the same time it seems that the Spirit can lead us to confront it.
“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” In the Bible, the wilderness is often symbolic of testing and dark struggle. And it is not a place anyone would go willingly. I once saw this place and was a land of scorching heat and foreboding barrenness for as far as my eyes could see.
But biblical references to the wilderness have other connotations as well. It is in the barrenness of the wilderness that one is prepare to receive clarity and spiritual insight. The wilderness is a place where one goes in order to go deep.
Jesus was going deep as he prepared for his last days on this earth. As part of that spiritual discipline, Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights. For us, we observe 40 days of Lent between Ash Wednesday and Easter, exclusive of Sundays. And we always hear this story about Jesus’s forty days of testing and darkness and introspection as we begin our own forty days.
Forty days is a long time to fast and when he was done, Jesus was famished. But he was all alone and far away from any village where he might buy food. Suddenly, the devil appeared. The word devil is taken from the Greek words “dia” and “ballō” which literally means to throw over or across. Bur broader uses of the word at that time referred to “one who attacks, misleads, deceives, diverts, discredits and slanders.” The devil is sometimes referred to as The Deceiver and that is the inference here.
So the Deceiver in chief laid out three tempting propositions to Jesus. “Jesus, use your magic powers to turn these stones into bread to fill your belly.” “Jesus, throw yourself off the pinnacle of the Temple like a superhero and wait for the angels to catch you.” “Jesus, worship me and I will make you rich beyond your wildest dreams.” There is much to say about all three temptations, but for today suffice it to say that they are all variations on the theme of the abuse of power. All of them appeal on an overblown egocentrism and a narcissistic worldview where one’s needs and need for affirmation trump everything else. “Come on, Jesus, show everyone how important you really are.”
That seems to me to be a primal temptation, with modern echoes all around us. “America, show everyone how important you really are.” “America, show everyone how powerful you really are.” “America, rattle your saber and mistreat the powerless and revel in ignorance and worship the almighty dollar.”
The voice of the Deceiver speaks in our day. And that is a fearful thing. We fear what it all might mean. We fear the future. And we often feel powerless to do anything about it. We want someone to save us from this madness – maybe even God. But the history of God’s people in all times and places is not so much that they are magically saved from the madness as they are saved through it.
“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” In these odd words it is directly implied by that God actually uses evil for good. In Jesus’s case, his time in the wilderness prepared him, strengthened him, grounded him for the arduous work of the Cross. What could have prepared him to confront such evil except to have walked through the darkness beforehand?
But what is not implied in these words is that God somehow wanted or created or directed the evil. It wasn’t that the evil, in and of itself, was desirable or had a good purpose on its own. Instead the God “who makes all things new” repurposed the evil. (Revelation 21:5) This is how God works in the world so that even a hideous Roman cross could become the enduring symbol of eternal life.
We are on a spiritual journey into darkness. For Christians, that journey is called Lent. For America that journey does not yet have a name. But the question before us as individuals and as a nation is how we will respond to the temptations of power and self-aggrandizement. Will we grab at selfishness and blustering power or we will resist it?
Jesus resisted. Even in the midst of a foreboding wilderness, even on a dark mountaintop, even with a growling belly, Jesus resisted and fadced his fears and trusted in the ultimate goodness of God. And strengthened by his resistance, he was able to get on with the work of doing good even as the shadow of the Cross loomed before him.
Jesus offers us a new way in this Lent of American history. We can either give into our sense of helplessness and assume that there nothing we can do against the deceivers. Or we can resist and believe that even in this present darkness, the Spirit of God is at work. The first way is easier, but it’s full of despair. But the Jesus way is a place bright with angels, who suddenly appear with food and drink and courage to face the future, come what may.