Several years ago, my youngest daughter, Paige, the one who is engaged now, was living in California-she did a year’s internship in a small town outside of Sacramento, California. I flew out for a visit. While I was there we did some sightseeing. We took a bike tour of some wineries in the Napa Valley, drove over the Golden Gate Bridge, visited San Francisco and had lunch in China Town. She had planned a great tour. One part of my visit wasn’t on my daughter’s itinerary, though. It was the Muir Redwood Forest. We drove past some turn off signs, I begged and pleaded, and she relented.
I don’t think either of us was sorry. It is an impressive thing, that forest. Today it is preserved as a testament to God’s great power and creativity.
In 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt designated this old-growth redwood forest as the United State's 10th National Monument. And he named it after the famous conservationist John Muir.
Those redwood trees are spectacular. Some are so huge that if you carved one out, you could easily fit a whole volley ball team inside with room to spare, so said our tour guide; some are as tall as 60 basketball players standing on each others’ shoulders; some are so old that they predate Jesus by over a thousand years. Because of their age, I think, the Redwoods seem wise-like if we only knew the right language, or had keener hearing, they could impart great wisdom to us.
A little area of the forest had been roped off and marked with a sign—how glaringly manmade! The sign gives to that space the name “cathedral grove.” We were asked to maintain a respectful silence there and we did. The only sounds were the crunch, crunch, crunch of feet on gravel and the soft drips of dew sliding off overhead branches and splashing gently on the ground and shrubbery below.
Friendly is not the word I’d use to describe that woods—but neither wouldI call it sinister or forbidding, as I’ve often thought the wilderness or desert, that Jesus went to, or was driven to, must have been. Awe-inspiring, humbling, or even sacred are better words to describe the Redwood forest. These are perhaps better words to describe the place to which Jesus retreated, too. He was led by the Spirit to a place of holy solitude, where he could try to get his bearings about the baptism he had just experienced.
Remember, when Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River, the heavens opened up and a voice from above announced, “You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased.” What better place to come to grips with that startling bit of information than in a forest?
In a forest, Shakespeare says, we are exempt from public haunt; we can meditate, commune with nature, and with God.” “In the woods,” says Shakespeare, “we are able to find tongues in trees, books in the running brooks and sermons in stones.” And of course, who has spoken the trees into being, authored the running brooks and preached the sermons in stones, if not God? Yes, certainly, forests and wildernesses are sacred places.
The Celts know that there are places where the veil between heaven and earth is especially, thin. Forests are thin places where God’s grace can filter through from heaven to us who are earth bound, earthy and definitely earthly creatures.
Our story for today relates that although God created the forest to which Jesus retreated, and the Holy Spirit accompanied Jesus to the forest, Satan was there, too. We have here, then, in this particular wilderness, the trinity (God, Jesus and Holy Spirit) plus one. Carl Jung, that famous Psychologist of the last century, has suggested that rather than a trinity, early Christians would have done better to develop the concept of a quaternity—for certainly evil is an important spiritual force to be reckoned with in our world. Far be it for us, though, to make such a drastic change to our church traditions by dismissing our beloved Trinitarian symbols.
Since we DO lack the quaternity in our faith traditions, though, this story adds some balance. It is good to spend time reflecting on this story, which in fact has special prominence in the Bible, coming as it does at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. It is also a story found in three of the four gospels. Without this story, and its emphasis on evil, we run the risk of leading overly optimistic, shall we say, naïve, spiritual lives. With it, we are forced to recognize and even tip our hats to evil. Its potential sway over us. If we don’t give it sufficient respect, we won’t be motivated to apply our inner resources to countering and hopefully defeating it.
In our story for today, evil is personified as the devil. I think that “a seductive inner voice” as one writer puts it, is probably closer to the truth. Jesus was, after all, human. We humans are not lucky enough to have spiritual opponents who are so easily identified --and who are outside us. Truth is, we harbor evil inside us too. Would that we WERE able, though, to identify evil as a flesh and blood opponent. Then we might easily walk away. Would that we could pick him out in a crowd, or finger him in a police lineup—or lock him up in a cell and throw away the key! But no, for us evil is too often that which resides inside us—in our heads and even in our hearts. It wraps itself around our egos. It messes with our subconscious. Evil confuses us. The writer M. Scott Peck, who wrote The Road Less Traveled—a best seller in the 80’s, I think—remember M. Scott Peck? Says that evil’s primary attack method is to so confuse us that we can no longer distinguish between right and wrong.
Jesus is put to three tests in the space of his 40 day wanderings. Did you catch the author Luke’s wink wink, here? Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness before beginning his ministry. The Hebrews spent 40 years in the wilderness before arriving in the Promised Land. You see the parallel? Jesus’ first test has to do with making bread. Simply put, he is hungry. Just so, during the 40 years wilderness sojourn to Canaan, the Hebrew people cried for bread and received manna from heaven The second has to do with idolatry—The Hebrew people engaged in idolatry by worshiping a golden calf; Jesus is tempted to worship Satan rather than God. The third has to do with testing God. The Hebrew people tested God by demanding that God give them water to drink; Jesus is tempted to test God’s saving power by throwing himself down from the pinnacle. The Hebrews didn’t fare too well regarding these temptations. But Jesus. I think you’ll agree, he passes with flying colors. And that’s what Luke expects us to conclude. Jesus succeeded where the Hebrews failed. Jesus takes us to a new level in our spiritual journey—for those who are ready to try. It remains to be seen, if we would fare as well in our own lives—in our own wilderness experiences.
As people of faith, we too, must struggle against evil. You think you have needs beyond spiritual needs? Or are you confusing needs with wants? Most of what we crave, what we desire, are wants—not needs, right? What we NEED is a right relationship with God.
Then there is idolatry. Certainly Satan tempts us with idols. What is it that YOU idolize? Is it money, cars, your own children? Is it booze, or is it shopping? Most of us, maybe all of us have at least one idol or one addiction. Chocolate?! it’s just that we delude ourselves in believing that our idols make us stronger, maybe, or better people—and that we have control over them, not them over us.
Finally, there is testing God. You think you don’t test God? I am reminded by one of my favorite theologians that there are essentially two kinds of faith. One is determined by the word “If.” If everything goes well for me, if my life goes as planned, if my wishes are granted and things go my way, THEN I will believe and trust in God. That’s testing God. The other kind of faith is determined by words like “But if not,” “Nevertheless,” and “Even though.” I want to get well but if not…I want my children to succeed, but nevertheless….. I will believe and trust in God. That is a kind of faith that is found throughout Scripture: In the book of Job, a faithful Job says of God, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.” That is the faith that Jesus demonstrated during his forty days in the wilderness.
Confusing wants with needs, putting our idols and addictions, not God, first in our lives and putting God to the test and calling that faith. Yes, it is wrenching and unavoidable, these struggles we have, as believers, as Christ followers, trying to discern truth from that which is illusory; what is satanic from that which is life-giving.
Today, on this first Sunday in Lent, we are led by scripture into the wilderness—to meet with a quaternity of spirits. The bad news is, the devil will be there. The good news is, God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit will be there, too. Three against one. Not bad odds.
After today, maybe you will follow a back road to a real forest in which to meditate—and like Shakespeare you too will find sermons in stone; or, maybe your wilderness will be far less romantic—maybe just a chair, a reading lamp, and a Bible. That’s ok, too. Just make sure the chair isn’t too comfortable. Our wilderness experiences are not supposed to be comfortable—and forego that chocolate bar and glass of wine, too. Man is not made of bread alone remember—