Jesus faced every test and temptation the devil could think of: like ignoring the conditions of being human, for an immediate gratification of changing stones into bread. Or, agreeing to live comfortably among the 1% with its trappings of royalty and fame if he would but worship the devil, and basically spit in the eye of the 99%. And thirdly, to disrespect the Temple and test even God, twisting the gift of abundant grace, into a few local favors.
But Jesus turns down all the frat boy pranks, the hazing tricks, and insider trading privileges. Jesus, it would seem, is just no fun at all!
Jesus, really did, face temptation, just like we do, but you have to figure he was also incredibly centered as a human being, and could see through the emptiness of it all. The wilderness desert experience of being tested and tempted is an archetypal story of many sages and religious leaders, and Jesus faces it with a curious lack of heavenly fire-power, hungry and fully human, guided by a Holy Spirit’s power – nothing more than a gentle and unpredictable blowing breeze.
Some years ago, during the season of Easter, Kim had a moment of clarity, and said, it’s nearly impossible any longer to understand feasting, because we eat like that all the time, in this country! This was even before the obesity epidemic was declared. Which isn’t to say we don’t have a hunger problem as well, but for many of us, the next snack, the next meal, the fast food lane, the great restaurants, our super -markets, are omnipresent, and whether its good and whole food or not, there is a plenty, for many. And so it’s hard to understand feasting if you’ve never fasted. If there is no regular or basic meal time, how do we know what a special feast time looks like?
Jesus went without eating for 40 days in the wilderness. This is different than a food desert, at least so far as it was self-imposed. But how many of us have lived in the desert wilderness, not knowing where our next meal will come from?
Jesus went to the place his ancestors wandered with Moses for 40 years, who had lived on the manna God sent them, one day at a time. This is the context of the story of our first reading too, the part that comes from Moses’ last speech before the Israelites were about to enter into the Promised Land. Moses asked them to look both, backwards to where they had been in the desert, and to look forward to a land flowing with milk and honey. And Moses gives them a very curious liturgy – don’t forget that you come from “a wandering Aramean,” Jacob, who went down to Egypt for famine relief, like most of his people. And now, as you have wandered back through the same desert, don’t forget too that God is about to give you this land as an inheritance. The proper way to remember and celebrate this is to offer the first fruits from your inheritance – make a gift right off the top from all that you have, and give it away at the Temple as a thank offering.
Jesus is a wandering Aramean. He lives in the desert wilderness for 40 days, depending on God for his life – for, one does not live by bread alone. Jesus was ready for a feast after that. But a feast is not self-gratification, or a party for yourself. A feast is always grounded in the inheritance God gives to all: A rich and endlessly complex gift of life within this created good world, that is shared with others, with all.
It’s hard to know what a gift an inheritance is, if you never lived without one. Casey Johnson, a fabulously rich friend of Paris Hilton, and grand-daughter of Robert Wood Johnson, of the Johnson and Johnson Pharmaceutical Giant, was tragically found dead in her home a few days after New Year’s, at the age of 30. She had squandered her inheritance spectacularly, lost her child in a custody battle due to drug abuse, and was awaiting trial on charges of burglarizing a friend's home. The heiress’s death wasn't news, as much as it was a foregone conclusion. Few people survive being born with an inheritance as large as Casey Johnson's.
If we’ve never experienced the desert, if we’ve never been taught to look back with understanding, or forward with hope and promise, how can we be ready for the feast that is our inheritance?
We have an inheritance as large as Casey Johnson’s. Not a million dollar trust-fund, but a promise of abundant life now and forever, a promise we know in the cross and resurrection, in bread and wine. Today, on this 1st Sunday in Lent, we remember the desert we came from before we met Jesus at the water well that never runs dry. And knowing full well the temptations to squander it all in frat-boy style, and forget who and whose we are, in this simple season of repentance and renewal, we dare to trust Jesus, and with him, look long and hard and directly into the face of the tempter, and see those empty promises as they are, a false path out of the desert, tempted to use God’s gifts to our own ends, or cheat our friends or the creation, out of peace with one another.
Only through this desert-wilderness experience can we understand what Moses is talking about in offering back the first-fruits-gift in: “Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you,” said Moses, “shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.” The Levites and aliens?! Here, the Levites represent the top of the food chain, and the aliens the bottom. The Israelites’ that had taken possession of the land were once like the aliens. They descend from a wondering Aramean, and were the Exodus desert people.
This can be a difficult God to understand: everyone, all, are entitled to the inheritance of God’s land of milk and honey. Everyone is invited to celebrate at God’s banquet. All people’s and ethnicities, those born into citizenship, and those passing through. How do we transform this essential way of life gifted to us, this deep-as-a-well theological understanding of our faith, into true inclusion of the alien today? Can ‘immigration reform’ really be just and open to the alien? Who’s land is this? Why are the borders there, today, on that line? Are we native to this land?
Jesus was a wandering Aramean. He began his ministry being led by the Spirit in the wilderness, and faced the tempter’s most attractive deals, walking away from them, and exposing them as silly and perverse. He became an alien, so that we too, followers in his path, might know what it is like to depend on God’s grace alone. Jesus, offered the power of a pantheon of the god’s at his finger-tips, humbled himself instead, and offered it all back to us, a perpetual gift of milk and honey, a table fellowship of bread and wine, where Priest and alien are welcome, and expected, to sit down together, at the celebration that knows no end.
We practice this table fellowship whenever we gather here. Jesus offers himself as the first-fruits of salvation, and we dine on his body, which is the centering life-blood of the new creation. We cannot live by bread alone. We live by the bread of life, that sustains us through every wilderness desert, and fills us with the hope and promise of a land flowing with milk and honey, a new land of abundance and peace, for all.