“He was Led into the Wilderness” (SD #91)

I think it was in San Diego where chance had me cross paths with a colleague. Once, when I was chairing a conference session, I had given him a few extra minutes to respond to his critics. He was a Mennonite theologian, which meant he was most likely arguing one of two theses: either “John Howard Yoder was the greatest thing to happen to Mennonite theology since the Reformation” or “John Howard Yoder was the worst thing to happen to Mennonite theology since the Reformation.” SD airportIt had to be one of those two because no Mennonite theologian has argued anything else for twenty-five years. Anyway, he had appreciated the extra time and the two of us had been on fairly good terms since. That day in San Diego we chatted a bit and I told him life with three young children was pretty challenging for my wife and I. I told him how the flight was great—because I could catch up on sleep. He told me that he had three children as well, each a dozen or so years older than mine. “Tell me it gets easier,” I sad.

“It doesn’t,” he replied. “Eventually they get driver’s licenses. That’s scary as hell.” He went on to say that just a few days before he had been in Ikea and noticed a young woman with a small, very fussy baby. An older woman had come by and tried to reassure her. She told the young mother that eventually kids get easier to care for. After the older woman had disappeared around the corner my theologian friend approached the young mom. He said, “Sorry to tell you this, but that older lady was wrong. The future is just more of the same. More sleepless nights. More crying. It doesn’t get easier at all. Life is hard. We all do our best to get through it.”

There’s a way in which the beginning of Lent is like that: we acknowledge—with prayer and fasting, with the imposition of ashes—that life is hard and that we are prone to sin.

Our text from Luke chapter four represents another viewpoint along this Lenten path. In this story Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. He is not led to a spa or a resort. He is not going on a retreat. In the ancient world the wilderness, like the sea for some cultures, was a place closely tied to the underworld. It was inhospitable and dangerous. It was barren and uncultivated. It was a place to face the demons.

We might have a sense of the vulnerability ancient wilderness-dwellers felt as we move about on these brutally cold days of February. It isn’t a perfect analogy, but the cold does prompt us to move on, to seek protection. In the cold of February we don’t want to linger. Jesus is led into the wilderness by the Spirit—“driven by the Spirit,” as Mark puts it—to be tempted. He stays for forty days.

To understand what is going in this text we must look to the previous chapter. Luke chapter three tells the story of Jesus’ baptism. baptism of JCLuke’s account is brief, but we’re told that at his baptism Jesus was anointed with the power of the Spirit and claimed in a special way by God the Father: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” The trial in the wilderness is the next step for the Lord’s anointed. As we read it we must be careful because we tend to make the story out to be about us. Indirectly that may be possible, but Luke really tells the story to tell us some things about Jesus.

Allan Turing was born in 1912. Turing is probably most famous for developing a ‘thinking’ machine that broke the Enigma code system used the Nazis in the Second World War. turing machineThe work of Turing’s team probably shortened the war by several years. But Turing did more. He’s widely credited with being the father of artificial intelligence, and Turing is said to have invented the computer. Of course that’s putting it a bit too simplistically. There were lots of people working on related projects, and Turing himself worked with many partners; but still, the Turing machine is an important precursor to the modern computer.

One of the questions the preoccupied Turing in the 1950s was whether or not we can say that these machines ‘think’. A computer can be programmed, it can follow orders, but can it think? Turing devised a simple of test to help us figure this out. The test would work like this: A person would have a text-based conversation with something. They would know that it was either another human or a computer, but wouldn’t know which. If the computer could reliably fool the evaluator then Turing said we should say that it is thinking.

Since Turing developed the idea of the test a number of philosophers have launched some serious challenges against it. Part of the problem with Turing’s test is that it doesn’t actually require the computer to understand the words/symbols it’s using. It certainly doesn’t have any emotional connection to them. It just manipulates them according to a set of preprogrammed rules. In any event, I like the way Turing’s work helps us think about this thing we call personhood. It’s a hard thing to figure because there is so much we share with computers and with other animals. What does it mean to be a person?

It’s a question a bit like that which drives the story of Jesus’ wilderness temptation in Luke’s gospel. Luke told us in chapter three that Jesus was baptized. That began his journey of obedience. It marks his journey, as Karl Barth describes it in the second volume of his Church Dogmatics, “into a far country.” But Jesus’ journey isn’t just characterized by obedience, it is also a journey of solidarity with all human creatures. Unlike the computer, Jesus is obviously like us. This is one of the things that comes through in in this temptation narrative. We may well be able to say, in some sense at least, that a computer can ‘think’ but it would seem to violate the very essence of a machine to say that they are tempted. Jesus, though, clearly is. His time in the wilderness is not just for show. After all, as Luke tells it, there is no-one there to witness.

Let’s think about these three temptations just a bit. In the first the devil suggests that if he is the Son of God he should command the stones to become loaves of bread. Notice that the temptation, not much more than a suggestion really, doesn’t seem like anything deeply terrible. It is simply a suggestion to use the power of his divine anointing to sustain himself in a moment of weakness. Why, then, is this significant?

It is significant for this reason: the calling Jesus moves into in his baptism is precisely not one that privileges his own good. Jesus’ life and ministry are not a manifestation of some deep passion of his. He is not called to share his creativity with the world or fulfill his deepest potential. He is called to join us, to take on our limitation and our propensity to self-indulgence. temptation of JCJesus is not just the shepherd looking for the lost sheep, but he is that sheep as well. He is not only the woman looking for the misplaced coin, but he is that coin. Jesus’ anointing is not for himself but for others. The devil—the deceiver—merely suggests that he serve his own interests and turn stones into the bread he craved.

The second temptation is a bit different. The devil—we can also call him the usurper—shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. The ‘ruler’ of this world offers it all to Jesus. Think about this, the suggestion is that Jesus could have established any sort of social order he would have liked. He could have organized things according to the best humanistic theory. It could have been egalitarian and just. All that was required was a subtle diversion of allegiance. All that was required was to leave things at bottom the same as they were. All that was required was to leave the devil in charge . . . and to repudiate the calling of the Father. All that was required was to bend the demands of truth, to ignore the Psalmist’s claim that the earth is the Lord’s, and to ignore the Deuteronomist’s command to worship the One true God.

What we see is that Jesus’ calling is not just one of socio-political change. It is not just a pragmatist’s attempt to wrench the levers of power in a better direction. It is the way of truth—the embodied assertion that Divine love is the force that launches the universe.

The third, and final temptation, is subtle indeed. The devil takes Jesus to the highest point of the temple and suggests that if he is indeed he Son of God he should jump: jump and the angles will surely save you, jump and you will know your calling without doubt.

Such a thing would not have been without precedent. Did not Gideon place a fleece on the ground to test his calling? Did not others receive signs—Noah, Abraham, the prophets. But Jesus is asked to step forward in faithful obedience without being sure, without indisputable proof. Jesus is asked to walk the path of his calling without seeing its end secure, without the experience of angels. Jesus, we might say, is asked to walk toward the cross without being certain of the resurrection. He is no computer program. He is no deity devoid of our full humanity. He walks into the wilderness, under the shadow of death in obedience to the untested, unprogrammed Father. Life—the life of the Anointed—is hard.

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