Once, God brought his people out of slavery with the intention of giving them territory in which they would exercise right living; territory possessed by others who did not acknowledge God; contested territory God and his people would together have to make their own. And so, on the eve of invasion, in the wilderness overlooking the Jordan river, God reminded his people of the covenant they had entered-into – a joining of identities, a belonging to one another, a being for the other. We can read that account to this day, in the book of Deuteronomy.
Once, God called out his Son, Jesus, with the intention of giving him territory in which he would exercise right living; the kingdom of heaven, expanding, claiming back what had been abdicated in Eden; contested by the one who had taken for himself Adam’s discarded crown. And so, on the eve of invasion, in the wilderness overlooking the Jordan river, Jesus reflected on the reminders of Deuteronomy, in preparation to face his enemy. We can read the account to this day, in Matthew and Mark and Luke’s Gospels.
Today, God wants to give us territory in which we can exercise right living by loving God and loving your neighbour as yourself. This territory is both communal and physical – such as a formal or informal parish in which a local church is set – and also personal and metaphorical – such as a sphere of influence, in the home or workplace. The territory is contested; God wants us to take it, together with him. The Season of Lent is our choosing to enter-into this pattern, to be led by God to the wilderness at the very edge of the territory he wants to give us – for no ground is taken except that we first spend time in the wilderness – in order to be reminded once again of our covenant relationship.
Jesus is led into the wilderness with these words ringing in his ears: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased!” In these words, covenant is affirmed. In these words, we (who share in Jesus’ identity, Romans 8:14-17, because our covenant with God is focused on and mediated by and expressed through the person of Jesus) discover our true identity. God is our Father, and therefore we experience his family. God is our Father, and therefore we experience his love. God is our Father, and therefore we experience his approval.
Immediately, Jesus’ identity is challenged: “If you are the Son of God...” And it is no different for us, who share in what is done to him (his ‘sufferings,’ Romans 8:17; literally, those things, whether good or bad, done to him by others; as in the famous verse ‘suffer the little children to come to me,’ which means, bring them because they cannot bring themselves, and not, force them to come whether they want to or not and hurting them if necessary), whether by God or John or the Holy Spirit or the devil. The temptations of the wilderness are temptations to locate our identity elsewhere than already conferred to us by a loving Father, and they are very much alive and well today. The temptations are to find identity in self-sufficiency (in what I can provide for myself and those who depend on me), in celebrity status (in how many know my name and massage my insecure ego) and in political power (in how I can use a fundamentally corrupt system as a means to my own ends, whether those ends are noble or ignoble).
Where we find our identity has a direct bearing on our impact on the world. If our identity is located in self-sufficiency, we will ignore others. If our identity is located in celebrity status, we will be manipulated by others. And if our identity is located in political power (by which I do not necessarily mean party politics, but exercising power over people), we will manipulate others (perhaps arguing that we do so for their own good). With the best will in the world, these are the inevitable out-workings or outward expressions of these three inner motivations.
If our identity is grounded in God as our Father, we experience his family, not isolation: and this inner reality resources us to open our lives to others, hard though that often is in a world of hurt and hurting people. Rather than seeking independence, we start to discover God’s better way of inter-dependence.
If our identity is grounded in God as our Father, we experience his love that is unconditional, not fickle: and this inner reality resources us to open our lives to others, hard though that often is in a world of hurt and hurting people. Rather than seeking status, we discover that God is faithful, whether we are recognised by anyone else or not.
If our identity is grounded in God as our Father, we experience his approval, which is freely given as gift and not earned: and this inner reality resources us to open our lives to others, hard though that often is in a world of hurt and hurting people. Rather than seeking power, we discover that God’s power flows through the powerless, as it did through Jesus who submitted himself to being baptised by John and led away from all that was familiar by the persistent Spirit-filled dove.
The greater the extent of the internal territory that we, together with God as our covenant partner, win back from the Accuser (for the terms of a covenant state that my enemies are my covenant partner’s enemies, and my partner’s enemies are now mine), the greater the extent of the external territory that we can win back. The more our communal and personal lives are rightly grounded, the greater the impact we can expect in our neighbourhoods, in our homes and workplaces, as we grow in confidence that God can work through us, and he grows in confidence that he can trust us with greater responsibility.
And so as we find ourselves once again at the start of Lent, here are some questions for us to wrestle with over the next forty days:
For what territory has God put a longing in your heart, to see his kingdom extended or consolidated, where you are yet to see any victories?
What might the wilderness – the marginal place on the edge of that territory – look like? Where are the unseen places in your community; in what areas of your home life do you experience incompetence; who has the least influence in your workplace; and how might you meet God in these places?
What kind of God draws us out from our own places of self-sufficiency, celebrity status, or political power, to rediscover his care for us, his hopes and dreams for our lives, and to rehearse again his incredible commitment to our future together?