Year A, Lent 1
March 9, 2014
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“After Jesus was baptized, He was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights…”
Forty is kind of a magic number in Scripture. It rained on Noah and his family for forty days. Moses was on the mountain with God for forty days. David reigned for forty years. And the most important forty? ____ Forty years in the wilderness; the Exodus out of Egypt.
This is incredibly important to our meta-story of God, in particular how Jesus may have understood God. Creator? Yes, that would have been part of God’s identity to Jesus. Father, or more accurately abba, poppa? Yes. There is an intimacy of relationship being described. But probably the most important understanding of God in biblical times (and in Judaism to this day) was/is that of Liberator, the One who led Israel out of bondage, through the wilderness, and to the promised land. The Shema, the great prayer of Israel “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One” makes no mention of creation, but ends “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt to be your God. I am the Lord your God. AMEN.” In Deuteronomy alone, God is identified as the liberator from Egypt 25 separate times. (The words Create/created/creator occur only twice).
This was pointed out to me at the conference I participated in couple of weeks ago in Ventura County with Ched Meyers and the Baritmeaus Institute. (Had to get the sun in before Lent started). We spent the entire week on this text, St. Matthew’s temptation narrative, chapter 4:1-11, and this hermeneutic, the lens dreaming of God as liberator was central to our conversations. It leapt up at me. I’m not saying that it is one or the other; liberator OR creator. I am your priest. I am just as much the Bishop’s priest, that has very different connotations but is equally as true. Such is the truth of God as liberator AND creator and a whole lot of other ways to relate to God. It is just that we don’t give a lot of time to liberation, but as we’ll get to, it is no mystery as to why that is. Liberator. It is an important vision of God to explore and it begs us the question: liberator from what? And that was the meat of the institute.
What did God liberate Israel from? _______ Slavery. Yes. Slavery in Egypt. And Egypt was? ___ Empire. God liberated Israel from slavery to Pharaoh, the embodiment of Empire. Israel was defined by this story, the story that God liberated them, God’s Chosen people from the domination system of Empire. That’s a powerful story. Now think… what was the condition of Israel in the time of Jesus? The same as in the time of the Assyrians, the same as in the time of the Babylonians, but now it was Rome. The Empire strikes again, and again. Israel again was subject to the boot of empire on its collective and individual necks. Some things change; some things never do.
This brings us back to the magic number “forty.” Liberation does not come in pill form. (Well, not real liberation). The wave of the hand of a priest or a bishop doesn’t bring it on. It can’t be legislated or proclaimed by executive order. You certainly cannot buy it on the free market. Rather, it is inefficiently, inconveniently and by necessity a process; and a complex one at that for it is a solitary process that we each must undergo ourselves AND, coequally important it is a collective, a community process that we must undergo together, AND, of course, it has everything to do with God. The entire scriptural record points to the truth that it is the natural state of things, it is the way it is supposed to be, that it is the will of God, that God’s people (which means all people, all of humanity) that humanity, that all of the creation not be subject to the violence, oppression and exploitation that is ALWAYS the nature of Empire. But although it is God’s will to not live under Empire, for the past 4200ish years, since Sargon the Great of Akkad (Mesopotamia), Empire has been the normative shape that civilization has gravitated towards. Forgive us O Lord! We know not what we do.
So, forty years. There is an old African-American proverb that goes, “you can take the people out of Egypt but you can’t take the Egypt out of the people.” The forty years of wandering and wondering in the wilderness was God’s way of curing Israel of the dis-ease, the pathology of slavery. Empire is alluring. (Well, the myth of empire is alluring). It always has been and it remains so. I mentioned it on Ash Wednesday… just into the Exodus, Israel longed for their fleshpots in Egypt. As unsatisfying as the fruits of Empire are, as thin as the soup of bondage is, as meager as the scraps the owners share with us, the 99%, are, these things seem easy to swallow, they seem to take little effort. They seem to be risk free.
You see, true freedom, the kind of freedom we find in the arms of God in Christ is scary. The austerities that come with true freedom are challenging, for it is not reliance on the rulers (who ironically are always unreliable) nor self-reliance that is demanded by true freedom. It is reliance on the divine economy of grace that defines true and holy freedom, and for an until-recently-enslaved people, like Israel in the Exodus, learning to have faith in the abundance of the creation and cooperation after being engrained with the myth of empire for generations is hard, not impossible, but imminently difficult – Forty years of wandering in God’s University of the Desert kind of hard.
But Israel learned. She broke the bonds of Empire. She organized herself for generations in a confederation of tribes, shunning the notion of any royalty besides God, practicing Sabbath and jubilee as they were taught by the manna from heaven. For generations Israel lived under the Judges, a holy people trying to follow the will of God.
By the time Jesus became incarnate of His Blessed Mother Mary, Israel had been choosing human kingship and its predictable decline into imperial occupation for 27 or 42 generations (that is the generations from David, the first human king of Israel, to Jesus depending on the source). That is a long time to live under Empire. That is a long time to take on the habits of the oppressor. A long time to have the reliance on the economy of divine grace supplanted by reliance on the coin belonging to Caesar and bearing his likeness, which constantly distracts us from what is God and what bears God’s likeness which is the organic world, the creation and each other. Israel, we needed to be liberated from Empire again. But unlike Moses, Jesus did not have forty years in the wilderness to be liberated, to liberate Himself, or even to retrace the steps of Israel out of bondage to Empire, through the wilderness to the promised land of right relationship with God, each other and everything, our true salvation.
Forty days and forty nights of fasting. That is what our Savior had in His brief, brief time among us as one of us. And forty days and forty nights outside of the Roman imperial domain (remember wilderness is by definition outside of the realm of human control), forty days and forty nights wandering and wondering with God and the creation and liberation was at hand; and then the devil, the tempter, the confuser arrived bearing the temptations of Caesar, the fools gifts of Empire: things, surety, and dominion. Economy. Entitlement. Empire.
You are starving? “…command these stones to become loaves of bread.” The two pillars of the imperial economy are the 1. the right to engineer/convert the world to our use, any use and, 2. the right to exploit and consume as much as we want. Lies on both accounts. The lessons of manna from the first forty years taught that there is a minimum (a human need) and a maximum (a too much) in the divine economy of grace and both must be respected. Manna, like wealth, must not be hoarded. And we must take a rest from our labors as well as our consumption; the call to Sabbath and Jubilee. Away with you Satan!
On a precarious perch? “…throw yourself down…’On their hands (the angels) will bear you.’” Entitlement. Gaining privilege because of what you are, not who you are. We don’t talk about God the liberator much in the western church, the white western church at least, because largely it is us that people need liberating from. The great spiritual “Go Down Moses” sings a bit different in a church full of the descendents of slaves than it does in a white church like I interned in Massachusetts that at one point had a slave gallery in the sanctuary. Being a straight, white, male, educated, well fed and housed provides me with privilege beyond my ability to catalogue, undeserved privilege. Undeserved privilege made normal, made the expectation and definition of success is the beginning of aristocracy, of royalty, of Empire. Away with you Satan.
The nations of the world at your feet? “All of these I will give to you if you fall down and worship me.” The principalities and powers of the world are alluring tempters of the first order. Do what you want, when you want, how you want and why. That is the imperial dream that we are all called to emulate. Invade Iraq and Afghanistan, nations half way across the world but Russia annexes a neighbor and historic part of its empire and we get jumpy? What if the Cubans ran a prison camp in Puerto Rico? Or South Beach? Manifest Destiny! Drone strikes anywhere in the world within what, 24 hours? Our borders are open to capital but not to human beings. Away with you, Satan!
These temptations that Jesus faced represent the unfinished business of salvation. The Wilderness lessons are the same lessons taught in the Exodus to Israel our exodus, our liberation from the Egypts, the Babylons, the Romes, the 21st century Americas, Chinas and Russias that occupy our worlds, each of our hearts, minds and bodies. Life under Empire is the way it is; our lesson for today is that it is not the way it is supposed to be, thus sayeth the Lord. AMEN.