Wilderness, Temptation and the Voices of the False Self

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Lent 1—Year B; Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

This is the First Sunday in Lent which means its “temptation” Sunday. Every year on this Sunday, we hear the story of Jesus trekking off into the wilderness to do battle with this force called Satan (in Mark), the devil (in Luke), and the tempter and the devil (in Matthew). Each of these gospel writers relays the story in a slightly different way which opens us up to slightly different insights. This year, its Mark’s turn to tell the story, and what he tells is impressive, if for no other reason than its intense brevity.

Mark moves at lightning speed. We are only 8 verses into the gospel, when we hit this passage, and in just 6 short verses, we hear of Jesus’ baptism, his 40 days in the wilderness, and the beginning of his ministry in Galilee. That is crazy fast; that is crazy intense, but there is a power to all of this that Mark is trying to get us to see.

First, there’s Jesus’ baptism. In Mark’s gospel, it’s not just that the heavens open and a sweet little dove flutters down and lands on his shoulder—no, Jesus sees the heavens torn apart, literally “rent apart,” and the Spirit descends upon Jesus, and he hears that voice, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” We think that to hear that voice, “You are my Son, the Beloved,” we think that to hear that proclamation is a big warm fuzzy, but for Jesus, it was tumultuous. When the realms interpenetrate one another, when the vertical dimension of God intersects with the horizontal dimension of time and space, it isn’t always sweetness and light, but sometimes it comes to us with a force that shakes us to the core. To own that we are sons and daughters of God, to own that we are Beloved of God, that can turn your world upside down.

And that sweet little dove of a Spirit, thatSpirit is fierce, because the very next thing that Spirit does, and I mean immediately does, is drive Jesus out into the wilderness. Again, this “driving” is not a gentle nudge to Jesus to go do a little spiritual work on himself before he begins his active ministry—no, the word is “ekballo,” “to drive out, cast out, expel from society and family”—it’s got an edge to it, a sense of violence to it. It shares the same root as the word for “devil”“the one who throws apart,” think “diabolical.” We could spend a long time pondering what it means that it is the Spirit who throws Jesus out into the wilderness with a similar force usually exercised by the one we think of as opposing the Spirit, i.e. Satan or the devil.

And this wilderness. Oh, it’s a desolate, desolate place. It’s not thick and lush like our mountain wilderness. It is rocky and rough—think the surface of the moon but located out to the east of Jerusalem heading down toward the Dead Sea. Again, this word for “wilderness” carries a lot of freight. It is used to describe places that are “deserted, lonely, solitary, uninhabited. It is also used of people to describe what it feels like when you “have been deserted by others, or have been denied the aid and protection of others, or are bereft” of human connection. Described that way, that Judean wilderness just got a whole lot closer to home. This is a geography that our soul knows. It’s that space we sometimes inhabit where we are utterly, utterly alone, a space so desolate that not even the ones we share life with can inhabit it with us. Ever been there?

In that space, there is nothing there to insulate us from those things that we struggle with—both forces external to us and forces inside of us. In Matthew and Luke’s telling of Jesus’ wilderness sojourn, we hear about the three specific temptations that Jesus had to face. Mark is not specific. Mark only tells us this: “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” The temptations aren’t spelled out which leaves us to ponder, “Just what were the nature of the temptations that Jesus faced, and just what are the nature of temptations that we face?”

What are we tempted by? What is temptation about? What does temptation look like in our lives? Talk to me. What tempts you, and what is that about?

 “Temptation” is one of those big, heavy, kind of scary words, but in its simplest forms it means simply “to try whether a thing can be done.” I have been thinking a lot the last few months about the nature of sin and evil and where they come from, which means I’ve been way out in the deep weeds. This has been spurred in part by discussions in our Friday Book Study, our Youth Confirmation Class, and in the Adult Claiming Jesus Class. I don’t think any of us have unraveled the mystery of where this comes from at its source, myself included, but it is worth thinking about.

Okay, I need to pull out my little picture that I have been using in these classes, and I am indebted to Richard Rohr for this material. This is this False Self—this is when we think our small self—little “s” is separated from God. This “self” is really insecure and is always trying to make a place for itself. This is the “self” that gets all tangled up in roles and identities and masks. This is the “self” that judges and compares and always measures itself as one up or one down. This is the “self” who takes offense. This “self” thinks it has to do something to get to God, to be deserving of God’s love, to be acceptable to God.

Over here, we have the True Self. Here, the small “self” is in union with the big Self, with God. This self is never not connected to God. This has always been, is now, and always will be true, and this is true whether we are awake to this reality, or asleep to it. This “self” is infinitely secure, knows it belongs, and cannot be offended. This “self” cannot be thrown out of Presence because it knows it is in union with Presence.

We think our job is to get from here to here (from small “self” to God) when our real job is to get from here (False Self) to here (True Self); our real job is to be awake that this is our reality.

I think “sin” happens when we believe this separate “self” is who we really are. We feel cut-off, and our actions to shore up this “self” end up “missing the mark.” I think “evil” happens when this False Self becomes the only thing that we think we have and all this separation gets patterned into our hearts and minds and bodies, gets patterned into our actions and our relationships with others and with the world, and False Selves can come together into a collective False Self.

Okay, so what does all of this have to do with temptation, Jesus’ or ours? I think the root of temptation for Jesus, and for us, is the temptation to be thrown out of Presence and to believe that it is all up to us. And once we start down that path, we start believing that our False Self is the only way for us make a place for ourself in this world, and then, we are prone to all kinds of temptations, and we are off to the races in accumulating all the marks and masks of the False Self, reinforcing this sense that we are separate little beings having to make our way in this desolate wilderness we call life.

As we enter more deeply into our wilderness, as the trappings of our False Self start to get revealed for the ruse that they are, as our awareness sharpens and we tune into the voices of the False Self that are calling the shots, and, as we begin to hear the True Self whisper, “There is another truth, a deeper truth, there is another way to engage our life from a place of union with God and all that is”—as all these voices and whispers start to swirl together, we could fall prey to yet one more temptation—we could begin to feel like this is a battle between good and evil, a battle between the True Self and the False Self, but that’s just one more lie told by the False Self.

Jesus points to another way.

 “And he was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him.” Jesus didn’t destroy the wild beasts, he didn’t even oppose them. He was with them. What if these wild beasts are our deepest, most scary emotions that drive our actions—our fears and anxieties, our anger, our shame, our longings, desires, hopes, and unspeakable joys? Jesus doesn’t banish these wild beasts, he comes alongside and is simply with them. Jesus has a capacity to be with these wild beasts and, at the same time, to allow the angels of God, those “messengers” who whisper, “You are secure, you are beloved, you belong in me and with me, always,” Jesus allows these angels of God to minister to him.

This Lent, could we cultivate the capacity to be with our wild beasts, and at the same time, to hear the angels whisper, “You are secure in God?” How might that change our actions, how might that change our living, if we could do that in the landscape of our particular wilderness?

Jesus has to go through this process of wrestling with the voices of his False Self to own his True Self as a Beloved Son of God in whom God is well pleased. Maybe we have to sit in our wilderness and witness all the ways our False Self is trying to throw us out of Presence to finally collapse back into our True Self and know our union with God at the deepest level of our being.

All I know is that on the other side of this process, Jesus heads to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Maybe that’s just one more way of saying, Jesus had fully embraced his True Self, proclaimed at his baptism, and he wants every living thing to know how deeply they are rooted and grounded and held and loved in, with, and by God. It will take repentance, “metanoia,” to get there—“a going beyond our mind”—because our minds have been trained to believe that the False Self is all we’ve got.

And releasing our False Self will feel like dying.

But be compassionate as you move in and through your wilderness. Befriend your wild beasts. Let the angels of God minister to you. Come forty days from now, we will emerge from this wilderness, proclaiming the good news of God, not just with our lips, and not just with our lives, but we will proclaim this good news with our whole being because we will know that our True Self, beloved of God, is our deepest DNA. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

February 22, 2015