“We don’t live by bread alone,” Jesus says. Which I want to amplify and apply for us this morning as: “We are not nourished by food alone”; or maybe even, “Emptied of our accustomed resources, we find a unique nourishment of the wilderness.”
I can no longer take in the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness except through the lens of a pair of images from Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ.” The wilderness in Scorsese’s film is no sandy desert, but a rocky one, piled with small stones everywhere. The first thing Jesus does upon entering this wilderness is to pick up a rock and begin tracing a furrow in the smaller stones. At first the camera is on Jesus from about normal human height. Soon the shot shifts to being from high above and directly over Jesus; then we see that Scorsese’s Jesus is tracing a perfect circle in the stones – one about ten feet in diameter. Jesus proceeds to sit in that circle for forty days and forty nights. His clothes become increasingly tattered and dirty. His beard and hair more and more bleached by the sun. His face ever more emaciated. The wilderness of hunger and temptation has been reduced to and concentrated in that surreal ten foot circle. That’s the first image.
The second is that the three temptations “of the devil,” as Luke puts it, come to Jesus in the voices of people he knows, his friends even: Mary Magdalene, Judas Iscariot, and the archangel Gabriel. But although they use familiar voices, these “friends” come to Jesus in different guises: a snake, a lion, and a pillar of fire at night. Jesus does not recognize them and so asks each time: “Who are you?” The answer is always the same: “Why I am you Jesus.” “I am your spirit,” Mary Magdalene as the snake says, “hungry for love.” “I am your heart, greedy for power,” responds the lion in Judas’ voice. “You are God and I will be at your right hand,” tempts the archangel. Hearing these familiar voices while seeing his friends in a new guise, Scorsese’s Jesus silences inner debates about his identity that have tormented him for years. And nourished by new insight, he leaves the desert behind, ready to embark upon his ministry of preaching and healing.
“We don’t live by bread alone.”
I am not very good at fasting, never have been. I certainly have never fasted from food for forty days. I do try hard, and usually manage, to fast on Ash Wednesday and GoodFriday. So, during Wednesday of last week, here’s what I observed. By late morning, I began to feel strange – kind of dizzy. By mid-afternoon, I felt empty. By the 7:00 p.m. Ash Wednesday service at St. Paul’s, I felt cold, cold from the inside out, so cold that my own physical self began to feel like a stranger, that it wasn’t myself at all.
Then and only then, did I receive the unique nourishment of the desert; not hidden nourishment in the desert – although there are plenty of biblical stories about that. No, the nourishment of the desert – the peculiar nourishment that comes when deprived of one’s accustomed resources, those that usually fire one’s self. Dizzy, empty, cold, I was given the gift of distance from myself, the shock of experiencing myself as a stranger. Last Wednesday evening, that strange me looked smaller, seemed more vulnerable, not to be taken for granted. And, at the same time, I was melted by love for this little stranger, this new friend, one utterly precious.
“We don’t live by bread alone.”
If you were to trace a circle around this chapel and sit in it for forty days and forty nights, emptied of all your accustomed resources…
– What familiar voices would you be listening to, even as you came to see those friends in a new and different guise?
– What nourishment might come to you in the emptiness of that desert circle?
– And what would it be like in that circle, over those forty days, to know yourself first as a stranger, then as an utterly precious new friend?
Mark Lloyd Taylor, Ph.D., STM Director of Worship