I don’t know about you, but I kinda hate February: the weather is cold, grey, and slushy (especially here in Syracuse), it’s still too early in the semester to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s still a month until spring break. On top of that, then the Church has to throw Lent in, so that just in case you weren’t already depressed enough, now you have six weeks of self-denial to look forward to. We usually think of Lent leading up to Easter, but given today’s readings it also seems to make sense to connect the forty days of Lent with the forty days Jesus spent in the desert immediately after his baptism. Remember what he hears at his baptism? “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.” You ever wonder what Jesus thought about when he heard that? Whatever he thought about his relationship with God, I suspect he wouldn’t talk about it like a theology professor; I can’t really imagine him saying, “I am the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity, the hypostatic union of divine and human natures in one divine person.” I mean, I’m sure Jesus got an A in ancient philosophy when he was in college, but that just doesn’t really seem like his style. We think we know what Jesus being called “Son of God” means, because we have a whole history of doctrines to point to, but what would Jesus think about hearing those words applied to himself? If anything, I think that where we have typically read the forty days in the desert as a series of tests to pass, perhaps we could read them more fruitfully as unpacking what it means to be the Son of God. Did you notice that in two of the three tests Jesus faces, the devil begins, “IF you are the Son of God,” as if the suggestion he gives follows naturally from an obvious image of what it means to be the Son of God? If you are the Son of God, you shouldn’t be hungry. If you are the Son of God, don’t worry about throwing yourself off the parapet of the Temple, because nothing bad will happen to you. The ready equation is that God is the king, so Jesus is the prince and should enjoy the freedom from worry and discomfort that one would expect for a prince, but Jesus dismisses that kind of sonship. I’ve said with you before that rather than Jesus being just as human as us, but more divine, I think he is more human – he does not run away from any of the reality of being human, which involves hunger, danger, failure, rejection, humiliation, all the things a lot of us don’t deal with terribly well. He doesn’t make avoidance of hunger his top priority, or gaining power by any means necessary, or attracting crowds by doing magic tricks – sonship has to mean something more than that.
Maybe I’ve been reading too much Thoreau lately, or maybe February is just working its magic on me, but sometimes I feel totally unfree, like my life is being hemmed in by forces way beyond my control, and I think about just disappearing into the desert somewhere. Like the old saying goes, “The problem with running the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.” In the Biblical tradition the desert was the place where demons lived but also where God was to be encountered – danger and opportunity, the risk of life without safety nets and the possibility of seeing life from outside of the confines of public opinion. When I was teaching theology in St. Louis, we read Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild in my intro class. I don’t know if any of you read the book or saw the movie, but to read a book about a smart, talented young guy with a big future just cutting off from society to find something big hit home with a lot of my students because they were the same kinds of people, just the students here at SU are: intelligent, talented, going places. We talked about Chris McCandless’s [the protagonist of Into the Wild] passionate need to not get fed through what I called “the meat grinder” - the script that we more or less are expected to fall into: go to a good high school so you can go to a good college so you can get a good job so you can take vacations far from your job and still put away enough money to retire comfortably. Anyone else ever feel like that, like someone else has written the script for your life and you are being moved along, usually imperceptibly? I hope not. The culmination of that project was an assignment to turn off the cell phone, get off campus, just walk somewhere they had never been, be completely unplugged for an hour or so and then write about it. I figured it wouldn’t be that big of a deal, a tiny dose of the weeks and months that Chris McCandless went without seeing another living soul. Some of the students reported what a shock it was to not be able to call anyone, how uncomfortable it was to go so long without text messaging or calling anyone or twittering (tweetering? tweeting?). A number of them said they thought it couldn’t be good for a person to be isolated for so long, but almost none of them said that solitude, silence, unplugging, feeling some fear or uncertainty might actually be worthwhile. We are so constantly bombarded with data that tuning out can feel pretty defenseless, but only in distance from the security of the mass mind can the Christian take the risk of becoming more fully human. Paradoxical, that the mass mind can be so individualistic in selling people on more and more needs and desires, while distance from the herd can open the door to solidarity by seeing the illusions that we mostly take for granted. I’ve said before that if you are waiting for a sign, this is it: we don’t typically expect a voice from the heavens, like at Jesus’ baptism, but here it is: you are beloved son, beloved daughter – how will you confront the false meanings of that reality and come to inhabit the deep truth it offers?