The 40 Days In The Wilderness Song

The 40 Days In The Wilderness Song

Sun 21 Feb

The phrase “Redemption Song” has been, since 1980, associated with the late Bob Marley.  Lines like “emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds”[i] became part of the repertoire of those seeking and working for freedom – whether that freedom be from racism, sexism, political and spiritual oppression, or – as Marley’s case – from terminal cancer.

Marley’s “Redemption Song” gives us a lens through which we can view the redemption songs of the Bible.  The pivotal and paradigmatic redemption song of the Hebrew Scriptures is the escape from Egypt and the 40 year journey to the so-called Promised Land, which I indicated last week was written up as a story about the escapees learning who they were as a community, learning to trust each other, and learning who/what was the God in their midst and what that God required of them.  The whole of the Exodus is a redemption song crafted when the Hebrew people were in the midst of another period of captivity – this time in Babylon.  The Exodus was crafted as a song of encouragement, reminding them who they were and what they could become.

The pericope in the Christian tradition about Jesus being tempted for 40 days in the wilderness is likewise a redemption song.  It’s a song written by the early church.  Whether it literally happened is not important.  There were no witnesses in the desert with him.  Indeed I suspect if there was an experiential basis to the account it happened in Jesus’ subconscious – in his dream world.  It’s a song, composed and sung by the early church about freedom.  It’s a song penned by his followers, for his followers, to inspire and encouragement them in their walk to freedom.

So, on the one hand it’s a ‘hero story’ where the good guy is tested, struggles, and wins through.  Yet it is also corrosive of hero stories in that Jesus doesn’t kill his enemies, rescue and fall in love with a beautiful damsel, achieve great fame or wealth, or ride off happily ever after into the sunset.  Indeed the conclusion seems to be that Jesus just humbly carries on doing what he was always going to be doing: challenging by his teaching and practice the values of his society, which in turn will lead to his death. 

Marley’s lyrics repeatedly say “all I ever had were redemption songs… songs of freedom”.  The God Marley experienced was not one that turned rocks to bread, ruled nations, or sent angels to protect him.  Rather God was one who helped him sing, that gave him a passion/compassion for the wretched and downtrodden, people whom he’d met.  He sang about how hell on Earth comes too easily to too many[ii].  You could say that Jesus tried to teach his followers freedom songs, synthesizing what he said with what he did and what he hoped for.  And you could say our task as a church today is to continue to compose and sing such songs.

Another lens to use in reading the story of 40 days in the wilderness is that of Jacob at Peniel [Genesis 32].  You may remember that Jacob, in his time of great anxiety and fear over what his militarily stronger brother Esau was going to do to him, wrestled with a stranger/messenger of God/divine force all night and was both wounded and blessed as a result.  Dreams can do that!  The outcome was that the threat facing Jacob [Esau’s army] wasn’t removed, but he had the strength to face it.  That is Jacob faced the demons of his past and did not run away.  Remember Marley’s lyrics: “emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds”[iii]

The story of wrestling at Peniel has parallels with this episode from Luke.  Jacob like Jesus is alone.  Jacob like Jesus is in a foreign place, a place on the periphery of power, a place to grapple with God…  And there he wrestles with an angel, an adversary, or is it a demon? Maybe all three?

Jesus, like Jacob, wrestles with issues of identity [who he is], power [what he can do and should do], and prestige [how he will be perceived by others].  It’s a redemption song in that it is suggesting that we too, like Jacob and Jesus, need to wrestle with our modern temptations around identity, power, and fame in order to find our way to freedom.  We too can sing our way to freedom.  We just have to be attuned to the acoustics of freedom.

Jacob wrestled with a stranger – a stranger who became a ‘messenger from God’ [an angel] to him.  Some of the language in the Hebrew text blurs the line between that strange messenger being human or being divine.  So in the wrestling with a stranger Jacob wrestles with both God and himself.

The synoptic gospels were influenced by the theological change in the Satan from being God’s helpful counter to normal ways of behaving/perceiving [like in the book of Job] to being God’s opponent – a personification of evil.  This change seems to have happened in the century or two before Jesus was born.  So the stranger Jesus engages with in the wilderness is called ‘the Devil’, whereas I suspect – like Jacob – Jesus wrestled with the fears, anxieties and desires he had within himself.  His wrestling opponent was therefore what the author of Genesis 32 might have called a strange messenger from God.

Reconfiguring the story this way I think is helpful for our journey.  The temptations around identity, power, and prestige do not come from an evil source, but are a part of ourselves – a part of ourselves we need to wrestle with – the outcome of which involves both being wounded and blessed.

Another lens to look at the story of 40 days in the wilderness through is that of the demise of the omni-God.  The temptations to do great miracles [for the benefit of all you understand], to have great power [to rule the nations wisely and philanthropically for the good of all you understand], and to have great prestige [as one protected by the heavenly angels, who are really there to protect you all you understand], are all temptations convergent with understanding God as omnipotent and omnibenevolent.  The Omni-God of classical theism – a God who has the power to do anything but limits himself in order that his children learn the consequences of choice – is the overlay many Christians bring to this story.  They think Jesus [because he really is God] can actually do all these things: make bread from rocks, rule the nations, and skydive parachute-less with impunity.  And Christians who think like this are in good company – a number of early Christians wanted Jesus’ God to be just like that, and Jesus to be just like that.

But the Omni-God has taken some big hits in the 20th century.  Morally, ethically, it is not good enough to allow for the terrors of Verdun, the traumas of the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and the gulags, in the name of giving so-called ‘children’ free choice.  Did the victims have free choice?  These sites of violation, suffering, and death cry out to all, including our God: if you can do something to stop it you must!  And the fact that such violations happened, and continue to happen [think Rwanda, Syria], calls into question our whole understanding of the divine.  Rather than God being a mighty monarch maybe god is self-emptying service?  Rather than God being the ruler of time and space, maybe god is the wounded stranger bidding to come in out of the storm?  Maybe the Omni-God needs to die in order that the god called Compassion lives?  And maybe theologically that is what the death and resurrection of Jesus is all about?

So, with this lens, we see the Jesus – the one in whom we Christians know god – showing us what the Christian god is really like.  The identity of god is not in theurgic miracles, but in the miracle of compassion towards all and especially the vulnerable.  So too should our identity be.  The power of god is not in the hierarchical ability to rule over nations [like a new Caesar], but in the change that is possible when people cooperate together for the good of all.  So too should our power be.  And the prestige of god is not found in performing great visual acts, supported by an angelic host, but in being present, suffering alongside, feeling impotent, and allowing hospitable space for the stranger and the enemy.  Maybe the Christian god, g-o-d, is not spelt with a capital ‘G’ but a small ‘g’.

And maybe Jesus in the wilderness was in that liminal space, the borderlands, between these two gods – that space where one tries to get one’s bearings as one transits between two worldviews.  Maybe in the wilderness he was choosing the kind of god he would follow, and the kind of God he would reject, and recognizing both G/gods within himself?  Or maybe he was just recognizing the kind of God he needed to reject, but wasn’t sure what sort of god, would fill the void when the rejected God was gone.  Maybe as Kierkegaard would say he was hovering over the vortex – that place of radical disorientation that precedes reorientation.  Even though the authors and editors of Jesus’ gospel accounts portray him as having his faith, ministry, and mission all worked out from the get-go, I have some serious doubts. 

I think when you are guided by love it’s hard to have a definitive strategy and life plan.  For love disorientates and re-orientates us; disturbs us and calms us; undoes us and puts us together; and then does it all over again, and again.  Just like god.  Such love is the rhythm, the beat, of our redemption songs as we too transverse those liminal spaces, those places of transition, those borderlands of wilderness and insecurity as discover who we are, what is required of us, and what we should do.

[i] This is a quote from Marcus Garvey 1937.

[ii] Mikal Gilmore, Rolling Stone