The First Sunday in Lent – Luke 4:1-13
The older I get and the more of life I experience, the more tentative life becomes. There are no guarantees. The certainty of naiveté and youth have given way to the unknown and unpredictable. That is both exciting and frightening, promising and risky. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. I can plan and prepare, and chances are many of those things will happen, become a reality, but then there are those surprises that were never expected, uncertainties and interruptions that could not be foreseen or planned for. Some are welcome, others are not.
Let me give you some examples. When I married in 1985 I never expected that I would get divorced. That simply wasn’t in my plans. After I divorced I never thought I would love or risk marriage again. Today that impossibility is named Cyndy. When we started dating I was an attorney who wanted to be a priest. “That’s fine with me,” Cyndy said with enthusiasm. And to this day she still says, “I didn’t think that would really happen.” I thought Cyndy and I would live together happily married with two sons. I never imagined our older son would die. And after he did I never would have believed that Cyndy and I would be talking about how wonderful our life is and yet that has become a regular part of our recent conversations.
None of that is unique to me, however. That’s the way of life. You also have those kind of stories. Think about how your life has been interrupted in unforeseen and unpredictable ways, for better and for worse. When has the future taken you completely by surprise? That’s when life becomes really real. That’s what it means to enter the wilderness. The wilderness is not so much a place or a landscape. It’s our life. And life is wild. It’s untamed and uncontrollable.
The future is always coming to us in ways we cannot foresee or plan for. And it always comes with promise and risk. I am not talking about promise as a simple and predictable process by which an intention becomes a reality, but something that is completely open ended (Caputo, 271 n.14), something that holds endless possibilities. It’s the kind of thing that depends on hope and faith more than it does the passage of time or the completion of an action. The promise promises that something is coming. What that is, we don’t know. That’s what makes life so wild. Every promise of life, every promise we make, every promise made to us, is accompanied by the risk that is might not be fulfilled or that it won’t be fulfilled in the way we want or expect. But if the promise had no risk it would have no value. Promise and risk are two sides of life. And isn’t that the wilderness story of today’s gospel (Luke 4:1-13)?
The way Luke tells it one minute Jesus is the Beloved Son, the one with whom God is well pleased. He leaves his baptismal waters full of the Holy Spirit. The next minute he is in the wilderness empty and famished. He’s been tempted by the devil for forty days. “Turn these stones into bread.” “Worship me and all this will be yours.” “Jump and let God catch you if you really are God’s son.”
The promise in Jesus’ baptism and the risk in the wilderness are not two separate stories. We might read them that way but that’s not how we live them. Every promise carries risk and every risk carries promise.
The promise and risk of life come to us asking for a response. Jesus had decisions to make. And so do we. We make decisions everyday of our life; decisions and choices about what to do, who we want to be, how we want to live. We sometimes call them temptations. We feel torn and pulled between the promise and the risk. Temptations hold before us the illusion of promise without risk. But that’s not the way the wilderness works, and Jesus knows that.
The wilderness is full of promise and the wilderness is full of risk, for Jesus and for us. You don’t get one without the other. And it’s always about more than whether we say yes or no.
Think about the decisions before you today, the ones that carry consequences, the ones over which you fret and with which you struggle. What are they? What is it you are really seeking?
My guess is that regardless of what the decision is about what we really want, what we are really after, is life; the chance for more life, the possibility of a new life, the opportunity to be reborn when all has been lost, for ourselves or for another.
With each decision we’re betting that the future will be better, not because it necessarily is, but because it might be. (Caputo, 235) And that “might,” the possibility of a better future, of more life, is what gives us the strength, the faith, the hope, to risk a decision and remain open to the future, even when we don’t know how it will turn out. And more often than not we don’t. We don’t know how it will turn out.
Have you ever looked back on your life and wished you had done things differently, made a different decision, taken a different path, chosen something else? Yeah, we all have. We’ve all been left wondering what life would be like now if we had gone a different direction. Where would we be now? How would our life be different? What did we miss out on?
By the same token I suspect each of us can look back at choices and decisions we made and, if we had the chance, we’d do it all again, in the same way. They were absolutely the right thing for us. We wouldn’t trade what that has given for anything and we wouldn’t want to imagine our life otherwise.
It would be easy to look at those two situations and label one as failure and the other as a success, one in which we made the wrong decision and one in which we made the right decision. I think that’s often how we live and view life. And I think that’s how we often tend to hear today’s gospel (Luke 4:1-13). Jesus made the right decisions and we should too. We turn the gospel into an imperative rather than an opening to life.
I am all for making good and thoughtful decisions, but what if it’s more than that? What if the desire for more life is what underlies both those situations I described? What if this isn’t so much about whether we get it right or wrong but whether we remain open to the coming future?
That’s what’s happening with Jesus in the wilderness. It’s not a question of whether he will prove himself, whether he will make the right decision, but whether he will stay open to his future. And that’s true for us as well.
I think that’s what Lent about. Lent is about learning to stay open to life, to the coming future. The things we do or give up for Lent are not to gain God’s approval or to improve ourselves but to help keep us open to the future, to the life that is coming.
That’s the wilderness struggle, the struggle of life, the struggle to remain open. It’s so easy and tempting to close ourselves to the future. We do that in so many ways; fear, anger, hurt, guilt, disappointment, selfishness. What parts of your life have you closed to the future? What would it take to reopen them? That’s the lenten work before us, to continually remain open to life, to our future.
I don’t know what the future will bring you or me. And neither do you. But I know this, where there is a future there is also the possibility of life and more life. I don’t want to close that possibility. Do you?
John D. Caputo, The Insistence of God (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2013).