|Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
By Bruce G. Epperly
The reading from Luke 4:1-13 is the traditional centerpiece for the First Sunday in Lent, and it should be. In many ways, Lent invites us to explore our values. The Lenten season invites us to self-examination: What is truly important to us? Where are our deepest values and how do we embody them in daily life? Where is God in our lives?
Often these questions are posed in dualistic ways, separating spirit and flesh, individual and environment, and God and the world. From a process perspective, life is much more complicated. The dynamic interdependence of life confronts us with choices that always shape mind, body, spirit, relationships, and the broader communal and planetary environment. Moreover, there is no ultimate separation of God and the world and Creator and creature.
How we respond to the world is implicitly our response to God. Our vision of the God-world relationship shapes our ethical decisions—and all decisions are ethical and valuational—on the micro and macro levels. For example, many congregations are encouraging a “carbon fast” during Lent. Lowering our consumption, driving less, and living more simply affects other species, the forests, and waters; it also has economic implications; and contributes to God’s experience of the world as beauty, ugly, or ambiguous. (http://www.ucc.org/news/lenten-carbon-fast-targets.html)
Although today’s reading is often described as “Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness,” I prefer to describe it as “Jesus’ vocational and visionary retreat.” Throughout history, both Christian and non-Christian, young adults have gone on spiritual vision quests to discern their life’s path. These times set apart serve to help seekers discover their “true” name, the tasks that lie ahead of them, and their role in the community and the larger world.
Today’s reading needs context: after years of learning his vocation, perhaps, in a monastic setting or joining carpentry with spiritual discernment, Jesus seeks out John the Baptist, his cousin and, I believe, spiritual companion, for baptism as a sign of his willingness to claim his vocation. Jesus’ baptism leads him to a time of prayer in which he palpably experiences the call of the Spirit and a divine word of wisdom and confirmation. Embracing his identity as God’s Beloved Child and all that entails, Jesus is guided by the Spirit to go on retreat in the wilderness.
During his retreat, the spirit-filled Jesus discovers his vocation, power, and divine energy, but he also experiences temptations to turn away from the highest possibilities set before him. Process theology sees decision-making at the heart of reality. The whole universe, conscious and unconscious, near and far, provides the context from which each moment arises. Each moment shapes its experience of the universe in a unique way, guided by God’s vision of what it can become in this present moment and for the future. Surely this is Jesus’ experience on retreat: he feels an abundance of God’s blessing and energy, but now he must decide the shape he will give his vocation.
Jesus’ temptations may, or may not, come from the Devil—my own sense is that they emerge from the unconscious or the activity of spiritual forces working against God’s vision—but they are felt as adversarial to his calling as God’s Beloved One. We must admit that there is nothing wrong with the objects of Jesus’ temptation in and of themselves: healthy food when we’re hungry, security from danger, and power to change the world for the good can always be positive. The problem is that higher possibilities are available for fulfilling God’s vision for Jesus’ life. Following these temptations might lead to a good life, but not to the full aliveness that is the glory of God in human experience.
Temptation never ends, as we constantly make decisions, some of which advance, others of which take us away, from God’s moment-by-moment and long-term visions of our lives. We are responsible for our choices and, by definition, our embodiment of God’s visions is “ours” or “ours and God’s” and not just “God’s.” God seeks to maximize freedom and creativity for Jesus and for us. Facing temptation can be a solitary process, but it need not be. Mark’s Gospel notes that angels ministered to Jesus in the wilderness. (Mark 1:12-13) Vocation requires a village, a group of supportive companions, colleagues, and spiritual companions.
A process-oriented reading of Psalm 91, Romans 10, and Deuteronomy 26 can be used to support, with some creative renderings, Luke’s retreat narrative. Deuteronomy 26 describes God as able to hear the cries of the oppressed. The Israelites call and God responds. God is not apathetic or unchanging but responds to the needs of the creaturely world. God moves through the events of history bringing forth a way where there is no way and providing a pathway to a land of promise.
From a process perspective, God did not harden Pharaoh’s heart nor did God kill the first-born Egyptian children. Such events are unexplainable, if, in fact, they occurred in the first place. The most we can say is that the Egyptian leaders were also presented with possibilities and they chose to ignore possibilities that would nurture greater freedom and creativity among the Israelites. This led to economic and personal disaster. Yet, still God presented possibilities, even though the vision for this moment, the best for that impasse, can be limited and appear negative given our previous behaviors. The Israelites also had freedom as did the Canaanites to find a middle path, avoiding war, dislocation, and alienation.
The words of Romans 10 point to God’s generous grace. All who call upon God are saved. This doesn’t mean that evils won’t befall us: angels or not (see Psalm 91), there are no guarantees that faith always leads to prosperity, safety, and success. It does mean that God’s love embraces all the diversities of life—all who call upon God will receive a superabundance of possibilities and the opportunity to live out our freedom and creativity in life-supporting ways.
The words of Romans 10 beg the questions, “What does it mean to call upon God? Is there a specific technique of supplication or petition or are there many paths to wholeness? Does God hear the cries of seekers, agnostics, none of the above, spiritual but not religious, Muslims, Hindus, and so worth as well as Bible-believing Christians?” I grew up hearing that specific words needed to be said to be “saved” and have eternal life: we need to “accept Jesus as our personal savior” or pray the sinner’s prayer, admitting our lostness apart from God and placing our faith in Jesus as our only savior. I believe such formulae are far too limiting for a generous God. As Anne Lamott suggests, “Help” may be language enough to open the doors to healing.
A truly generous God overcomes all the dualisms we place on the path to salvation and find ways to wholeness appropriate to everyone. We may turn away, actualize our possibilities in unhealthy ways, or even deny that God exists, but God still moves through our deepest yearnings. Even the pleas of atheists receive God’s response and good will. The doors of salvation must be open to all if anyone of us is to trust God’s saving grace, which is always personal and contextual even as it is universal and global. Thanks be to God!
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty three books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age, and Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He recently served as Visiting Professor of Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University. Contact him by email for lectures, workshops, and retreats. His latest book is Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel (Energion).