It wasn’t until Jesus had already spent 40 days and nights in the wilderness was he tempted. It wasn’t until he was, as the scripture says, ‘famished’, did the ‘Tempter’ come to him. After 40 days alone in the wilderness fasting Jesus was tempted to give into evil and renounce the name that God had given him: The Beloved Son of God.
I think we sometimes forget that the temptation of Jesus, at least as it is told in the Gospel of Matthew, was not for the entire 40 days. But, I think it is important to keep that in mind. Because, first, Jesus was simply alone and hungry in the wilderness. The scriptures say nothing about what he did. It says nothing about him praying or asking God to remove the burden of his call from him. We don’t know how he lived or if he encountered anyone. All we know is that he was away from everything he knew. That he was led by the Spirit away from the familiar and into the wild and the frightening. And for us Christians, during these 40 days of Lent, we are called to let go of some of what we hold onto as familiar and comforting and use that to create extra space for God to break through. We are asked to use these 40 days to prepare ourselves for the coming miracle of resurrection, just as Jesus used his 40 days to prepare himself for his coming ministry. But, first, we must all spend time in the wilderness.
What does that look like for you? What does your wilderness look like? Because it is different for all of us. For some, it may be spending more time in prayer – and the more we pray the more we risk hearing the voice of God. For others, it may mean changing our diets and looking for new ways to find nourishment. And for some, it may mean letting go of everything held dear and stepping out into the unknown. For the modern day prophet we are remembering today – Rachel Held Evans – her wilderness experience meant letting go of her religious tradition which was so central to her life. She had to let go, wander in the wilderness, be tempted to give up all her beliefs, and in the end – triumph over that temptation once and for all.
Rachel Held Evans and I are the same age. She grew up in Dayton, Tennessee and was emmeshed in her church – Grace Bible Church – a typical evangelical community in the middle of the Bible belt. And, she was not just an attender of the church – she was an evangelical for the church. She writes: “I went to school every day determined to transform all the Christians there into evangelical Christians and set them on fire for God. I psyched myself up in the morning with Christian music from DC Talk and Audio Adrenaline. I wrote “GOD IS AWESOME” with magic marker on a strip of red duct tape and plastered it across my JanSport backpack like a bumper sticker. I looked for ways to redirect conversations about Friday night’s football game into discussions regarding Jesus Christ’s atoning death for our sins.”[i]
Even for the Bible Belt, Rachel was a bit much. She was convinced of her faith, of her purpose, and that God wanted her to make everyone around her believe the same way she did. She talks about her youth group in her wonderful book ‘Searching for Sunday’ and how that group gave her such a sense of belonging. She knew, through her church and that youth group, that she belonged to a community and was unconditionally loved. It was fundamental to who she was and she was so happy.
But Rachel, like me, was in high school on April 20, 1999. So, Rachel, like me, had to go to school the day after the Columbine High School mass shooting. She, like everyone in my generation, had to cope with the fact that school was no longer safe. And, she, like everyone in my generation, watched the events of 9/11 from our desks at those same schools. We entered college at the same time the United States entered war. States were beginning to consider marriage equality, and people felt that their world was at risk. We were hearing about Islamic extremists, trying to get our heads around what the acronym LGBT meant, and adjusting to a world where differences became more important than similarities.
And Rachel, in her beloved Grace Bible Church, found that the turmoil in the world was just exacerbated each Sunday morning. The prayers were no longer healing. The sermons left her feeling angry. The messages about who God loved and, more importantly, who God hated left her feeling empty and alone. And, it was the Sunday she pulled into the church to find it was surrounded by yard signs declaring that marriage is only for one man and one woman, that finally Rachel could not pretend anymore. Over a course of a few years, she left that church and that community she loved so much. After she and her husband told their pastor it was time to leave, she writes, “I left a church of kind, generous people because I couldn’t pretend to believe things I didn’t believe anymore, because I knew that no matter how hard I tried, I could never be the stick-figured woman on the sign standing guard in front of the [church] doors. I didn’t want to be. We crossed the parking lot…and climbed into the safety of our car. As soon as the doors shut, I put my head in my hands and cried, startled to tears by the selfishness of my own thought: Who will bring us casseroles when we have a baby?”[ii]
That was the start of Rachel Held Evans wilderness experience. She left behind all that was familiar and kind, all that she knew and could rely on. She left behind her church but in the process discovered her faith. Using her remarkable writing skills, she started a blog for people leaving the evangelical tradition, but not leaving Christianity. Very quickly, thousands of people said to her, ‘Me Too.’ It was in her wilderness that she learned she was not alone and there was a vast community of people out in the wilderness too. She started to speak publicly, lead conferences, and write books. She visited churches and faith groups around the world. She became a prophet in the wilderness for the masses of people who found themselves in that wilderness with her. She gave them a voice, a hope, a shoulder, and, with her wonderful sense of humor, a smile after so much grief and pain. She was tempted to leave it all behind, and then in standing up to that temptation, she found a deeper faith and an even greater love for this thing we call church.
Rachel Held Evans, our first prophet for our Lenten series on the modern-day prophets, understood what wilderness looks like today for so many people today. So many have found themselves caught between two worlds: the old and familiar, and the new and uncomfortable. She walked through that wilderness with bravery and grace. She found God and pointed God out to others alongside her. And that is just what a prophet does – someone who points out God.
Rachel died last year when she was 36 years old. A minor infection took over her body and she died quickly and tragically, leaving behind a husband and baby. The world is a bit dimmer after her death, but we are graced with her words that live on in her books and copious writings. And, for those who have found themselves in the wilderness looking for church, trying to figure out what church is, and where in church we find God – for all of those who understood her wilderness, they will forever be comforted by knowing they were not alone. And that God is there, wherever they are.
We will never know what Jesus experienced in his wilderness before his temptation, but I have a hunch he experienced God. I have a hunch that he, just like all of us, when we let go of what is familiar and step into the new, experience God. That is why the Tempter did not win with Jesus. That is why his name, Beloved Son of God, was then, now, and will forever be.
This Lent we are making our way to Jerusalem, and preparing ourselves for Jesus’ crucifixion. And it will come. But, so too will resurrection. That is the promise of Lent – this wilderness time will lead to Easter, to resurrection, to new life. We will make this journey with five very different prophets – all who pointed out God in the modern world in different but remarkable ways.
Let me conclude with these words from Rachel’s second book Searching for Sunday, “I find myself wondering if perhaps every generation of Christians has felt itself at the edge of this precipice, waiting for resurrection and worrying it might not come. Perhaps every pilgrim in search of church has wondered if it’s a lifetime of feeling his way through the dark, longing for light. But if I’ve learned anything in this journey, both in writing this book and clumsily living its content, it’s that Sunday morning sneaks up on us – like dawn, like resurrection, like the sun that rises a ribbon at a time. We expect a trumpet and a triumphant entry, but as always, God surprises us by showing up in ordinary things: in bread, in wine, in water, in words, in sickness, in healing, in death, in a manger of hay, in a mother’s womb, in an empty tomb. Church isn’t some community you join or some place you arrive. Church is what happens when someone taps you on the shoulder and whispers in your ear, Pay attention, this is holy ground; God is here. Even here, in the dark, God is busy making all things new. So show up. Open every door. At the risk of looking like a fool buried with his feet facing the East or like a mockingbird singing stubbornly at the night, anticipate resurrection. It’s either just around the bend or a million miles away. Or perhaps it’s somewhere in between. Let’s find out together.”[iii]
[i] Held Evans, Rachel. Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. Nelson Books, Nashville Tennessee. 2015. Page 24.
[ii] Held Evans, Rachel. Page 64.
[iii] Held Evans, Rachel. 257.