In my hometown of Alexandria, Virginia, there are several streets that have been left as they were originally built in the colonial days, as cobblestone streets. They’re beautiful, intriguing, even kind of fun. But they are also really difficult to walk on. You cannot wear high heels on them. You’ll break an ankle. they’re treacherous enough with tennis shoes on. And when they’re wet, forget it.
I haven’t spent a lot of time in the wilderness in my life. I’m mostly a city girl. But I have spent a lot of time on cobblestones. I haven’t faced massive temptations like the ones that Jesus faced. My temptations and stumbling blocks have not been to turn stones to bread or to throw myself from the temple or rule nations. They have been much smaller, much more commonplace. They have been the cobblestones in an otherwise beautiful and intriguing path, one that I have been happy and even fortunate to walk. But just because they have not been on a par with Jesus’ wilderness journey, it does not mean that they have been unimportant. They have been part of my daily walk. Some days the cobblestones all but disappear, and the path smooths out for a while. Other days, I can barely clamber over them.
We all have our unique paths. Whether it’s a cobblestone street or a country lane or a path through the wilderness, we all find obstacles and temptations in our way. We all reach deadness where we cannot imagine how our path will go forward from here; or crossroads where we must make impossible choices. Some of our paths go up mountainsides, and some are windy and twisting and we feel like were are taking those turns too fast for our comfort, out of control and dizzy with the speed at which life is coming at us. Some of our paths stretch out in the distance, branching with endless possibilities, while some of us find ourselves approaching the end of our journey, as the path wears away beneath our feet.
Whatever our path, it often feels daunting, even when it is beautiful. It feels like we are the first ones to face these obstacles, like I am the only one ever to have stumbled, ever to have been tempted to wander. Everyone else seems to be living perfectly – Facebook pictures of them enjoying their perfect lives and their perfect families and their perfect vacations leave me wondering what I missed. How have I failed to get everything together by age 45? I can’t even keep the living room clean, much less post pictures of a perfect life. I feel most of the time like I am skating on cobblestones, struggling for balance, always about to turn an ankle, while everyone else is calmly traipsing down their garden-path lives.
Yet here is Jesus, of all people, driven out into the wilderness by the Spirit. Driven to face obstacles and temptations, to feel alone and abandoned, to walk the stumbling path that every person walks.
We tend to think of this episode as a once and done chapter of Jesus’ life. Out he goes into the wilderness to prove himself worthy, avoid temptations, and then head back to do the rest of his work. But these temptations set the tone for the rest of his ministry. They are not over when he walks out of that desert. Like the rest of us, Jesus’ path has recurring obstacles, and each one builds on and informs the next , and like the rest of us, Jesus looks back over his path and learns from his past. Today he refuses to turn the stones into bread for himself, but soon he will feed thousands with a few loaves and some fish, and teach his disciples to rely on God for their daily bread. Today he refuses to test God by throwing himself off the Temple, but soon he will trust God all the way to the cross and the grave. Today he refuses to worship the devil to win earthly kingdoms, but soon he will win the Kingdom of heaven by surrendering earthly power. Jesus’ road through the desert is a road that prepares him for the work that is to come. It is not proof that he is a super-human who is better at resisting temptations than the rest of us. It is actually proof that he is fully human; that he needs to learn like the rest of us; that he has to struggle with what it means to walk this path and live this life, having been named and claimed by God and sent out into this wilderness of a world.
Because that’s where this story starts. Like yours. With God’s blessing. The line just before this story starts, the line we didn’t read today, is the last line of chapter 3, that we read way back at the beginning of Epiphany, the line that was echoed in last week’s story of the Transfiguration: “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” After Jesus had been baptized, he came up out of the water, the heavens opened, and a voice said, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased. Then immediately, Jesus was led out by the Spirit into the wilderness. But first, the blessing.
In fact, none of us begins without blessing. Adam and Eve, for all their stumbling, begin with blessing, with the gift of a garden and God’s commission to care for creation. And still they stumble. Still they seek their own path and their own desires. Blessing doesn’t mean that we won’t mess up. Being God’s beloved doesn’t eliminate sin. It doesn’t wipe out the stumbling blocks, or iron out the road so that it runs smooth and clear ahead of us. It simply names and claims all of our road as blessed, as beloved, as God’s.
Which means that we can walk that path, and stumble. Without worrying about whether God will abandon us out there in the wilderness. God will not. We can step onto the cobblestones, and take a risk. When the stones are slippery, or we reach a crossroads, or even a dead end, when the path disappears in the mist, or the mountain seems too steep to climb, we can still risk taking the next step. Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said, “Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
This is what it is to be named and claimed as God’s own child. You have been named beloved, not because of your ability to navigate the path perfectly, but precisely because God knows that you will stumble, that you will fall, that you will wander and get lost. So God has clipped a tether on you, and will hang on to you wherever that path leads. And God will gently call your name and pull you back, so that you can continue on your journey.
We all go into the wilderness. We all live in this world, where divisions and hatred and death seem to have the final word. We all face loss, grief, pain, shame, temptation, things that darken our path or rise up to block our way, the cobblestones that threaten to bring us down. But our trail has been blazed for us. God has come into this world, has become one of us, to go ahead of us and light the way. And God has sent us with a name emblazoned on our hearts. Beloved child of God. I’ll leave you today with this poem by Jan Richardson, “Beloved is Where We Begin.”