Jesus, “was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts, ….” That is all the author of Mark’s Gospel tells us about what happened after Jesus’ baptism. And that couple of phrases tells us very little about what went on in the wilderness.
Of course we have all four Gospels at our disposal, so most of us have read elsewhere, that Satan waited until Jesus was very hungry, thirsty, tired, and weak, and then he moved in and began to tempt Him. First he challenged Jesus to make food out of a rock. Then he challenged Jesus to jump from a high place, the implication being that God would, as Matthew and Luke say, “not allow you to dash your toe on a rock.” Finally he offered Jesus the opportunity to be the ruler over all of the kingdoms of the world, if Jesus would simply bow down and worship Satan. And of course, we know that Jesus did not succumb to any of these temptations, whereupon, Satan disappeared. But let’s think for a minute about those forty days in the wilderness.
Mark tells us the Jesus was “driven” into the wilderness, where he spent forty days. The Greek word used for “driven” is the same one the author uses when he tell us about what Jesus did to the evil spirits that inhabited some of the people. So Jesus was “compelled, or driven” out of his world, into a place where He was cut off from everything. And He had to survive without the community.
But why so long? Why forty days without food or water? Commentators say that this is a reminder of the forty years that Moses led the children of Israel around in the desert — a time in which they too had to rely completely on the faithful grace of God in order to live.
So Jesus was in the wilderness, driven away from all of the people and things that he knew, without food or water, surrounded by wild animals, for over a month. Sounds like part of the synopsis for a Stephen King novel, doesn’t it?
It was a dark and stormy night. Jesus had been driven from His home by an unseen force. He found Himself lost in the wilderness; without food or water. And He could hear wild animals circling around Him as He tried to sleep. … Then, He encountered Satan!
I make fun, but seriously, think about the 100% human Jesus, and what a physical, mental, and emotional toll this must have taken on him. He must have been absolutely miserable by the end. Let’s face it, being in the wilderness is no fun!
This week we had yet another mass shooting in a school. And I found myself having to struggle to feel anything: sadness, grief, frustration, rage, … anything at all. And I started to think about how much this is beginning to feel as though our whole nation has been driven into the wilderness, for a time of testing that seems never-ending.
Back in the dark ages of the 1960s, (and no, this is not one of those, “things were better when I was a kid,” rants), I grew up in a middle-class household, with two parents (and for several years, two grandparents) in the home. During my elementary school years, we were not rich, but we also never wanted for anything. That is, if we needed something, we got it. I would not call my older sister or me spoiled. We did not get everything we wanted, but certainly everything we needed. We went to church every Sunday — and I do mean every Sunday. If you weren’t on death’s doorstep, with a banana peel under your foot, you got out of bed and went to church … at 7:30 in the morning no less. And there were always adults around to be role models. Sure, sometimes they drank too much, or swore too much, or got a bit loud. But in the large, extended community in which I grew up, all of those adults were good people. They were not physically, mentally, or emotionally abusive — not to each other, and not to any of us kids. I was absolutely blessed to grow up in a community of people who were trying their hardest to follow Jesus and have a good time doing it.
From Jr. High (what is now Middle school) on, I was never the most popular, the most handsome, the best athlete, or any other “best” or “most.” But I was always a part of the group. I was always someone who found a way to fit in and be accepted. After my father reached a certain level in his corporate career, we began to move every few years, as his promotion progression demanded. So I went to quite a few schools in my career. And during only one year did I feel like an outcast.
When I was in the eighth grade, we were living in Northern Virginia, about 85 miles outside Washington, D.C. It was 1969 and racial tensions were still running high after the riots in D.C. in the aftermath of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And that was the year that our school district finally ran out of appeals and had to comply with the Supreme Court’s 1954 school desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education. So, in September, I got on a bus and went across town to what had been the historically African American Junior High. I went from the 1968 school year in an all white school, to the 1969 year, in which I was one of the 10% white population with a 90% African American majority. Over the course of that year, I began to feel what it means to be driven out of your own community and left to fend for myself, in exile.
The minority were treated by the majority in the school, exactly the way these same students had always been treated by a white majority in Virginia society. We were constantly treated as “less than,” the other students. We were looked down upon and pushed around — both physically and emotionally — by everyone with whom we came into contact. I was threatened with physical violence, strictly because of the color of my skin. And it took a toll on my psyche as the year wore on.
I am grateful that that school year ultimately taught me some positive lessons. Rather than retreating to my own “white side of town” and becoming resentful of those who were currently oppressing me; I was able to talk with a couple of my teachers, one white, one black, who helped me understand that none of this was about me, but that it was built up rage that was finding an unhealthy release. I lived through that time of exile and loneliness, with nothing like long-lasting scars. But the same is not true of everyone.
We have now had so many mass shooting events in this country that we are forming a sort of informal profile of who becomes a mass shooter. The people who do these sorts of things are, generally speaking, white males who have long-standing grievances against society, or some slice of it. At some point in their pasts, they have all learned callousness toward others, as a defense to their own pain, or simply as a coping mechanism. And almost 60 percent of them have been involved in some form of domestic abuse. Please don’t come to me after this sermon with an example of a mass shooter who does not fit this profile. I realize that there are exceptions.
The point that I am making is this: mass shooters are — in general terms — not born, they are made by their circumstances. When children or young people do not have what I had as a child, a loving and supportive home life; a larger community that mentored me and cared for, and about me; good role models; and schools that taught me (among other things) civics and good citizenship; when people are raised without these things, they run the very great risk of acting out against society in horrific ways.
And when you add the ease with which such people can get their hands on weapons that, by their very design, are meant to kill multiple people, in combat situations, you have multiple tragedies, just waiting to happen.
Being driven out into the wilderness can do bad things to some people. Coming out of the wilderness, angry, lonely, and detached from humanity — and being able to get an efficient means of killing, believing one is just “getting even,” is the worst of all possible situations. We, Christians, Episcopalians, need to let our legislators know that helping people who are mentally ill is a moral imperative, as is taking an honest look at how we can handle gun violence in a more proactive manner. We cannot allow God’s children to kill God’s children at this atrocious rate. No more retreating to our corners and saying what we have always said. It is time to stop the killing — and the ignoring of the problem.