Jesus, the Son of Israel, the Son of God, withdraws to the wilderness, led by the Holy Spirit. He has passed through the waters of the Jordan River, but instead of entering the Promised Land, Jesus goes into the wilderness, the place of waiting and wandering and temptation. The heavens have opened, and the Spirit has descended on him like a dove, and a voice has claimed Jesus as God’s Beloved Son. Father, Son; Son, Father. You might expect something equally wonderful to follow on the heels of that stunning revelation: a royal enthronement, a mighty display of power and gifts, a magnificent show of divine love. Instead, the Spirit leads Jesus into a barren land. There is no royal throne, no display of power and gifts, no show of divine love. There isn’t even anyone else around. No, instead, there is hunger. There is thirst. There is temptation. And there is the devil.
What happened to being God’s Son?
What happened to the Father?
Has the Father claimed the Son only to abandon him in the desert?
The devil does more than tempt Jesus; the devil sows seeds of doubt. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here.” If you are the Son of God. If. Maybe you aren’t really the Son of God after all. Maybe you dreamed up that business about the voice and the dove at the Jordan River. Maybe the Father has disappeared. Maybe the Father has already abandoned you. If you are the Son of God. If you ever really were in the first place.
Jesus answers the temptations: to each one, he rebukes the devil with words from Deuteronomy, the law: people don’t live on bread alone; worship only the Lord God; and don’t put God to the test. But Jesus never responds to the seeds of doubt; he never takes on the “if.” So it seems the questions never get answered: does being God’s Son mean getting kicked to the curb? Does being God’s Son mean being abandoned by the Father? Has the Father left Jesus to struggle and make his own way in the world?
It’s the kind of thing an earthly father might do. The earthly father who has poured so much of himself into his son, into his child, and then one day something just snaps, and he throws the kid out on the street. The earthly father who is overwhelmed by stress and work and whatever else and takes it out on his children through screaming and yelling and punishing, maybe even beating. The earthly father who has broken his covenant with the mother of his children and left her, and the children, too, to find himself or to do whatever other nonsense. Has Jesus just discovered the worst of earthly fathers writ large in his heavenly Father? And if his heavenly Father has abandoned him at the edge of the wilderness, will the Father do the same when the going gets really tough for Jesus, when Jesus is crucified?
We are entering our own wilderness on this first Sunday in Lent. Last month, just a few weeks ago, really, we renewed our baptismal covenants. Baptism—where God claims us as God’s sons and daughters. Baptism—where we discover that God is on a mission to redeem the whole world. Baptism—where we, as God’s children, begin to know God as Abba, as our Father. And on top of that, this Lent we are centering our lives in worship on the Paternoster, the Our Father, the Lord’s Prayer. So the questions facing Jesus in the wilderness are very real for us in this Lenten season. Have we been adopted by a heavenly Father who will abandon us at our moment of need? Are we children of a god who disappears when things get tough?
The first line of the Lord’s Prayer doesn’t make things easier: our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Our Father, in heaven, holy: each of these seems to put more space between between us and God; each phrase seems to increase the distance between us and God. Father, the authority figure, the respected elder. In heaven, not on earth like us, but of a realm we can scarcely imagine. Hallowed, or holy: holy means separate, set apart, kept away from things and people who might defile. Is God the Father really as far away from us as all that?
In the devil’s tempting talk to Jesus, and to us, the answer is a clear yes. If you are the Son of God, if you are children of God, then where’s your Father? Why won’t your Father let you turn these stones into bread? Why won’t your Father let you have the power and status you deserve? Why won’t your Father let you treat your life like a toy, a play thing, instead of like a gift, something to treasure? If you are children of God, then where’s your Father?
You see, the devil wants Jesus, wants us, to believe that our Father in heaven is really just another earthly father, a parent, and not even a very good one. So the devil takes words and ideas—like food, power, security—and pops them out of the stories and contexts that give them meaning. And we do the same thing. We say, men are superior to women, so we have to call God Father. Or we say, God has masculine characteristics, so we have to call God Father. Or we tell people, since God is our heavenly Father you must obey your earthly father, no matter how cruel he may be. Or worse still, we say, since God is Father, you earthly fathers get to be little gods in your own families and do whatever you want. The devil is not the only liar, not the only one who can twist the truth.
Jesus responds to the devil’s lies and temptations by planting the words right back in the story where they belong, where they make sense. Each time Jesus answers the devil, his reply is like a link on a webpage: click on the link, and it opens you to a new reality. Do you want to know about bread? The God who gave the law is the same Lord who provided manna to the Israelites. What about power? God overcame the earthly power you wielded through Pharaoh, and God will overcome the earthly power you wield through Rome or any other superpower that comes along. You want security? The Lord God protected his children, his band of wandering Arameans, for forty years before they entered the promised land. Life is always a gift, never a toy. It’s as if Jesus is saying, I am the Son of God, because I am in the middle of Israel’s story. It’s as if Jesus is saying, And my Father is right here with me, in the middle of my story, even in the wilderness. The Father has not abandoned me; the Father never will.
You and I, dear friends, can pray “our Father” because of the story of Israel and the story of Jesus. We have been adopted, grafted onto their story, and because of that, we are children of God, too. Our Father does not abandon us. In Jesus Christ the Son and through the Holy Spirit, our Father enters our story, walks alongside us in our deepest needs.
That is what is means to pray the prayer Jesus gave us. Praying the Lord’s Prayer means praying to the Father of Jesus Christ and no other father. Praying the Lord’s Prayer means we commit our lives to this God and the ways of this God—and no other. Praying the Lord’s Prayer means we abandon all notions we have of fatherhood and learn from Jesus and Israel what it means to have God as our Father.
Our Father. In heaven. Holy.