Listen to our service and sermon below:
Once upon a time, there was a man who had everything. He was an accomplished scholar, a leading poet from a prestigious family, and a prominent politician who had married into a powerful family and went on to rise to the highest political position in his city. He was well-connected and highly-esteemed. And then he lost everything. He was exiled from his beloved hometown of Florence, Italy. The exile took away his heritage, his connections, his very identity. It felt like a death. For years, he wandered around Tuscany, trying desperately to return to his city, trying desperately to get his old life back. But that life no longer existed. He would never set foot in Florence again.
In despair and grief, the man wrote these words:
In the middle of the journey of our life
I awoke in a dark wood
where the clear path was lost.
The man’s name was Dante Alighieri, and his words of despair became the opening words of his narrative poem, the Divine Comedy, considered the most important poem of the Middle Ages and the greatest literary work in the Italian language.
Dante’s dark wood is a wild and shadowy place, harsh and savage and impenetrable. A place of loss and of being lost. A place of confusion and fear. A place without a path forward.
We recognize the dark wood. It shows up in our fairy tales – a forbidding, foreboding place, where Snow White is abandoned, Hansel and Gretel get lost, and Little Red Riding Hood is stalked. As little children, we watched a tree stretch out his limbs and grab Snow White’s dress as she tried to scramble away. We’ve always known that the Dark Wood was the place where our worst fears could come alive.
The dark wood shows up in our Scriptures, too, where it is called not a “forest” but the “wilderness.” In the geography of the Bible, the wilderness looks less like the woods than a desert, but the sense of menace is the same – it’s the place beyond the borders of civilization. A dangerous, untamed, uncultivated, unmapped, uninhabited, inhospitable place. Wild beasts belong there; humans do not. It’s the desert, it’s the dark wood, it’s the wilderness.
And we recognize it. Not just from our stories – from our lives. Sooner or later we all find ourselves there. Off the map. In the dark. Lost. No path forward. Feeling stalked, hunted, and abandoned, all at the same time. It doesn’t take a literal exile to send us there. It can be a failure, a tragedy, a crisis, a loss. Depression can send us there, doubt can send us there, anxiety can grab us by the throat and haul us there. Sometimes we land there out of pure exhaustion. We wake up in the dark wood and find ourselves in exile from the life we knew, and wondering how to get out and get back to that life, as quickly as we can.
Once upon a time, there was a man who had everything. Inside of him was the very kingdom of heaven. The Spirit of God had descended on him and lit him up. One day down at the river, he watched as the sky opened just for him, and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” It was the perfect moment.
His name was Jesus and those words were still ringing in his ears, and he still had river water dripping from his hair when the Spirit took him and led him into the wilderness. He didn’t resist. He leaned in. He didn’t try to find his way out. He stayed for forty days, fasting the whole time, and then the tempter appeared and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Jesus refused, responding that humans don’t live by bread alone. Then the devil took him to the holy city, to the highest point of the temple, and challenged him: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, and let the angels catch you.” Jesus refused, saying, “Don’t test the Lord your God.” Then the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world, and said, “All of this will be yours, if you’ll fall down and worship me.” Jesus refused, saying “Get away from me, Satan! It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” And at that, the devil left him, and the angels came and ministered to him.
The temptations the devil sets before Jesus may sound extreme, but each one represents a basic human longing. Security. Love. Power.
Security – in the form of bread after forty days of hunger. And not just enough bread, but more than enough.
The challenge to throw himself off the top of the temple may not sound all that tempting, until you consider the message underneath. Love. Rescuing love. Throw yourself down, and see if you are loved. If God loves you, God will rescue you. See if you can get the proof that you are loved.
The offer to receive all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for bowing down is the promise of power, the promise of the ability to get something done, the ability to make something happen that seems important, and accomplishment.
These primal desires – security, love, power – aren’t these the same things that drive most of us? Every temptation we face, every bad choice we make, represents a promise, or a hope, that we will somehow get what we’ve been yearning for – the security we think we need, or the power that will help us accomplish what we think is important, or the love we’re so desperate for. We aren’t typically tempted by what is obviously evil. We’re tempted by what seems good. We’re tempted by what we think will finally make us happy and whole.
But there was something more going on in the wilderness than even this. The tempter was making a deeper challenge. He was questioning Jesus’ identity. Notice how he begins his temptations, “If you are the Son of God…” The implication is clear. Each temptation is also a challenge to prove himself. Each temptation raises the insidious question: Are you really who you say you are? Are you really who you think you are? Do you even know who you are? This is the core temptation: to prove who he is. To prove his value.
If you’ve ever spent time in the wilderness, in the dark wood, then you know. The questions about who you are can be treacherous. Who do you think you are? Are you really someone worthy of love? Prove it. What is it that makes you who you are? Is it what you do? Show it. And if the thing you think makes you who you are is gone – if the wilderness has stripped it away – are you still who you thought you were? Who are you if what you thought you needed most is gone?
The lie the tempter wants us to believe is this: you have something to prove. You need something you do not already have to be okay. Your identity is based on this. Your identity is based on proving you deserve love. Your identity is based on securing what you need. Your identity is based on getting something done.
Jesus refused the lie. He refused to establish his identity by proving his worth, by showing what he could do, by showing how loved he was. He knew it went the other way. He knew his worth because he knew his identity. He knew who he was, because he knew whose he was. He had heard it announced from the heavens, before the wilderness: Beloved. This is my Son, the Beloved in whom I am well-pleased. Nothing to prove. Knowing his identity, he also knew he already had what he needed: security, power, love.
We tend to fear the wilderness, we tend to avoid the dark wood, because we’re afraid of the struggle. We dread the pain. We aren’t sure we want to see what the wilderness will show. So we avoid it if we can, as much as we can. We structure our lives as much as possible to actively avoid the wilderness, the dark wood, the struggle.
But struggle is not the enemy. The truth we learn about ourselves, even the dark stuff, is not the enemy. Our hunger – not the enemy. Our craving for love, rescue, affirmation, approval – not the enemy. Our desire for power, for the ability to accomplish something important, for the ability to do something that shows we’re significant – is not the enemy.
The enemy is the lie that tells us our identity is based on proving our worth.
The season of Lent is the church’s reminder that the wilderness is an essential human experience, and not something to be avoided. Dante woke up there and Snow White was abandoned there, but Jesus was led there by the Spirit of God, and he did not turn away. And there is no wild place we can go that God’s Spirit isn’t already there ahead of us, waiting to meet us in the midst of all that bewilders and threatens us.
Lent is an invitation not to improve ourselves, but to acknowledge the wilderness within us, to move into the wilderness voluntarily for a season, to get honest about our fears and our yearnings, to remember that struggle is not a punishment and it is not the enemy – it is the context of human life, it is the context for discovering who we really are, and for remembering who we belong to.
The path is not straight. At times, the path may not even be visible. It doesn’t seem to lead from uncertainty to certainty, but from uncertainty to trust. It doesn’t seem to lead from failure to success, but from failure to faithfulness. And the wildest part of this wilderness journey is that if we pay attention we will see that what we thought was our destination is actually where we begin: Beloved.
It’s not where we have to get to. It’s not what we have to achieve. It’s not what we have to prove. It’s who we are.
Once upon a time, there was you, me, beloved. This is where our story starts.
Other sources consulted:
Gaunt, Justine. “The Fairytale Forest: A Source of Symbolism.” woodlands.co.uk. 24 Mar 2011. 29 Feb 2020. https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/flora-and-fauna/the-fairytale-forest-–-a-source-of-symbolism/
Johnson, Sean. “The Great and Terrible Wilderness.” Kuyperian Commentary. 1 Apr 2014. 29 Feb 2020. http://kuyperian.com/great-terrible-wilderness/.
Johnson, Sean. “The Wilderness of the Brothers Grimm.” Kuyperian Commentary. 9 Apr 2014. 29 Feb 2020. http://kuyperian.com/wilderness-brothers-grimm/.
Luzzi, Joseph. In a Dark Wood: What Dante Taught Me About Grief, Healing, and the Mysteries of Love. HarperCollins. 2015.
Jim Ware. The God of the Fairy Tale: Finding Truth in the Land of Make-Believe. Colorado Springs, CO: Shaw Books. 2003.