“The woods were full of peril—rattlesnakes and water moccasins and nests of copperheads; bobcats, bears, coyotes, wolves, wild boar; … rabies-crazed skunks, raccoons, and squirrels; merciless fire ants and ravening blackfly; poison ivy, poison sumac, poison oak, and poison salamanders; even a scattering of moose lethally deranged by a parasitic worm that burrows a nest in their brains and befuddles them into chasing hapless hikers through remote, sunny meadows and into glacial lakes. Literally unimaginable things could happen to you out there. ”
With this and many other ominous descriptions, author Bill Bryson shares with us in his book A Walk in the Woods some of what he learned as he read up on the Appalachian Trail before he began his hike on that storied footpath.
We know that Jesus experienced his own wilderness “ … where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.” And that’s when the devil swooped in – make the stone into bread; worship me, and all this will be yours; hurl yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple to see if God will protect you. And each time, of course, Jesus spurned the temptations. Jesus, the one who “was tempted in every way as we are, yet did not sin.” Until finally, the devil departed – not forever, but simply to wait for an opportune time.
The devil perched nearby, hunched like a black vulture on a barren tree limb, watching for Jesus’ vulnerability, ever ready to circle in again with temptations for Jesus to act and be in ways that were not in accordance with Jesus’ nature and are not in accordance with God’s ways for us.
Surely, Jesus’ time in the wilderness was an opportune time for the devil to tempt him. Jesus had been alone for 40 days and nights; he had not eaten in 40 days and nights and was famished. Certainly this was a moment for the devil to make his move.
What about us? What are our opportune times? We can be especially vulnerable to demons, the devil, evil, Satan, whatever name you put on it, when we’re lonely, scared, sick, hungry. When we move into a new town or neighborhood, go to a new school, start a new job. When we start to care for another person as a friend or as someone we might come to love. And even during this holy season of Lent as we especially focus on our hypocrisies, our pride, our mistreatment of the earth, our indifference to injustice and cruelty. But Jesus found God strong to save.
The theologian F.D. Maurice identified two scandals in Christianity’s origins: first, that God would reveal God’s self to the small, unimportant tribe of Israelites out of all the peoples in the world; and, secondly, the cross itself. But Jesus shows us as he repels the devil and his temptations that it is when our very vulnerability is exposed as a tender underbelly that God can help us in the most powerful ways. When we are broken, open, not self-sufficient and capable of handling everything in our lives so that they are just the way we want them to be. We break the bread. We witness Jesus’ broken body; our hearts are broken with the fear and sorrow of life; and out of the brokenness flows God’s healing love, God’s unconditional love, God’s unmatchable love.
Years ago, when my sons were young, I took them for a hike in the Shenandoah Mountains along the Skyline Drive in Virginia. We parked in the lot next to the trail that we were going to follow, and I noticed several large signs warning us and all others that we were in bear country. Huge signs, bold lettering posted high for not-to-be-missed visibility. The National Park Service was clear: We were in bear country. I virtually scoffed at the signs – surely that piece of information didn’t apply to us. No way. And off we went onto the path. We had walked about 50 feet, my younger son leading us, me in the middle and my older son behind me, when I looked up to the right and saw an enormous bear on the side of the path. And, yes, I looked to the left and discovered her cub. I looked back at the mother, and it literally seemed to me as if she thought the three of us would make a delightfully tasty sandwich.
I knew from Girl Scouts – we all know – not to hang around when we come into that space between a mother bear and her cub. We basically learn that when we learn to stop, look and listen at street corners. I called out to my younger son walking blithely ahead of me and got him to turn around. I turned around, my older son turned around, I mumbled to the bear that the path was all hers, I averted my eyes from hers, and we moseyed on back to the car and went home. Chagrined, yes, that I had so casually ignored the posted warning about bears. Incredulous that I would react in that way. As I look back at it, I imagine some of it had to do with my determination to take my children on a hike that day. We had come all that way, and nothing was going to get in the way of what we had gone there to do. The sins of pride, stubbornness, I can handle this, this doesn’t apply to me. The temptations had swooped in, and I had knelt to them without a whimper.
But God was strong to save. God put authority in my voice when I called out to my younger son and got him to turn back without questioning me. He just did what I said to do. And God held off the mother bear until we could clear out of her territory. God averted what could have been a life-changing or life-ending tragedy for the three of us. Yes, literally unimaginable things can happen to us out there in the wildernesses – in the woods and in the wildernesses of our vulnerabilities. But with Jesus standing right beside us, we can offer our deepest vulnerabilities to God and watch for God to once again be strong to save.