A few weeks ago, Sheldon Wolin passed away. For those unfamiliar, Wolin was a political theorist who is best known for starting the Berkeley School of political theory. He mentored many of the most prominent teachers of political theory today such as Cornell West and Wendy Brown. And out of all the theologians, all the philosophers, all the theorists who have most greatly impacted my life, no one has taught me more than Sheldon Wolin.
A few children’s stories back, Pam asked a question along the lines of what books have altered you so profoundly that they change the ways you see your life and the world. At least, that is how I heard her question. And when she asked it, Wolin’s article: “Political Theory as Vocation” immediately came to mind. It was this article which helped me piece together a vision for pastoral ministry during a time of great uncertainty. In this article, Wolin presents theory not primarily as an intellectual exercise, but as a way which enables us to respond critically to and make sense of our world. But more than this, theory enables us to summon new possibilities and initiatives which allow for a more just and peaceful world. In Wolin’s words: the greatest task of a theorist is to “reassemble the whole political world … to grasp present structures and inter-relationships and to re-present them in a new way.” When I read that, instantaneously everything clicked and I understood that one of my main tasks as a pastor is to be a theorist – to reshape our minds and our imaginations so that we can summon new worlds which function around the politics of Jesus. This sermon is my way of honoring Sheldon Wolin’s influence upon me.
However, Sheldon Wolin didn’t just provide me with a framework for understanding pastoral ministry, he also helped me understand how Jesus was a radical theorist as well. One of the things Sheldon Wolin was best at was exploring an open-ended past and then utilizing the “emergent irregularities” he found within so that he could conjure possibilities of living on terms different from those that “the past” and “our present” seem to dictate. He sought to “unhandle history,” to brush it against the grain so that he could recover past possibilities and alternative ways forward. He was always preserving memories of things which could have been and can always be otherwise. In other words, he believed in radical future pasts. That neither the past nor the future is dead, in the sense that it has been fixed and foreclosed. And often the best way forward is by exploring untimely practices which are in danger of being lost.
Listening to Wolin puts you in the presence of the past, a past sheltering the future, a past sheltered in the present, a past yet to be fulfilled. Reading Wolin, you can’t help but see forces and structures in the present. But with him, you can also see into the uncertain future. Time shows itself as manifold. Time becomes the field in which he worked, the terrain of exploration, a place of discovery and resource, a place to go questioning. No one could see so well in the dark as Wolin. No one could map the darkness more precisely.
This morning, I hope to show you that Jesus was engaged in a similar task throughout his ministry. He too was a theorist in search of radical future pasts. He too was on the lookout for “emergent irregularities” that challenged the way that things were and instead allowed humanity to travel down alternative paths which are more equitable, loving, and even democratic. And nowhere do we find Jesus putting us in the presence of the past, a past yet unfulfilled than during his forty days of wandering in the wilderness.
Our passage this morning takes place right after Jesus’ baptism at the river Jordan. The location is important. If you recall, the Jordan river was the barrier between Israel’s 40 years of wandering in the wilderness and the promised land. It was only because of the great miracle of God that the Israelites were able to pass through the water and reach the land they were promised. But here we have Jesus making the opposite journey – a journey from the promised land, through the Jordan and back into the dreaded wilderness. Luke has set up the story in such a way that we are supposed to see it as a reverse journey, a journey into his peoples’ past, where Jesus explores things as they could have been.
It is best to see Jesus’ forty day journey as a spiritual vision quest. An ancient practice which still survives among many land-based tribal peoples. Today the tradition has many names: The Vision Quest. The Kiva. The Renewal of the Dreaming. No matter what it is called, the purpose is almost always the same. It is an intense journey of fasting and prayer in the wild spaces of nature, outside of domesticated civilization, where one can retrace the footsteps of one’s ancestors, where one travels to the land of the dead in order to discern where one’s people has been lured astray, where the journey has gone wrong. Vision Quests are meant to be a time when one internalizes the experiences of one’s people so they can discover where they have lost their bearings.
Vision Quests seek to radically diagnose the root-causes behind a current historical crisis. To do this, Jesus knows he must return to the beginning, to his people’s “myth of origins.” And for Israel, this was the Exodus wilderness where God taught Israel what it meant to be God’s people. So Jesus retraces their footsteps, he goes on this intense struggle, in order to pinpoint the fateful choices that led liberated Israel back into captivity. He goes looking for the past which haunts the present so that hopefully he can course-correct history. So that his ministry can make things right.
During each temptation, Jesus uncovers a different root-cause for why Israel failed to live into its calling. And each temptation presents Jesus with an “emergent irregularity” allowing for a radically new future.
The first temptation, the power to make bread from stones, the one which would enable Jesus to take as much bread as he would like whenever he would like it recalls Israel’s days in the wilderness when God rained down the gift of manna from heaven. If you recall, for forty years, every day but on the Sabbath, the Israelites were given manna as food but each person was only supposed to gather just enough bread for their daily needs. The practice prohibited against surplus accumulation. No one was supposed to store any up.
And God used this practice to teach the people about the economic practices of God’s kingdom, about Sabbath economics. That food is a gift and not a weapon used for manipulation. That power and wealth should never be concentrated in the hands of the few. That surplus extraction and capital accumulation run counter to God’s vision for humanity. That debts should be forgiven and all should have access to the land. In this daily practice, God reminded the Israelites that the earth belongs to God and its fruits are a gift, so God’s people should justly distribute them instead of seeking to own and hoard them. It is clear that this way of economics was something God longed Israel to continue when they reached the promised land for the Israelites were to “Keep an omerful of manna for your descendants, that they may see what food I gave you to eat in the desert.” But quickly they abandoned such economic practices. And on Jesus’ vision quest, he realizes that this is one of the crucial places in which Israel went wrong. So during much of his ministry, he renews the dream of a divine economy of sharing.
The second temptation retraces the next stage in the apostasy of Israel. Satan parades “all the kingdoms of the world” before Jesus and offers to grant him jurisdiction over them – as a vassal-king. And through temptation, Jesus recognizes the lure to centralize power under one roof, to be led by one king as the second central place where Israel strayed away from their purpose and calling.
During the Exodus, the polity of Israel was explicitly anti-monarchic. The vision for Israel was one of a confederacy consisting of twelve self-determining tribes loosely tied together by local judges. Israel was organized in a way that dispersed power. It was purposefully anti-hierarchical and anti-imperial. But once Israel reached the promised land, it became a struggle to keep its more nomadic political structure. This struggle is captured in the story of Gideon, the hero of guerrilla military campaigns in Canaan. He was so successful that the people wanted to turn this general into a king, but he refused, insisting that God alone is Israel’s king. But ultimately, a time would come when one would not refuse the power of becoming king. Despite Samuel’s warnings against this political project, the people demanded it anyways. And God granted them their demand.
Here in the wilderness, Jesus recovers the ancient vision of a decentralized politics. Jesus resists this temptation by turning to an anti-royal Scripture which recovers the belief that God’s sovereignty is exclusive. Israel should have no king but God. And it is no coincidence that soon after this lesson, Jesus calls twelve disciples to re-enact the wilderness confederacy. Jesus returns to the past in order to reanimate his culture’s imaginations about how they might disperse political power more equitably and justly.
The final temptation: “Satan transports Jesus to Jerusalem and sets him on the pinnacle of the Temple.” Here we see the last great place where Israel went wrong – the Temple itself.
In the wilderness, God was one who was radically other. God refused to be domesticated under any regime or civilization. And God also refused to be portrayed by any hand-made sacred objects. However, God’s ultimate refusal to be domesticated was expressed best when God revealed God’s name to Moses at the burning bush: “I am who I am, or I will be whoever I will be.”
And because God wanted to remain radically other, God refused to be housed in any centralized location. Instead, God’s home was an ark, a mobile shrine that was independent and extremely dangerous. I like to picture this ark as something akin to a black hole. Because it was so wild and so undomesticated that if you touched it, you were instantaneously destroyed. The ark reminded you that God’s power is not something which can ever be controlled.
However, Israel again abandoned this vocation. The insurgent king, David, perceived the ark to be a threat. So he brought it in so that it could be housed, controlled, and ultimately disappeared. Instead, even though God protests, David builds God a grand Temple so that God would have a new permanent home. Now that Israel had a capital city there was no longer a need for a non-institutionalized shrine. And David wanted to world to see the greatness of his God.
It’s not surprising then, that Jesus quotes a Scripture which highlights God’s disdain for being domesticated: “Do not test the Lord.” Jesus refuses to control God. He refuses to link God to any self-interest. It is also not surprising that throughout the Gospels we find Jesus attesting to a God who has broken free from the confined space of the Temple.
In the wilderness, Jesus confronts the past. He unhandles history. He brushes it against the grain so that he can recover what was left behind. In the wilderness, Jesus retraces the steps of his people in order to discern where his ancestors had taken wrong paths. Then, much of Jesus’ ministry is attempting to course-correct these three destructive decisions, to liberate God’s people from these temptations which ensnare them. Have you ever noticed that the Lord’s prayer is constructed around reversing these three fatal moments in Israel’s history? The only difference is that the prayer is in the reverse order: Keeping God’s named Hallowed. Seeking that God’s kingdom come or that God’s sovereignty be restored. And asking for one’s daily bread and that our debts be forgiven as we forgive our debtors.
Jesus’ ministry is one of radical future pasts. It was a ministry of laying bare all the roots of where God’s people had gone wrong so that a new future could come to fruition. It sought to nonviolently explode the present so that alternative possibilities and perspectives could blossom from the oppressed past.
What are the present realities which we need to nonviolently explode today? What roots would Jesus lay bare if he was ministering here among us? Sheldon Wolin would argue that as Americans, we need to wrestle with the principalities of neoliberalism, superpower, and speed. Last summer, Mark van Steenwyk, borrowing from Martin Luther King Jr, presented his own three stranded cord – racism, militarism, materialism. Or maybe Jesus would say that we are still enslaved to the same Satanic temptations of economic stratification, the centralization of power, and the desire to possess God.
Answering this question is ultimately what Lent is all about. That is why Lent is such a long season, about 1/9 of our year. God knows that we must slow down and critically reflect on our time so that we can blow open a new present. To do this, we must repeatedly enter into the wilderness and participate in our own personal and corporate vision-quests. We must spend forty days like Jesus, wrestling with all the demonic choices we have made, which our church has made, which our ancestors have made so that we can remember “lost pasts.” And this requires us to take time to listen. To listen by traveling backwards. To hear the reverberating echoes of the cries and dreams of those who are no longer with us, those not yet born. We must become trackers of the nearly vanished footprints of those who struggled for a future that is neither yet known nor yet realized in being.
This, of course, is simply the discipline of repentance. Repentance means to turn around and that means not only facing the past but also recovering what was left behind. What untimely possibilities have long been forgotten which offer us a way out of our historical conundrums. So this Lent, with Jesus, let us retrace our footsteps, let us confront our sins. And let’s search for older ways of life which explode the present and offer us the chance to experience new life. Together, let’s rediscover radical future pasts.