If in Epiphany Jesus “established His credentials” as the Son of God, as one able to do the heavy lifting of saving us, in Lent now, Jesus begins that work. What exactly was His work? This is an important question. What, after all, does it mean that Christ “saves” us.
“The Son of man came to seek and save that which was lost.” What was lost, and how is it sought and saved? Answering these questions helps understand Jesus’ actions in today’s Gospel, that is, entering into the wilderness.
Let’s first set aside what Jesus seeking and saving us doesn’t mean, that is, according to the Gnostic salvation plan. The Gnostics, as with everything, have historically had a problem with extremes. Ultimate puritanism or ultimate libertinism. Any sort of moderate view of existence, or healthy view of life in this world would give legitimacy to existence in this world. The only proper posture toward this world must be to scorn it puritanically or to take a cynical or ironical view toward it, for example to indulge it in an “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we will die” sense.
On these terms, Christ came to make us “woke” to the prison house we are in. For them, Christ coming to us only appeared to be “in the flesh” because, why would God take on such an evil thing as human flesh? He appeared in flesh so He could teach us the way to escape our flesh and our world. He came to save us from our very existence.
But let us review the orthodox theology according to that phrase “seek and save that which was lost.” He “seeks” us, meaning He comes to us where we are at and in what we are in, that is, human flesh. It’s difficult to emphasize enough what the simple act of the incarnation means in terms of our salvation. Aside from all the subtle theology involved in the incarnation, or how it’s related to the crucifixion and resurrection, simply consider the basics: to save us God became flesh. Do you think the flesh is important and means something? Of course! It means everything.
And what does it mean to save that which was lost? Well, what was lost? The creation. God’s creation was “good” because He made it and give existence to all the innumerable creatures. What the Gnostics see as the fall – the “fall” of what should be one and unified (the Pleroma) into the individual beings made possible on account of matter and physicality – we see as glorious and good. Individual existence – i.e. life – is wonderful, and people will endure untold sufferings and tortures without a thought of suicide, because they know living is a good thing.
It was lost because man handed stewardship of the creation – which God had given him – over to Satan. As things stood, Adam and Eve knew only good. They lived in God’s goodness. Satan introduced knowledge of good and evil, and the possibility of choosing the evil. They wanted to be like God, and be able to, like God, make things to be “good.” The problem is, we’re not God, so how can we make things to be “good.” We can’t “make things” in the first place! Therefore any attempt to make things to be “good” (in our image) will tainted by evil. And what is that evil? It’s the inability to create life in all its beauty. Man only makes dead things, or rather, lifeless things. But we can steward God’s living things.
Adam’s work went from naming animals – being a steward of God’s creation – to making clothes – to hide his nakedness. His first creation as “god.”
All this is to say that death entered the world, because as god man cannot make life. We’re like scuba divers thinking they can live on their own without the oxygen tank. Can’t work, and we’ll die. So also with Adam.
Jesus came as a second Adam, to do things right. In a strange way, Jesus fulfilled what Adam and Eve were tempted to be, “like God.” If that’s the case, it simply demonstrates how God works all our evils towards His good, like when Israel wanted a king against God’s wishes, and He worked their misguided idea into the Messiah, the anointed King.
Adam and Eve want to be like God, so God shows them what “like God”means, and sends Jesus. Jesus is not just like God, but God Himself. He shows what “like God” means, and also shows us what “man” means as well.
So on one hand, He is obedient to God. If Adam was supposed to live in God’s goodness, Jesus too lived in the creation, but as it had become, a wilderness devoid of life. He submitted to God’s will for him to enter the wilderness and live there in communication with God, what Adam should have done, continuing his “naming” project of divine communication.
On the other hand, Jesus is God and has the power of life in His hands. Adam’s lack of ability to create life results in our world becoming a wilderness. This is what we do. We turn green into brown. We turn the fertile crescent into Iraq. We turn the North African bread basket into the Sahara. We turn cities into desolate post-apocalyptic dystopias. It’s what we do.
And we all know what we do to human life as well, in our efforts to enhance life we end up taking it away. We invent the internet thinking ourselves brilliant and masters of the universe. We end up with a population of out of shape zombies with back problems. Man’s attempts at god always end up in death.
Jesus has life in Him, and gives it out. And one of His first acts as our Savior is to enter the wilderness, the place where life is rare. It’s like He goes to the nadir of our fall, in order to rebuild things from the bottom up. He will cause the deserts to blossom to life.
Before He entered the wilderness, He was baptized in the Jordan. There, He met the sinners He so desperately loves and wants to save. No, specifically, He met the repenting sinners – the sinners that wanted to be saved – at the Jordan. After all, if your project is to save sinners, where do you find them? You find them where sinners respond to the message, “Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins.”
Baptism isn’t only a sign for us that this is where we are forgiven. It’s also a sign for Jesus that, this is where the sinners are at. At the font.
At the Jordan it’s as if Jesus made a pledge to sinners, that He would make things right. So the next day He goes out into the desert to rebuild the world. Like a contractor after a flood promising a family he’ll fix everything, he first gets to work on the foundation.
Jesus finds the devil there in the wilderness. As if it’s his kingdom there, ruling among the lifelessness and demon-animals. If Jesus is to be a new Adam, He must first defeat the one that defeated Adam. He must start at the beginning.