Psalm 126 (CEB)
When the Lord changed Zion’s
circumstances for the better,
it was like we had been dreaming.
Our mouths were suddenly filled with laughter;
our tongues were filled with joyful shouts.
It was even said, at that time, among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them!”
Yes, the Lord has done great things for us, and we are overjoyed.
Lord, change our circumstances for the better,
like dry streams in the desert waste!
Let those who plant with tears reap the harvest with joyful shouts.
Let those who go out, crying and carrying their seed,
come home with joyful shouts, carrying bales of grain!
Isaiah 43.18-19 (CEB)
Don’t remember the prior things; don’t ponder ancient history.
Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it?
I’m making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness.
This is our last week in the desert, and for some reason, I’ve been thinking about Shakespeare’s Macbeth.Hey, after five weeks the mind starts to do funny things, okay?
I think Macbeth comes to mind because it’s in part about a person who is easily corrupted by the lust for power, which is precisely the opposite of what Jesus exemplifies in his desert experience.
In the desert, we’ve been learning how to resist the temptations of greed and lust by remembering God offers us something more satisfying than any amount of earthly wealth and power. God offers to nourish our yearning souls in a way nothing else can.
Yet, power is tempting. When a cadre of witches first tell Macbeth he will be king of Scotland, he is surprised and resigned to let fate take its course. However, Macbeth is ambitious and unable to resist the whispering temptations of the many devils around him. Slowly, he succumbs to megalomania, committing ever more treacherous acts against former friends and family, beginning with regicide.
So, as I’ve been contemplating Jesus and pouring over the desert temptation sequence, and Jesus’ ability to just hold steadfast in the face of evil, I think Macbeth appeared to me as a sort of anti-Jesus, a face of evil that represents everything that’s wrong with a civilization built on power and the concept that might makes right.
Macbeth is a fictionalized account of real events. It is a tragic reminder that any of us could easily succumb to the temptation of power. Don’t we all think we could do a better job ruling the world? I do! Yet, in the desert, Jesus resists Satan’s offer to rule all the kingdoms of the Earth. Why does Jesus succeed where Macbeth fails, where, likely, most of us would stumble as well?
And here it’s important to not merely declare Jesus can overcome adversity because he’s “God’s only Son,” because first, Jesus refuses to use that power, and second, excusing everything Jesus did because he was supernatural misses the point of the real question posed by both the desert parable and Shakespeare: how do we resist the temptation to become Macbeth?
A good start is understanding the root of our problem. Our Psalmist today provides a useful analogy by comparing us to dry streams in the desert. We are thirsting for God’s pure, nourishing love. We don’t open ourselves to being fed by the God stream.
If we shuffle, zombie-like through our busy lives without stopping to experience something beyond our own egos, if we don’t give any thanks, or even curse and shout at God, we are like dry streams in the desert. Nothing is feeding us. There is no current, which leaves us feeling empty and disconnected. In place of the God stream, we are filled with a river of garbage caused by our own hubris—and it feeds itself. Garbage in, garbage out.
We shouldn’t beat ourselves up too much, though. We are in the process of becoming. We aren’t all-aware beings, perfectly in tune with God’s love in the same life-redefining way of Jesus. He teaches and shows us how to get into that state of consciousness, but while we’re practicing, we often have a gaping spiritual hole in our psyche that is quickly filled by the lust for power and control.
We too easily forget about God, the Psalmist claims, and all the miraculous things God has done for our people and us. The Psalmist writes, “Remember when God made everything better! Remember! God is with us, right here, right now!” Then, the Psalm turns into a prayer to God: Lord, change our circumstances for the better.
Notice the prayer isn’t Myself, change my circumstances for the better, it’s GOD, change our circumstances for the better.
Everything is getting better as long as we have faith that God does indeed turn the universe toward justice and love. Everything gets better when we recognize this journey we’re on is communal. It’s about all of us, not just me. It’s about human rights, not my rights.
The mistake Macbeth makes is so typically human (and it’s the same mistake Satan makes in the desert with Jesus). He chooses his own worldly power—fleeting, often based on treachery and lies—over the power of God, which is pure, unconditional, life-altering, heart-shaping, and all-inclusive.
It often seemed to Psalmists, and prophets like Isaiah, that the entire community suffered when individuals started taking their own supremacy more seriously than God’s. Jesus argues passionately against despotism and urges us to action in the name of communal love. Because, when the community is led by Macbeth instead of Moses, we the people must ever more vigorously keep our covenant with God.
The ancient Jewish people of the Psalms are called to remember their divine covenant. As God’s people, our relationship demands that we act in accordance with the way we believe God acts toward us—with complete devotion and a cosmic sense of justice. Most importantly, though, both the Psalmist and Isaiah remind us there is something wonderful and beautiful on the horizon. God is bringing about a new world, right now.
As horrific as the world around us is—especially in these polarized days— we must remember that God is with us, always—especially when we are most tempted to stop believing that God cares.
When we’re at our lowest point, when we’re about to sign our souls away to be the CEO of Global Evil Industries (a subsidiary of Comcast), that’s when God takes us by the neck and reminds us of the beauty of the world. That’s when Jesus reminds us of our covenant, of our responsibility to God to just do the right thing. And the right thing is always, and only, the action that creates love and obliterates evil.
This parable about Jesus in the desert we’ve been obsessing over all Lent is about not letting the world win. Jesus shows us how to resist Satan and the temptation of fleeting power by doing the one thing Jesus always tells us to do: love God with all our hearts, minds, and souls, and love our neighbors as our selves.
When we don’t love, when we’re ready to give up—on ourselves, on the world, on God—that’s when we must remember all the astonishing ways God has previously led us through deserts. Isaiah reminds us that there is hope, that the future will be peaceful and prosperous because instead of personal power, we will eventually, finally recognize that we’re all happier and more successful when the world is organized from and through God’s love.
Just before Macbeth goes on his final, insane, bloody rampage, he again visits the witches who had earlier prophesied his rise to the throne. This time, as he approaches, they say, “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.” It is over for Macbeth, but we who have read this cautionary tale still have a chance. By remembering the lessons Jesus taught us in the desert, we can resist the temptation to rule the world, and remember that as long as we remain steadfast in God’s love, nothing wicked, but something wonderful, this way comes.