Monday, February 22, 2010

Desert Survival

A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, the First Sunday in Lent, February 21, 2010

Text: Luke 4:1-13

Re-living, or maybe just living, the life of Jesus is the basic framework of the everyday life of Christians. The way we do that is by observing what we know as The Church Year. We start it off with Advent, a season that roughly parallels gestation. Then there is birth. And then epiphanies—revelations—beginning with baptism and ending with the great transfiguration. Slightly out of order is the season of Lent. We remember that immediately after his baptism, Our Lord went to the desert where he was tempted for forty days. Sometime around the fourth century, Christians began observing a six-week period (or forty days, excluding Sundays, which are always feast days) roughly paralleling the forty days that Jesus spent in the desert, or wilderness.

Looked at that way, Lent is a journey in the desert. One of the things we are always doing in church is reaching into our imaginations and memories and dreams to find the spot of connection with Jesus’ life. Some times and some things are easier than others. Desert, or wilderness, is one of those places in the life of Christ that might be easier to relate to for some than for others of us. If you have lived in a desert, such as North Africa, Nevada, Arizona, or Saudi Arabia, it won’t take you long to know exactly where the desert is or was in your life. Metaphors like thirst and hunger and being lost and stripping away all but the essentials for living cease to be symbols and become actual descriptions of a familiar reality. If, like some of our members, you have made the long trek from Mexico or Central America on the top of boxcars, scaling walls and dodging bullets fired into the Rio Grande; if you have crouched behind sagebrush and felt the breath of coyotes and heard the whirring of rattlesnakes in the deserts of Southern Arizona and Texas, no one needs to tell you about demons in the desert or dangers or how starving for bread could lead you to do almost anything for a mouthful of something to eat.

But there are other deserts, just as real in the lives of those who have never seen a cactus or an endless stretch of sand or a camel. They are the spaces where a person goes to get away from the press and stress of crowds and busyness. They are the places where we are sometimes dragged kicking and screaming when the job folds or when we hear the doctor telling us that the test came back positive or when we pick up the phone and learn that the one on whom we had pinned all our hopes was just died minutes ago. The desert can be a place of inexpressible beauty or a frightening wasteland of unspeakable horror. Sometimes, indeed, it can be both at once. Both demons and angels live in the desert.

When Jesus went to the desert he fasted, so the story goes. Desert retreats and fasts were perfectly normal things to do to prepare for a major task, especially if one were a prophet. Nor was it uncommon for a person to go through a time of testing—sometimes called an ordeal—as a part of an initiation, a rite of passage into adulthood, or at the point when one is taking up a life work. But Luke is clear that Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit, and that it was the same Holy Spirit that drove him into the wilderness. You might remember that “wilderness” plays a heavy role in the experience of Israel as a whole. Our forefathers and foremothers of Israel, after their baptism, so to say, in the Red Sea, wandered around in the wilderness for what the Bible says was forty years. Interesting. Three particular events formed this time of testing, and, unfortunately, our ancestors did not do all that well on their tests. In fact, they failed. Test Number One had to do with bread. Israel’s challenge was to learn how to do without the “fleshpots an bread of Egypt—read “slavery”—and to rely on the providence of God. They could not live by bread alone, says the Deuteronomist. Test Number Two came when, wandering around the desert, Israel found quite attractive the Canannite cults. Moses warned that they should not run after alien gods or court alien power. The Deuteronomist says, “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you adore.” Test Number Three came at Massah, when over the matter of water, Israelites dared God to give them water, saying, “Is the Lord God among us [is God for real?] or not.” The Deuteronomist says, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” Jesus undergoes the wilderness experience of Israel, summing up, as it were, those forty years in the forty days. Jesus passes the tests. For Luke, it is clear why. He is filled with Holy Spirit. His origin is divine. Not only is Jesus compared to Israel, but he is compared to the devil. For, even though the devil can quote scripture, Jesus does so more powerfully. So that is some of what the desert experience of Jesus is about. Jesus is on trial. He proves his mettle by being armed with the “sword of the Spirit,” the word of God.

One of the things I want to ask Luke today is why all this was necessary. I see well enough the point he is making—it is a declaration of the spiritual power, the uniqueness of Jesus—but I want to know why this struggle between Good and Evil, Light and Dark? Is there really a cosmic war going on, waged on both sides for the soul of Jesus? And, if so, does it have anything to do with you and me? There is a variety of ways to answer those questions. But one way is to see that the wilderness itself is a metaphor, a way of describing a necessary component in the rhythm of life. Think of it this way. There is a way to live life by the book. You can live it in a way that follows the prescribed patterns and observes the accepted practices. But every once in awhile you discover that not everything is covered in the owner’s manual. That is where the wilderness, or desert begins. We can go into the desert place to explore, to take serious risks. Or we can protest that the only thing we want is to get out of the desert and back home to Nazareth as quickly as possible. We have the option of understanding that the tests of the desert are something that we simply have to face and pass in order to get clear about our own direction and purpose.

Look at it another way. Right now, this very minute, you sit in a space that is draped in something like a cloud of purple. This space, this church, is like a desert, a wilderness. And you are here on a wilderness trek, having left the familiar world with its noisy sirens and too much snow. For a few minutes you can move out of the structured world you live in and into a deep world of meaning and reflection. Now, true, you don’t have to look at it that way. But what would happen if you did? What would it be like to imagine that right now you have moved, just like Jesus, into the space where all of God’s children go to learn and to practice what is important: living not on bread alone, serving the Lord God instead of the powers of this world, and accepting the we and not God are the ones properly put to the test?

Do not fear. Go to the desert. It is the Spirit who is leading you there. Not because the Spirit wants you harmed, but because the Spirit knows that you can’t just hunker down in your safe, rational space and learn much at all about the Truth of the universe or the strength of your own life. Whether you go to the desert on foot, by camel, by airplane, or in your mind and imagination, you don’t have to worry about temptations. They will come, usually in a form that you do not expect, and with a strength that you cannot imagine.

In the darkness of World War II, which was certainly a stretch of desert for the human race, full of demons frightening beyond description, the poet W. H. Auden wrote a masterpiece called “For the Time Being.” It ends with an invitation to move into that wilderness following the Hero who went there before, full of the Spirit and driven by the Spirit:

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

© Frank G. Dunn, 2010

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