The First Sunday in Lent: February 18, 2018
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.
And with those words, we too are driven out into the wilderness of Lent. Jesus goes into the wilderness for forty days to prepare himself for ministry, and we also have our 40 days – 40 days to renew and refocus on our journey with God, to prepare for the glory and mystery of Easter and resurrection. Forty days in which we can step back from this hard world, fresh with the wounds of new grief in our country – as we go through yet another week of reeling from tragedy, lives lost in senseless violence and immediately argued over in political theater. The season of Lent is a reminder that though we’re in the wilderness in more ways than one, it doesn’t mean we’re not beloved. God loves us – and so God sends us into the wilderness to see that more clearly. It’s a strange twist in the story.
As a West Coaster raised with the outdoors, I have to remind myself that in biblical convention, wilderness does not mean something positive. The Bible and REI do not agree. To go into the wilderness in the biblical sense means to go into the place of danger and deprivation – the desert, where survival was precarious at best. The Israelites cried mightily as they wandered through the wilderness away from the safety of cucumbers and slavery in Egypt. Hagar, cast out by Sarah and Abraham, flees into the wilderness to save her child. King David hides out in the wilderness from Saul whose throne he is usurping, and then from his son Absalom, usurping David’s throne in turn. Elijah flees into the wilderness to escape persecution and death from Queen Jezebel. In the Bible wilderness, people fear for their lives. No one goes there for fun.
But I do. I love the wilderness. From early on in my life I have chosen to go into the wilderness, often alone, as a place where I can be fully alive, fully connected with God. When most of my fellow seminarians prepared for their ordinations in quiet monastic retreats, I went to Death Valley. While many people go to beachside resorts for their honeymoon, Jim and I went snowshoeing in the Sierras. When most of their friends go to country houses over summer vacation, we take our kids backpacking. Wilderness is wonderful – that’s what we believe, and that’s the message we want our kids to get.
But I’m preaching to New Yorkers, and I know this feeling is not universal. When Katharine Jefferts Schori was elected Presiding Bishop – she served before our current PB, Michael Curry – I was enthralled to hear her tell once of going for a solo hike in the Nevada desert, and how she experienced God in that silence and solitude. But after the service, I was bewildered by the swift reaction of others next to me in the pews – what? they said – she went by herself? Into the desert? That’s not smart. What if something happened to her? Wilderness in their minds, I realized, is scary. It’s where people get eaten; where rocks fall on you, you get lost, and you die. You should never go there alone.
In truth, wilderness is neither all wonderful nor all scary. What we make of it depends upon our state going into it, and upon what happens to us there. For wilderness is a place outside of the usual conventions of civilization. To be in the wilderness is to be in a place outside of chatter, routine, tasks, and expectations. There may or may not be paths to follow, but there aren’t any roads. To move through it requires exertion. To survive in it requires awareness of what is around you. To be in the wilderness is to be in a place where, deprived of all that usually fills our minds and senses, we might lose our way, lose ourselves, lose everything. But it might also be a place where we see and hear God more clearly than anywhere else.
In Mark’s gospel when Jesus goes into the wilderness we don’t hear much of what he does there. The Spirit drives him there and he is tempted by Satan, Mark says, and he is with the wild beasts, and angels wait upon him. He goes there after being baptized and comes out again after John the Baptist is arrested. And that’s all we know. We don’t get the dialogue between him and Satan and all the quoting of scripture back and forth – that’s in Matthew and Luke. We don’t know what he eats or whether he eats, where he sleeps, how he lives. But we do get wild beasts, unlike the other two gospel accounts – and we get those angels, waiting on him. The veil is drawn over the rest of the story.
But those wild beasts, as it were, jumped out at me. And indeed, when we go into the wilderness we might meet wild beasts. (And not just in the wilderness: The women at retreat in New Jersey last year were thrilled to see a black bear standing at the edge of the woods, peering in at the retreat house. The suburban street we lived on in California had coyotes jogging down it in the early morning hours, and the hills nearby reported an increasing number of mountain lion sightings. White-tailed deer are eating the gardens of America. The wild beasts come to us out of the wilderness too.)
But go into the wilderness, and if you’re lucky, you’ll see a wild beast living where it ought to live. And then you realize that wild beasts aren’t all wonderful or all scary either. Usually, in fact, they’re not much interested in humans at all, except as threats to run away from. Wild beasts are creatures that live as God created them to be – nothing more, nothing less. They eat what they need to eat and they rest when they need to rest. They live out their days and die when it is their time. And they praise God, as theologians like St Francis and C.S. Lewis and the writer of the psalms have said, by being fully themselves. Jesus was with the wild beasts, we read, but it doesn’t seem that he was running from them. I wonder if he was learning from them how to be, perhaps – or praising God alongside of them.
When Jesus comes out of those forty days in the wilderness, he begins to preach and teach and heal – he begins his ministry. And our call parallels that – to take our time in preparation and then to step back out into ministry in the world. Because our world right now is a different kind of wilderness. Whatever the former conventions of culture and civilization may have been – a topic of endless debate – we are in many ways outside of them now. In this wilderness, Satan, adversary to the good, does seem to be at work. We’re wandering and lost; we lack awareness of, or agreement on, what is going on around us. And so we find ourselves brought up short by horrendous tragedies like this week’s school shooting, too paralyzed to understand and address what underlies the steady recurrence of these mass murders. (Guns? Mental health? The atomized existence so many live in our culture?) We get carried along on news cycles of the latest perpetration from the White House, overwhelmed by the storm and unable to comprehend our own complicity in the world as it is. (Do we blame those people for the political situation we’re in? Or do we actually play a part in it?) We stumble along, lurching from the shock of violence against women to the insanity of radical economic inequality to fresh evidence of our destruction of creation around us. And we don’t have any idea where the path is, or any agreement of when we last were on it. This wilderness is scary indeed.
And in this wilderness there are wild beasts to be feared – beasts that drive people to hurt and kill out of their own pain and anger. Beasts that enrich themselves on violence and its weaponry and so do nothing to stop it. Beasts of shortsightedness and self-focus that waste resources and people’s lives. I look at this wilderness that we are in, and I lament. Prospects are not good for our survival.
So it is time to go into our own wilderness instead – not fleeing for our lives, but willingly and with intent. The forty days of Lent prompt a venture into the wilderness of our own souls. Here we step aside from the chatter and chores of our daily lives. We drop down from the rush of the disaster unfolding around us, we pull aside to listen. This is where we engage the practices of prayer and meditation, setting time to simply be in God’s presence – the exertion of being still allowing our awareness to open inside of us. We follow the signposts of scripture, reading the gospel of Luke and other passages from the Bible to learn God’s way with humanity and God’s desires for us, showing us the path. We spend time in the community of other faithful people, wild beasts who just simply are who God created them to be – saints of the past or the present showing us how to live in this place. The wilderness of the season of Lent expects and requires that we take up these practices. This is how we navigate the unknown terrain, a map that helps us see and understand the lay of the land around us.
And it’s not all on us to navigate. When the practices do not avail, or the wild beasts seem too frightening, we have the angels – angels who waited on Jesus, who take care of us as well. Angels who are messengers bringing news of what God is doing in the world, like the messages brought to Mary and Joseph and the shepherds. Angels who show us where the water is, like the one who came to Hagar and her baby Ishmael in the desert. Angels who supply us with food, like the cakes brought to Elijah as he fled the city. Angels who lead us when we have lost the way, as the pillar of fire did for the Israelites during those forty years. Angels in our own lives who show up in those around us, caring for us and guiding us through – giving us messages of hope, feeding and nourishing our bodies and souls, guiding us through rough places when we are lost.
And ultimately that is what we offer to others as we ourselves come out of the wilderness. We come out renewed and ready for ministry in a world that is its own kind of wilderness. We come out ready to nourish and care for others, to show the way, to help over the difficult terrain. We come out ready to hold those who are grieving and feed those who are hungry and praise God through all of it, to be angels – and good wild beasts – to others in this world. We don’t go into Lent for ourselves; we don’t go into the wilderness for ourselves. We go sent by the Spirit, driven because we need it and the world needs it of us. We go because we are beloved by God.
Lent is an invitation into wilderness. It is a chance to come and shed what is not needed; to come and see creation with new eyes; to come and exercise your spirit and be made whole. You know you need this. And we are needed, beloveds. Go outside.