“Wilderness Places” 02/14/2016 by Amy Clark Feldman (Click on title for audio)

Luke 4:1-13?Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.?
The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'”
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”??Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'”??Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
Here we are together on this first Sunday of Lent, which in an odd calendar twist is also Valentine’s Day this year – which, I think, works. In the end, as it was the beginning, it’s all about Love – it’s always all about Love. Today though we focus on Lent – this 40-day season in the Christian Calendar leading up to Holy Week and Easter when we remember the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness, and are invited to travel with him. Today we’ll look at that wilderness story and take time to think about our own wilderness landscapes, what we might encounter in our travels, and who we might want to take with us on our journeys. So, as we begin our walk into the text and into the wilderness of Lent, let’s pray for traveling mercies:
PRAYER – God as we journey into your Word and into wilderness places this morning, we pray that you will travel with us and guide us to YOU. Amen
We can start by walking into this passage in the Gospel of Luke that Jim read so beautifully. Jesus is in the wilderness for 40 days – a number that reminds us of the 40 years Moses and the Israelites spent in the wilderness. (This great legacy of wandering). The story takes place immediately after Jesus’ baptism. He emerges from the chilly water of the Jordan, and the Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove. Then, seemingly with sandals still sloshing, Jesus is led by that same Spirit into the wilderness. Jesus has things to face before he can fully begin his ministry.
Here in the wilderness, Jesus finds himself alone, but with God and the Holy Spirit. Here in the wilderness, Jesus feels the limits of his own fully-human body becoming weaker and more hungry. Here in the wilderness, Satan is busy doing what he can to get between Jesus and God; and between Jesus and God’s plans for Jesus’ life. Here in the wilderness, Jesus looks at Satan face-to-face and decides to choose a more excellent path out of the wilderness than the ones Satan is offering. Jesus responds with a clarity born of his union with God. Here in the wilderness, Jesus wins! He won’t use his power for self-serving reasons; he won’t give credence to Satan’s claim of power over the world, or worship anyone or anything but God. Jesus doesn’t need God doesn’t need to prove anything -even to save his life – in order to have faith and follow God’s will. (Good Friday)
Here in the wilderness, Jesus faces the types of critiques and challenges that will dog him throughout his ministry – people looking for a different kind of Messiah with a different kind of power; by people looking for proof; people not understanding his ministry and mission. But here in the wilderness, the criticisms, doubts, temptations, and easy ways out are brought into the light and seen for what they are – completely powerless to overcome God’s Love and plans for Jesus and humanity. It all happens here – In the wilderness.
Revd Canon Robert D. Edmunds, head of Middle East Partnership Office for the worldwide Episcopal Church, has spent considerable time in the Judean wilderness where Jesus may have found himself, and spoke a while ago at St. Georges Cathedral in East Jerusalem (one of the places Bob and I visited on our recent trip to Israel).
He talks about driving his car out of Jerusalem, heading down dirt roads into the desert. The Judean wilderness, he says, “reminds him of close up pictures of the moon.” He talks about the landscape as mountainous; dry and parched; full of ravines and steep cliffs. He talks about warm days, and cold, cold nights. About “shadows play(ing) on the craggy hills;” shifting sands and sudden sandstorms that whip your face; about never knowing how full the wadis get when and if it rains; where the prowling animals are hiding. And then he says this:
“Oh, there is one more thing. You become aware of other living creatures sharing your space in this great barren place. Besides the occasional bird; you do notice the bugs around where you sit. You can become so aware of them that you move to find another place without the bugs. Moving away from the bugs in one place, you soon discover, only allows you to be introduced to new bugs in your new location. Bugs can be a real distraction in the wilderness.”
This may have been the wilderness the Spirit lead Jesus into, craggy hills, parched land and bugs and it makes me wonder about the contours of the wilderness landscapes the Spirit may be leading each of us into this season.
I didn’t grow up in a church that did much to observe Lent, but when I started becoming more familiar with the season of Lent, I found myself falling in Love – and it’s a love I still have – with Lenten Spiritual practices: the labyrinth, forms of prayer… I envisioned these practices and still do, as inviting us into a landscape of simplicity – a respite and place apart from the busyness and troubles of the world and work. Lent invites us to create these types of spaces, that I and maybe some of you long for, where we can slow down, remove those things coming between us and the HOLY and reconnect with and make room for God.
It’s a gift of Lent that resonates deeply with me, although I’ve had to add another layer of understanding to my vision of the wilderness. There are years, I think (perhaps you’ll agree) when the wilderness doesn’t feel like a place of respite and simplicity. There are times when the wilderness in front of us may look more the desolate, parched and lonely landscape of grief or sadness. Years, when we may look out and see craggy cliffs and prowling animals and a landscape, rightly so, of fear and anxiety. There may be seasons when we look out and see shifting sands, moving shadows, and coming storms – a landscape of shaky ground, uncertainty and no clear paths forward. Maybe there are years we can’t even begin to see the whole landscape, because our wilderness is so full of these pesky bugs and distractions filling our days and schedules in ways that mean we can’t look up to see what it is we are facing.
All of these are wilderness landscapes. And I think there is freedom and new relevance to be found in seeing Lenten wilderness not as a destination or abstraction, but as an acknowledgement of the wilderness places we are already facing in our lives. To see Lent as an invitation to look with open eyes at the contours of where we are; and to shine light on those things trying to stand between us and God; between us and the people God created us to be. There is honesty in that, and I’ve come to appreciate more and more that ours is a faith that makes space for the whole landscape of what it is to be human.
I also appreciate every day more, that as our faith makes room for both darkness and light; beauty and rough places, we don’t have to be in that wilderness, or try to navigate through it, or face the forces there, on our own. We go with the Holy Spirit. We go with Jesus, our guide and companion, who has been there before us. We go with the body of Christ that is each one of us, bound together by and pointing the way to God’s Love.
Writer Lisa Kelly talks about a wilderness place in her home in a sweet story about her 3rd grade son, who was asked in Sunday school, “If you could spend an hour with Jesus what would you do?” Without hesitation her son drew a picture of himself and Jesus in his bedroom with the caption, “I would show him my room.” This little boy had decorated every inch of his room with images from all the things he loved, newspaper headlines, t-shirts that were too precious to actually wear, and pictures of himself on various adventures. Lisa writes “It was truly a reflection of a little boy’s heart and soul.” This is where the boy would invite Jesus.
Then her story fast-forwards 9 years to when the boy is 16. It is his room that is now the wilderness space in their house. She can’t see the floor for the dirty laundry, there is something strange and smelly growing in the dirty dishes in the corner – the place is a complete mess. In a last ditch parental stroke of genius, she finds that old picture he had drawn of Jesus and his room so many years earlier, and she tapes it to the back of his door – hoping it will have some effect. Later that day, the son comes down with the picture, and says with a smile, “You know, Jesus is still welcome into my room, just the way it is.”
God knows the messiest rooms in our proverbial houses; the cragginess of the hills, the parched and unsteady places of whatever wilderness we find ourselves in. God knows the contours of every wing on every bug biting us as we try to get through our daily routines. And God knows we can’t walk through that wilderness, and face the temptations, challenges and forces trying to separate us from God alone. We’re not meant to.
Perhaps the challenge for some of us this Lent is just to welcome God into the thick of it. To sit with Jesus in the mess, to welcome him onto stone next to us in the wilderness, to share a complaint with him about how hungry it can feel to be human, how annoying the bugs are, how lonely and scary it can be in the darkness. To debate the options, good and evil, in front of us. To let him fill our dry cups with living water. And then to find, as Paul says, a more excellent path forward together.
And here is a bit more Good News this Lent. As we sit with Jesus, we are also reminded that as people of faith, we get to be the Body of Christ to one another – even, or especially, in the wilderness. One final story:
This story is also from St. George’s Cathedral in East Jerusalem. The Christian community there is small and shrinking. The Arab Christian congregation has been there in one form or another since the Pentecost, but their stated goal now is to serve as a kind of bridge for peace between the Jewish and Arab-Muslim populations. It’s a posture that has put them in danger.
As the church Chaplain told us, “like any good bridge, we often find ourselves being walked on”. The morning we worshiped with them, their sister church in the neighborhood had been vandalized by extremists. Many are leaving for safety, and the ones who remain, find themselves in a real sort of wilderness place, of uncertainty, shifting sands, threats. They know God and Jesus are with them in that place, and they are facing forces that are trying to come between them and ministry and a purpose there. But the Chaplain told us that one of the greatest need the community has, and by far the greatest gift the visitors who come can give them, is the knowledge that they are not forgotten, that they are not alone; that the body of Christ sees them in their wilderness, prays for them, and walks with them in Love.
Our wilderness landscape is surely different from that of the community in East Jerusalem, but we can resonate with the desire to live fully as God would have us live, to know that we are not forgotten or alone, to know that our church sees us, prayers for us and walks with us wherever we find ourselves in the wilderness. This is how we share and point one another towards God’s Love. This is how we make it through the wilderness. This is how we live more fully into God’s purpose for us and the world. It’s not always easy, but the rewards are great. So let’s walk the labyrinth, and tell our stories, talk to our kids about what Lent means for us, and try new forms of prayer, and invite Jesus and one another to walk with us into whatever our wilderness looks like this year, so that together we can find that more excellent path to God’s Love and , as our Psalmist says “see the goodness of God in the land of the living.”