St. Mary Magdalene Anglican Church
March 5th 2017 Lent 1 John Marsh
or Random Thoughts Concerning the 3rd Way of Jesus
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19, 16-23; Matthew 4:1-11
Many years ago, I was part of another diocese and it was the practice of the diocesan bishop to open synod with his annual report. One year, he talked about how he had come to believe that the church was entering a wilderness period; most of his report playing with the theme of entering the wilderness. What was fascinating - and by the way, I thought the report was extraordinarily well done - was the reaction to it. It would be fair to say that the general reaction was one of outright, sometimes vicious condemnation. For most people, it was an entirely unacceptable way of expressing where the church was. "We're not going into the wilderness," I heard one person say, “we’re heading for the promised land." The fact that this person was an archdeacon wasn’t particularly interesting – over the years I have come to not expect much from archdeacons - what was fascinating was his unwillingness to engage the topic of wilderness, to consider the metaphor as powerfully descriptive of a profoundly human experience. Truth to tell, we're still much happier to be led into places of more obvious promise, of more obvious progress, with hope of moving from glory to glory.
However, while we may have trouble with wilderness, the theme of wilderness keeps coming up within our sacred texts. Abraham was called to leave the security of the city of Ur to go into the wilderness. It was in a wilderness experience that he found himself confronted with the incredulous, being called to sacrifice his only child, the fulfillment of promise. It was in Egypt that the people of Israel found themselves in bondage, in the wilderness of slavery. It was in the wilderness of Sinai that they wandered for forty years. It was in the wilderness of exile that they confronted the loss of everything sacred. The experience of wilderness is a persistent theme within sacred narrative.
In today’s Gospel narratives, we read not only that Jesus entered the wilderness but that the spirit led him there. It wasn't an experience he fell into, it wasn't an experience he simply awoke to, he was led. The spirit led him into an experience of wilderness, where convention turns to ash, where everything that you counted on isn't found, where the promise, which seemed to be the foundation of your faith, is often stripped away. Is it any wonder that it may have taken the spirit to lead him there?
I love the desert. I'm not sure why, I certainly wasn't born anywhere near one. I have not spent a great deal of time living amid one. So, it would be entirely fair to say that my love of the desert may be tinged with far more romanticism than is seemly, but nevertheless, I love the desert. When I have gone to the desert, I find a strange correspondence between the landscape and the interior of my soul. One desert experience occurred when I was in New Mexico. Somewhere north of Santa Fe there is a National Park - being bad with names, I don't remember the name. We went to this park because of the Native American ruins. On this trip, aside from myself, were two other people, one of whom was an old seminary friend (yes, he was a priest). The park was sent up to provide a self guided tour of the pueblos found on the canyon floor, one had only to follow the path and the path would take you round through many of the ruins. It was a wonderful place but I couldn't help but notice that in the walls of the mesa were cliff dwellings, long since abandoned. It was clear that you weren't supposed to go there because the tour followed the path. The path was far more sedate, safe, taking you past the pueblo ruins that they had prepared for visitors, those ruins with appropriate interpretive plaques beside them. Yet, for some reason, I couldn't get those cliff dwellings out of my mind. I was drawn to them. And so, I went.
I left the path and as I started to climb, I said to my friend, "C'mon, let's go and check these out." He said, "No, no, we shouldn’t. We should stay on the path." It may be that I'm hopelessly adolescent - possible – but I kept going, climbing up the rock face while my friend stayed on the pathway. Entering an old abandoned cliff dwelling, I sat down. This cliff dwelling had been used for so long that the roof, which was rather low, was covered with soot, because year after year, decade after decade, century after century, fires had been burned in that place. People had lived there for centuries and I needed to be there. I stayed for a good period, sitting in silence. I had no revelation, no insight, certainly no wisdom, I simply sat in silence within the solitude of an abandoned, yet haunting past.
As I reflect on this experience, it’s clear to me that it was one of moving off the beaten path for reasons you can't explain – you know only that you must go. And so, I did. Eventually I clambered back down the rock face and joined my friend who was still wandering on the path and we left. (An aside: I can't help but comment that my friend who would not leave the established path is now a bishop in the church. I hope he's a little more daring now than he was then.)
To my mind, it's this experience of wilderness that is so central to what we're about. It's not the only experience we will find, it's not the only place where the spirit will lead us, but it's a place that we're often called to. The experiences of wilderness, the locations of wilderness, will be vast and varied. It will not always be the same, it will not always literally be a desert, it will not always be a cave carved out of the rock face, but it will be a place in which, whether personally or communally, we are called to go off the beaten path, off the long-established track, to go into those places where we may confront the scaffolding of our life that holds up edifices of convention, edifices of predictability, edifices of belief, where the spirit may strip away some of the scaffolding of the self, leaving one in the solitude of loneliness, the experience of emptiness. In other words, the wilderness may be a time of crisis, a time of dangerous opportunity. As today’s text says, it is a place where you experience hungers because that which you normally consume isn't there, where you thirst because that which quenches your thirst can't be found. It is a place where demons dwell or more correctly, the ‘daemon’ dwells. It is important not literalize daemon for to do so is a reduction of their paradoxical ambiguity, for that which frightens need not be evil, that which carries the specter of death need not be opposed to life, that which requires effort need not be without value. In other words, the danger, while real, may also carry opportunity. The ‘demonic’, metaphorically understood, while it may be that which haunts us, may also prove that we are spooked by life…
Wilderness is a place where the scaffolding of normalcy and convention may be stripped away, a place where we may encounter that which threatens to overwhelm us but also, as sacred narrative says, a place where angels are found. The whole point of wilderness encounter, the reason that the spirit may lead us, personally or communally, into a desert experience, is not because salvation is to be found in engaging in ascetic exploits. The point of moving into the wilderness, the point of having things stripped away, is transformation. It is very easy to get caught up in the trappings of this world, in the allure, the sparkle, the enticing spectacle, the promise of power, the belief in our ability to overcome anything and everything. So perhaps, it goes without saying that without disorientation there is no reorientation!
Did you ever notice that bread doesn't naturally occur? You don't go wandering through a wheat field and find bread – you must make bread. So, when Jesus says, "We don't live by bread alone" in a sense - and here I'm not exhausting the meaning of the text – he is saying, there's more to life than that which we think we control, than that which we do, than that which we think we have mastered, than the technology that is the fruit of our labour. There's more going on!
In the wilderness, we are confronted with the experience, that frighteningly life-giving encounter with that which promises more, which sometimes involves dying to something. “I don't want to hear that” we say, and that may be understandable but it's what sacred narrative often brings. However, it is never death just for the sake of death, the ‘powers and principalities’ have that market cornered. The powers and principalities are about offering death for death's sake. The wilderness encounter of ‘death’ is always directed toward the possibility, the daring hope of renewed life: a new way, a new heart, a new mind, a right spirit within us. Sound familiar?
It's interesting that after Jesus comes out of his wilderness experience, he immediately goes to his home town synagogue where he's invited to read. After his wilderness experience of transformation - the details of which we don't know, the text only hints at them - Jesus asks for the text of Isaiah and opening it up, finds the place where it is written, 'The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.' I would say that the decision to read this Isaiah text, this story but a few verses after the passage read today, was birthed in Jesus’ wilderness experience where things were stripped away, when the conventionalities of temple were turned to dust, and a prophetic spirit rose within and he walked a new path.
As church, we are being called into a wilderness experience. My bishop friend, years ago, was right, we are being called into the wilderness, into a place of transformation, a place of encountering death with a hope, perhaps a hoping against hope, for new birth. We are being called to let go of the path we have walked before, waiting upon something that may be revealed but is not yet here, something we but barely sense, something which, if we dare honesty, may never come. We are being called to move into a tomorrow that is today haunting us. This is a personal and a communal call to those who understand themselves as followers of Jesus. It is a call right here, right now. Today’s gospel text is a means by which the spirit may move in a real and powerful way, enticing us to live, to listen, to think, to pray and share stories.
And so, a story...
As was their practice, the rabbis would spend hours studying and debating the sacred scrolls. And in their debates, in the sharing of their differing viewpoints, occasionally, just occasionally, there was a sense, fleeting but real, that god walked among them. However, of all the texts studied there was one which eluded them, one which hung as an unanswered question, ‘Why would god – the almighty, the creator of all, why would god rest on the seventh day?’
The rabbis were frustrated by their inability to answer the question. As they continued to search for possible meanings within the text, one ventured, “Maybe god rested to create the Sabbath”. “Ah so,” said another, “but why rest when a command would have achieved the same thing?” Being no further ahead in their inquiry they decided that this was a question that only the messiah could answer.
One day, as they continued their study, it happened that the messiah appeared in their midst. While initially incredulous – it is proper that all such arrivals be greeted with incredulity - their suspicions soon subsided and, filled with excitement, they all clamored to speak with the long awaited one. “Please, please allow us to ask you our questions.”
“Of course, of course,” smiled the messiah, “you should know by now that your questions are important, more important than my answers.”
The rabbis were visibly startled by this response. “Right, right,” said the most senior rabbi in a somewhat confused tone. Stepping forward, he adjusted his prayer shawl and, regaining his composure, he addressed the messiah, “Thank you, son of David, there is one pressing question which we were hoping to have answered, could you tell us why god rested on the seventh day of creation?”
“An excellent question,” replied the messiah smiling, “I like that one!” “Thank you,” the rabbi responded, “but the answer, could you give us the answer?”
“No, I can’t.” said the messiah.
“But why will you not do this for us?” pleaded the rabbi, “Have we not been faithful, have we not studied the sacred scrolls seeking to discern the will of god?”
“Oh, you have indeed been faithful but the answer to your question is not mine to give. It is yours to discern and live.”
“But we’ve got nowhere in our attempts to answer this question! We’re becoming frustrated. Can’t you please give us an answer?”
The messiah shook his head in reply.
“If not the answer then, perhaps you could help us in our discerning? Could you give us a clue as to our path? Please help us along the way!” asked the rabbi.
There was a pause as the messiah considered their request. Standing, he addressed the expectant group, “I will give you a clue, but I warn you, it may simply confuse you more.” “No, no,” demurred the gathered rabbis, “any direction you give will surely help!” “So be it,” said the messiah, “of the many interpretations of the meaning of Sabbath, all of which are valuable by the way, there is one that I will suggest as helpful now. One of your forbearers said that the Sabbath was created as a reminder that you need to step back from the ordinary rhythms of the day to realize that everything is not about you!” Upon saying this, the messiah sat down.
The rabbis continued to look at him expecting more but the messiah simply smiled. “Is that it?” one of the rabbis ventured, “With respect that does not help us at all! We all know this respected teaching on the meaning of the Sabbath but it does not give us any direction in answering the question as to why god rested!”
“Doesn’t it?” smiled the messiah.
“You mean to say that our clue as to why god rested is that we need to rest to realize that everything is not about us or dependent on us!”
“Exactly!” said the messiah.
“But that would mean…”
“That’s right,” said the messiah laughing, “God rested on the seventh day because it’s not all about God!”
“If it’s not about god, what is it about?” someone cried out.
“Good question!” said the messiah walking out the door.
When you go to the wilderness, you're left with a question: So, what is it all about?
As has been said, sometimes, without disorientation there is no reorientation…