SERMON Lent 1B 2/26/12
“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” Immediately after Jesus’baptism, the voice declared of him “My Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased,” then he was driven to a lonely, deserted place to wrestle with the “opposer.” The wilderness to which Jesus was drawn, most likely was a desert area of the Judean countryside. The desert can be a beautiful, grounding place, but it has the potential for danger and it poses a real risk to life itself. My brother Michael lives in the desert of Arizona near Phoenix. When we chat, he often speaks of the beauty of the desert with its majestic sunsets and amazing landscapes. We also play this little meteorological “one-upsmanship” game when we chat. Michael always asks me what the temperature is here in Florida, and in the summer I usually respond, “it’s in the 90’s.” He quickly reminds me that where he is standing, it is a scorching, sweat evaporating, 110 to 115 degrees. I cannot imagine a climate that produces such potential, life-threatening conditions. The desert can be a place where beauty is all around, but at the same time, the potential for catastrophe is near and possible. My brother told me once, that most of the folks who live in this area, usually will not make a trip across the desert without some provisions in the car such as water a backup food source, and a full tank of gas. All of these preparations seem to provide some level of security from the threats of the desert’s heat. Can you imagine Jesus’ journey in the wilderness where no such provisions were available. Jesus’ forty-day desert trip must have been excruciating, but its purpose was not to show off his divine stamina or staying power, but this was a journey, into which the divine and human natures of Christ, met in the solitude and lonely places of Spirit and flesh.
In our culture of noise, whether it be our cell phones, IPads, televisions, or radios, we find silence and solitude to be a difficult thing to practice. Perhaps it is because in our seclusion, we come face-to-face with our inner demons, with our struggles, with our true selves. In solitude, we wrestle with the forces within us that have the potential to oppress us; those forces that keep us from knowing who we are and whose we are. Despite the potential risks and otential pain seclusion offers, we are called to enter the desert places of our soul. Paul Tillich, an existential modern theologian once said, “In these moments of solitude something is done to us. The center of our being, the innermost self that is the ground of our aloneness, is elevated to the divine center and taken into it. Therein can we rest without losing ourselves.”1 In the solitude of the desert places, we approach our inner self, the beauty, the brokenness, the loneliness, and it is there that we encounter God, who draws us into the wholeness of God’s loving presence.
In the Ash Wednesday liturgy, right before the imposition of ashes, the priest urges the congregation in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance. Self-examination is a journey into holy solitude by entering in the desert places of our souls. It involves the uncovering of those places of brokenness (sin) and in so doing, facing the depth of the fear in which we often live. It is not easy work this soul searching, but it is necessary work for Christ followers; those who follow Christ into the waters of baptism, the mountaintop experiences, the low-lying valleys of this life, into the arid deserts. Jesus frequently walked away from the crowds for moments of solitude, and he left us this practice for our own edification. In these places of solitude we may discover that they are fraught with great danger; dangers which are arid, scorching, sweat-evaporating hot zones of our own selves. The great poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox offers a perspective regarding those moments alone, in which we must wrestle with the oppressive forces of those dark places in ourselves.
Laugh, and the world laughs with you; Weep, and you weep alone. For the sad old earth must borrow it’s mirth, But has trouble enough of its own. Sing, and the hills will answer; Sigh, it is lost on the air. The echoes bound to a joyful sound, But shrink from voicing care.
Rejoice, and men will seek you; Grieve, and they turn and go. They want full measure of all your pleasure, But they do not need your woe. Be glad, and your friends are many; Be sad, and you lose them all. There are none to decline your nectared wine, But alone you must drink life’s gall.
Feast, and your halls are crowded; Fast, and the world goes by. Succeed and give, and it helps you live, But no man can help you die. There is room in the halls of pleasure For a long and lordly train, But one by one we must all file on Through the narrow aisles of pain.
(“Solitude”by Ella Wheeler Wilcox)
Before we enter the desert wasteland of self-examination, we may ask the inevitable question, “As we come face-to-face with our junk, what happens with that which we uncover; must we bear it all alone?” Wilcox’s poem might lead us to believe that we do, “grieve . . . and folks turn and go,” or “They want full measure of all your pleasure but they do not need your woe,” or “alone you must drink life’s gall.” The hope we have in God though, is that we are never alone in Christ. Jesus, who traversed the arid, dry, fear-provoking barrenness of his desert place, walks through our dark places with us and brings us to new life. When we stumble upon the stones of self-indulgence, or we witness in ourselves the cities of our minds where we desire grandeur and success, or when want to try God by throwing ourselves into self-destructive practices, Jesus says to us, you are walking a path I have trod, and I know you can move past this place. When we, by our own self-examination, discover our true selves (beauty, love, hurt, pain, and brokenness) we merely bring it all before God as an offering of our humility and thus, we are able to accept the human inability to transform ourselves. There is great peace in facing our own reality and giving it to God, but we must overcome the fear and anxiety that stands as the oppressor, which is ready, willing, and able to deter us from the journey God calls us to follow.
Some of us live in some level of fear in the struggle of the arid, barren, wastelands of our souls; those places where the wild beasts of our character reside. Those beasts are very real as the Ash Wednesday liturgy so vividly points out in the extended confession. Through repentance, we come before God to acknowledge the beasts in our wildernesses. “We have not loved you or our neighbors, we have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven, we have been deaf to your call to serve, as Christ served us, we have not been true to the mind of Christ, we have pride, hypocrisy, and impatience. We own up to our self-indulgent appetites and ways, our exploitation of other people, the anger at our own frustration, our envy of those more fortunate than ourselves, and our negligence in prayer and worship.” These wild beasts in us are only discovered fully, faced with courage, and seen for what they really are, when we enter the solitude of our soul and seek God’s presence. Self-examination is an ongoing part of the life of a disciple of Christ because it is through this practice, that we are enabled to partner with the Holy Spirit who is doing in us a new thing.
I encourage us all this season of Lent to examine ourselves daily and spend time in holy solitude. It is here in this quiet, reflective, introspective place that we can truly see ourselves as God sees us; broken, beautiful, and forgiven. Paul Tillich once wrote, “In the poverty of solitude all riches are present. Let us dare to have solitude — to face the eternal, to find others, to see ourselves.”2 As we grow in a deeper love and commitment to Christ, we must be willing to allow the Holy Spirit to work in us. This work of God in us is not always pleasant, fulfilling, “feel good,” nor happy. In order for growth to occur, sometimes the plant requires a little pruning. The Spirit calls us to submit ourselves and allow the our fears in the desert of our souls to be cast aside. Take a few minutes each day throughout the rest of Lent and spend some time in solitude with God. Bask in the beauty and peace solitude can bring, but be well aware of the difficulties and fears you will encounter along the away. Be prepared for this arid journey and bring along the safety provisions of a willing heart and a prayerful spirit and you will soon learn, that there is nothing to fear in the desert.
1 and 2 Paul Tillich,http://www.religion-online.org/showchapter.asp?title=1630&C=1597)