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First Sunday in Lent: “Into the Wilderness”
Welcome to the practice of a holy Lent. Last week, we went into one of the sharpest rollercoaster drops on our calendar: from the rowdy excess of Mardi Gras to the penitent austerity of Ash Wednesday. It’s quite a collective free fall in 24 hours: from shiny beads to ashen crosses. But, in my experience, not at all different from the way painful circumstances in life can dramatically pull us from a high place of joy right down to empty.
Listen to our Gospel readings. Just last Sunday, we shared the glory of Jesus’s mountaintop experience: surrounded by his friends; glowing in conversation with Moses and Elijah; receiving a loving shout-out from God. And this morning, where is Jesus? Wandering in the wilderness; hungry and empty; with only Satan for conversation. We’re going from a high-high to a low-low here. And as Bill Drewes remarked to me last Sunday, “The hardest thing about going up a mountain is actually coming back down.”
Now, our last two Gospel readings do not follow chronologically in Luke, but when they’re read back to back, as we read them, they do match the arc of Jesus’s inner life. Right before he was “led by the Spirit into the wilderness,” Jesus had experienced the high of his baptism: the opening of the heavens; the descent of the Holy Spirit; his Father naming him as the Beloved. And now―the Beloved is with the wild beasts instead of the doves: vulnerable; in a silent, solitary landscape.
Where is this wilderness where Jesus walked? I believe you and I know this empty place intimately. The wilderness is our innermost territory. Where the wild beasts are our untamed feelings. Where we hunger for safety. The wilderness is our private, inner space where we face our deepest fears: exposed, alone, and empty.
I know this wilderness very well. And so did Jesus. In fact, he stayed and fasted in this hard place forty days, intentionally and voluntarily emptying himself. In a quest. In a silent, solitary time, searching to find an answer: When I am most empty, what will rise up in me?
This, I believe, is also our question for the forty days of Lent. Now, sometimes the events of life force us into a wilderness, strip us down and empty us out, harshly and dramatically—taking us to rock bottom. That’s the suffering we know we can expect in life; the suffering Jesus shared with us.
Lent gives us a time to voluntarily enter our private inner space and practice spiritual strengthening for whatever pain lies ahead: so that we have the skillfulness to survive hard territory whenever life pushes us into it. Lent is an invitation to go deep into your wilderness, to empty out, to find what will rise up in you.
Does a spiritual journey like this sound frightening? Well, it does take courage. Because a Lenten journey to empty out starts with making ourselves vulnerable. Entering our wilderness, we have to let go of the illusion that we are in control of what happens in our lives. And that’s a very tempting illusion. If we can just have things our own way—everyone and everything; when we want it, how we want it—we won’t have to feel any pain.
And how do we keep up this illusion that we can control life and avoid all pain? Well, we use the same tactics Satan suggested to Jesus. Feeling empty or afraid in life’s wilderness? Build up your stockpile of goods and possessions: turn stones into bread! Or you can act like a king and grab some power: you can force other people to carry out your will. Here’s another idea: Protect yourself from hurt with money, aggression, distraction, or addiction. These tactics can be your angels! Deny the pain, Satan says: “Worship control. Worship me. Play God.”
The Greek word used to describe what Satan is doing is peirazō, sometimes translated as “to tempt,” but which also means “to test.” It’s testing in the sense of passing something through a substance to determine its quality, piercing it to determine what’s within. In the way painful circumstances pierce us to our spiritual core.
Here, in this testing exchange with Satan, we’re shown what lies at Jesus’s spiritual core. In this wilderness moment, he no longer has God’s booming voice to reassure him from the mountaintop. But he does have a still, small voice within. When he is most vulnerable, Jesus chooses not to listen to false strategies of control: to grab for possessions, power, defenses. In his time of trial, Jesus connects to God’s presence. What rises up in Jesus in his emptiness is the strength of his spiritual practice.
I never really understood until this week what Jesus’s responses to Satan were all about. They just sounded like clever martial arts, the kind of verbal maneuvers that work when you leverage your opponent’s words against him to gain advantage. But Jesus is quoting from the fifth book of the Hebrew Bible, what we call Deuteronomy: Moses’s sermons to the people of Israel after they have emerged from their forty years of wilderness wanderings: Deuteronomy 8:3: “He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna . . . in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” Deuteronomy 13:4: “The Lord your God you shall follow, him alone you shall fear, his commandments you shall keep, his voice you shall obey.” Deuteronomy 6:16: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
When he is inwardly tested, what rises up in Jesus is this story he has taken in and deeply learned of God’s loving relationship with his people in the wilderness. A story that promises us too, today, that in our darkest, lowest, most vulnerable places we will be met and strengthened and fed by the One who loves us. As we heard in God’s words to his people today: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of bondage.” As we read in Deuteronomy, “The Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, our oppression. . . .The Lord brought us [out of the wilderness] into . . . a land flowing with milk and honey.”
Knowing this uplifting story of protection, making this direct connection to God, gave Jesus great power when pain tested him. The word was near him, on his lips and in his heart, as Peter said. His still, small voice within spoke reassuring words of God’s promise—and he listened. What rose up in Jesus in his emptiness and pain was the strength of his spiritual practice. The kind of spiritual practice you and I are called to this Lent.
I spent fifty years trying to avoid my inner wilderness. Never wanted to look at my dark places, although I felt what I called the “Deep Sadness” right here in my chest. Distraction, agitation, overwork seemed to be the best ways to control my life—and guess what? That didn’t work—and the Deep Sadness never went away. But, then, almost by accident, I attended a Lectio Divina group, a spiritual practice of reading and listening to sacred texts in silence. And in a place of safety, calm, and quiet, I emptied out and heard a new voice trying to break through. A voice there for all of us that I had never had the patience or trust to pay attention to.
I’ve kept up this silent practice not because I have any special gift for it, but because of its gift for me. I’ve gradually found, with practice, that in the painful moments of my life that are far from calm, far from centered, I can still hear that still, small voice I’ve found. A connection to God.
I was here at St. Patrick’s for our Lectio Divina group the day I got the call that my mother was dying. It was a call I had feared for years. I knew I had a four-hour drive to reach her, that it was out of my control whether she would still be alive when I arrived, that I needed to summon as much presence and strength as I could to ease her passing.
So I choose in that moment to take a few more moments to meditate on this passage from Isaiah chosen for that day: “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” And when I arrived, my mother’s first words were, “Was it hard for you to get here?” And I could say, in all truth, “No, Mother, it was not.” And, she asked, “Did you have a vision?” And I could say, in all truth, “Yes, Mother, I did,” and read her Isaiah’s words. Words that out of that wilderness prepared the way of the Lord. Amen.
~ Rev. Clare C. Novak
Associate for Interfaith Ministry, St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church
Incline Village, Nevada
February 17, 2013