Sunday, October 2, 2011

Desert Temptation

Utah, near Moab 05/1972
Sunday Sermon
October 2, 2011
by Katie Mulligan

Scripture Readings:

Our tiny church has been through a lot in the last year as we’ve been considering our future. There’s a lot we don’t know about January just yet, although we’ve beeen looking at possibilities and best guesses. We’ve laid the groundwork for a couple of different possibilities, but don’t have answers back from other people. We’ve put ourselves out to the world and the Spirit to see what might be done, and now we are waiting. Waiting, for me, has never been a particularly easy thing to do.

I thought that over the next few weeks I might preach about our internal spiritual lives. We’ve been focused for a while on opening up to the world and getting blown about. Perhaps we might take some time as we wait for possibilities to develop and seek inward for the Spirit as it moves deep, and often silent. Today I thought I’d talk about being apart from the world, since we have so focused on being a part of the world.

I have been thinking a lot about the wilderness lately. It seems that our whole world is finding itself tossed about into unknown territory. Our little church is considering an uncertain future. Many of us individually are considering uncertain futures. The world all around us is changing in ways that are hard to understand or keep up with. Those of us not immediately caught up in the ongoing whirlwind of job loss and foreclosures and stock market crashes and civil unrest at least have a front row seat to watching the disaster. It’s not just economics, but also war and politics, philosophy and theology—it feels like everything’s been changing for a while and that the pace of change is accelerating. I read these words in scripture this morning and I wonder: if the kingdom of God has already drawn near, where is it already?

The gospel of Mark is famous for being short and full of action. Other gospels offer the epic version of the Jesus story, but Mark offers the 90-minute action adventure version. Jesus in Mark is always moving, healing, preaching, doing something to further the story along. This small section of the gospel is no exception. In six short verses, Jesus meets John the Baptist in the wilderness, is baptized by John and anointed by the Spirit of God, and is driven into the wilderness where he spends 40 days being tempted and taunted by Satan. Meanwhile, back home, John the Baptist is arrested, bringing about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. And that was just six verses!

I remember watching the remake of the movie “The War of the Worlds.” That movie was 116 minutes long and every minute was spent on the edge of your seat, waiting for the next action sequence. Any time the characters in the movie had a moment to rest, the respite simply functioned as a set up to more surprises and action until 116 minutes later the aliens lay defeated, the credits rolled, and the audience stumbled exhausted out of the theater to go home and get some sleep! The gospel of Mark is like that. I wonder how many of our lives are like that too?

Perhaps we might slow down to take a look at Jesus’ time in the wilderness. In Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels, the time in the wilderness contains more description of what happened to Jesus there. In those gospels Jesus fasted for 40 days, and when he was starving, the devil came and suggested that he use his powers to make the stones turn into bread to feed himself. Then the devil took him up to the top of a hill and suggested that Jesus throw himself off of it to see if the angels would catch him before he fell to his death. And finally the devil showed him all the kingdom of the world and said, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” According to Matthew and Luke, Jesus resisted those temptations, and filled with the Holy Spirit, returned to Galilee to begin his public ministry.

Mark, however, lacks any detail about the time in the desert. It is useful sometimes to compare the gospels and fill in some of the blanks, but sometimes it is also good to simply look at one gospel and allow what is not said to speak to us of possibility. The gospel of Mark simply tells us that Jesus was driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit, and that while there he was tempted by Satan and joined by wild beasts. There are two things I’d like to note about the wording of this passage. First, any place the Holy Spirit drives you to is also a place where you are guaranteed to find the Holy Spirit. And second, the word used for “tempt” is the same word used later in the gospel to describe what Jesus’ opponents did while arguing with him. The Pharisees asked him for signs from heaven and posed “what-if” questions that had no right answer to see if Jesus could wiggle his way out of the dilemma. There is a sense to the word of taunting, or trying to get Jesus to make a mistake. As I read these words, I wonder if the “temptation” in the wilderness might have been the temptation to stay in the wilderness, away from the relentless movement, betrayal, and death that Jesus faced when he returned to Galilee.

Often when I think of the word “wilderness” I think of the wild mountains of California: the Sierra Nevada and the Cascades to the north. Peaks that reach ten thousand feet, magnificent redwood and pine forests, rushing rivers and glacier carved valleys. Wild animals abound, bears and deer and mountain lions and chipmunks. Condors, blue jays, eagles and bats. Miles and miles of back country with no sign of civilization other than a few cut trail and back country ranger huts. For all it’s beauty, it is also a dangerous place; to travel in the back country, you need to be prepared with good equipment and supplies of food. There’s good fishing, but you’ll only catch fish on the days when you already have plenty of food for dinner. If you rely on the fish as a main source of food, you’ll be going hungry for a while. And while you’re picking berries, it’s good to remember that the bears eat berries too. This is what comes to mind when I hear that the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness.

Yet the wilderness near Galilee bears little resemblance to the wilderness mountains of my childhood. Jesus was driven into an arid desert land. Yet deserts have their own beauty. At first glance a desert land seems to be all one color and lack life. Yet the longer you spend time in a desert, the more detail you begin to see. In the desert, the rocks and sand bear different shades of pale pink, orange and yellow. A morning sunrise or evening sunset brings glorious color to the sky and all the land around. The plants of the desert are smaller than those of a lush mountain; they hover close to the ground to preserve their water and resources. Many of the plants have elaborate schemes of self-protection—thorns and tough skin, toxins and camouflage. The animals of a desert are like the plants. Pale in color, tough skin, and close to the ground, the animals blend in carefully for safety and life. There is a rhythm to life in a desert that includes slow and careful movement, meticulous planning, and a willingness to blend into the surroundings for safety and comfort. Those that learn to live in the desert know where to find water, where to find food, and how to find shelter both from the heat of the day and the cold of night. In the desert, with few people around, a person might develop a routine of meditative prayer as they go about their day. And in the sameness of each day and night in the desert, a person begins to find the tiny variations in color and tone that make up the beauty of the desert. G.K. Chesterton, in his book Orthodoxy, wrote of the beauty of God’s monotony in the world:
Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.
This is the celebration of life and rhythm one finds in the desert wilderness. How tempting it must have been to simply stay there in the midst of that beauty! Especially since Jesus had been driven there by the Holy Spirit. There are times when God leads us into beautiful places, and it is tempting to stay there and never go back to the rest of the world. We often think about Jesus’ time of testing in the wilderness as a terrible time of need and want, fasting and taunting by the devil. But what if it was actually a beautiful space where time slowed and through fasting and prayer Jesus was able to clarify his spirit? Perhaps there in the desert Jesus felt closer to God, his beloved Father, than he would again in his public ministry.

Those times of isolated meditation come with their own pain and difficulty. Alone in the desert with no distractions, all of one’s own internal demons have the opportunity to wreak havoc with one’s soul.

Some years ago a friend of mine decided to retire to another state. As she waited for her house sale to close, she decided to house sit for a friend who was also trying to sell his house. The place she stayed in was empty of all furniture and possessions except the few things she brought with her. She had some books, but no television. A radio, but no music CD’s. Late at night she wandered the house restlessly, trying to decide what to do with herself. Without the distractions of other people and things, she found herself facing her internal demons of insecurity, loneliness and fear. It was a time of clarity and self-reflection, and she was the happiest woman alive when she got on a plane to go to her new home where there was a sister and a dog and a television and a garden to tend. Yet that time functioned as an important turning point between the old life and her new life. She had time to process who she had been and time to develop hopes about who she might become. She had time to read scripture and pray. 

Perhaps Jesus, who also knew scriptures well, meditated on the psalms or the prophets. A prayer like the psalm we read this morning reflects the internal process of a person who is thinking both about the past and about the future. The psalmist gives thanks for what has been, asks for pardon for past transgressions, and then requests teaching and insight for the future. It is a prayer for a person poised on the threshold between what was and what will be. Perhaps it is the prayer of my friend and also the prayer of Jesus. As I repeat the words this morning, perhaps it will become your prayer too.

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. 
O my God, in you I trust; 
do not let me be put to shame; 
do not let my enemies exult over me. 
Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; 
let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. 

Make me to know your ways, O Lord, 
and of your steadfast love, 
for they have been from of old. 
Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; 
according to your steadfast love remember me, 
for your goodness’ sake, O Lord! 

Good and upright is the Lord; 
therefore he instructs sinners in the way. 
He leads the humble in what is right, 
and teaches the humble his way. 
All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, 
for those who keep his covenant and his decrees. 

Eventually we must return from our desert sanctuaries. Tested, tempted, shaped by our time away from the action adventure movie of life, Jesus returned to Galilee. He came bearing peculiar news for the people. He said that “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has drawn near.” The verbs used in greek for “fulfilled” and “drawn near” are in the perfect tense, which gives the sense of an action started in the past and continuing in the present. This is an important aspect of the gospel of Mark and the life of Jesus in general. God’s kingdom has drawn near and is still drawing near. The time has been fulfilled and will continue to be fulfilled. The good news of this is that we too are drawn into the kingdom of God even as we understand that Jesus has already come. The promise that the kingdom has already drawn near provides us comfort as we see about us all the difficulties of this world. The promise that it has yet to be fulfilled propels us on into the world to help usher in the kingdom, for all about us is sorrow, difficulty and a lack of love that we must help address.

Yet there were many times in Jesus’ ministry where he drew apart from the crowds to sit alone in quiet prayer and contemplation. He did not again receive the gift of 40 days of wilderness retreat, but when he was able he took time to rest between the crowds. As we travel through this time, perhaps it is time to think about our own wilderness retreats. Some of us may be in the desert already and God is calling us to re-enter the world and move forward with our ministry to others. I think most of us, however, are caught up in the difficulties of the world and might do well to allow the Holy Spirit to drive us into the wilderness, away from the television and music and constant chattering of our modern world. The desert fathers who spent much of their lives isolated in the wilderness knew that such breaks are necessary for the soul. Here is a story of three monks:
A certain man said that there were once three men who loved labors, and they were monks. The first one chose to go about and see where there was strife, which he turned into peace; the second chose to go about and visit the sick; but the third departed to the desert that he might dwell in quietness. Finally the first man, who had chosen to still the contentions of men, was unable to make every man to be at peace with his neighbor, and his spirit was sad. He went to the man who had chosen to visit the sick; he found him in affliction because he was not able to fulfill the law which he had laid down for himself.

Then the two of them went to the monk in the desert, and seeing each other they rejoiced, and the two men related to the third the tribulations which had befallen them in the world. They entreated him to tell them how he had lived in the desert. He was silent, but after a little he said unto them, "Come, let each of us go and fill a vessel of water." After they had filled the vessel, he said unto them, "Pour out some of the water into a basin, and look down to the bottom through it," and they did so. He then said unto them, "What do you see?" And they said, "We see nothing." After the water in the basin had ceased to move, he said to them a second time, "Look into the water," and they looked, and he said unto them, "What do you see?" They said unto him, "We see our own faces distinctly."

He said unto them, "Thus is it with the man who dwelleth with men, for by reason of the disturbance caused by the affairs of the world he cannot see his sins; but if he lives in the peace and quietness of the desert he is able to see God clearly."
May God bless you this fall with a time of wilderness, a time of self-reflection and testing by your internal demons, and the ability to return to the world refreshed, with new vision for ministry.