Sermon: “The Essential Wilderness” – 10th March 2019

LENT ONE : YEAR C    Deuteronomy 26: 1-11; Psalm 91: 1-2, 9-16; Romans 10: 4-13; Luke 4: 1-15

It is no coincidence that the two penitential seasons of the church, Lent and Advent, begin in the wilderness.  Lent begins with Jesus going into the wilderness for 40 days.  Advent begins with John the Baptiser appearing in the wilderness.  These seasons draw us into scrutiny of our life to help us “put away all that does not make for holiness in life.”  The foundational pattern of prayer is the mainstay of such scrutiny, as is making intentional space to “let go and let God.”  It is a time of testing.  A wise quote says “the longest journey is the journey inwards.” Self-knowing, self-awareness, self-honesty, self-integrity … all these must be examined to enable us to serve others.  It was Socrates who said “the unexamined life is not worth living”.

Into the human condition God gifts the wilderness time, the desert experience, as opportunity for examination of our own condition with our God.  The potential is open for a defining moment that creates insight, direction, repentance, renewal, and hope.  From the book of Deuteronomy we hear the summation of the Exodus story for the Israelites.  Forty years in the wilderness tested them extremely, but it was their defining ‘moment’ upon which all their subsequent history must be interpreted in the light of that experience.

What happens in the wilderness experience?  There can be a sense of not getting anywhere, almost of aimlessness, that creates a waiting time awareness that transcends earthly time.  We learn to wait on God.  It teaches attentiveness, patience, perseverance, and the learning through stillness.  It also creates a mutuality of waiting – God is waiting on us, as well.  We both wait for that defining moment to come – because God can only invite us into the waiting opportunities.  It is our own decision of how and when we come out of the wilderness.  Think of those grumbling, complaining and unreceptive Israelites.  When you look at the land map of their wilderness trek, in forty years they must have gone around and around and around  in circles several times.  They could only come out into the Promised Land when their hearts and spirits were ready – and God knew it would be the next generations that would make that happen.  It reminds one of the film ‘Groundhog Day’ –  Phil Connors is caught in a time loop that traps him in the same day, over and over and over.  He only comes out of that wilderness when he lets go of his own needs and loves others.

Time in the desert, wilderness, can also be a place of testing.  If we let our vulnerabilities be exposed, we learn to confront the real self.  The really important distinction here is that the wilderness time offered in the true God-sense is not about escape.  Christ’s temptations in the desert before his baptism and the commencement of his ministry show us this completely.  He faced the three greatest temptations of human frailty – power, ego and self-sufficiency.  And so we also can use wilderness time to the bring to the surface the deep fears we bury within, and life’s bruising questions.

The writer Alessandro Pronzato says:

Each one of us has, sooner or later, to confront the terrible demons which we carry inside: the demons of aggression, resentment, pride, sadness, despair.  If you therefore go to the desert to be rid of all the dreadful people and all the awful problems in your life, you will be wasting your time. You should go to the desert for a total confrontation with yourself.  For one goes to the desert to see more and to see better.  One goes to the desert especially to take a closer look at the things and people one would rather not see, to face situations one would rather avoid, to answer questions one would rather forget.”

Our prayer is that we will each use this Lent time .. “to see more and to see better.”

 

The wilderness time is therefore opportunity to self-empty – in order to self-affirm. St Ignatius wrote.. “Act as though everything depended on you.  But pray as though everything depended on God.”  Strength and endurance for the spiritual journey come through dependence on God.  This is the Jesus pattern throughout the Gospels – he withdraws to pray regularly.

For Jesus, his strength and his direction came from his encounters with his Father God, through the work of prayer.  We know very little of his dialogue with Abba, his Father – one exception being the self-emptying prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane.  “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.”  This is the ultimate prayer of the Gospels, and the prayer of aspiration for us all.  That is, to reach a position of complete dependency on God and God’s will, and the acceptance that God is in everything and all things work towards God’s creation of goodness.

Jesus thus chooses prayer as his wilderness experience – for God encounter, waiting on God, for testing, for direction for the what-next.  We know in each situation after prayer Jesus engaged with new direction, new situations, knowing when and where to go.  Ultimately, that direction was the cross and his prayer relationship with God had enabled his acceptance and trust for what lay there.

I can remember my days of undertaking CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) as very confronting self-awareness.  That continual reflective practice of asking… ‘how did you feel when that happened? and ‘why did you do that?’  not only opened me to me, but also taught processes of self-awareness I still value today in ministry, in life.  The intentional discipline to put your own self, your luggage, aside to be fully present with another person is essential for active listening.  To know what triggers your biases, to be asked the question ……..what would you most dread to hear?  is so valuable in being prepared to be fully engaged with the person you are tending.

You see, in the process of self-knowing needs to come the moment of self-loving.  We tend to not notice as much the second part of the great commandment .. You shall love your neighbour …. as yourself.  As yourself.  Here’s the truth – unless you love you, the miracle of what God has created, you actually can’t love others as God intends you to.  You just can’t.  That is why the intentionality with integrity of self-knowing, and the cycle of confession, are so important to putting away all that does not make for holiness of life.  It is then we can live a repentant life – a life turned again to Christ.

 

In the planning for the “Meeting God Space: Experiences of Prayerfulness” – which starts this afternoon, for four Sunday afternoons – the planning group had such a moment of …. what about a “Me space”.  We have to be able to self-love and consequently pray for ourselves.  Today I have purposefully put that prayer as first in the Intercessory prayer – it is in our own rightness before God, which includes loving what God has made as you – that we can come before God with prayer for others.  And there is a “Me space” in the ‘Meeting God Space’ which includes a mirror!  and many scripture passages about how God loves each of us so much, and thus expects that self-love as well as love for others.

The forty days of Lent match the forty days of Christ’s time in the wilderness.  We are invited into our own wilderness time – to  wait upon God;  to go through testing – including facing our fears – and to self-empty through self-awareness, that leads to a greater dependency on God.  In all of this prayer is the driver – our space with God’s grace without which nothing will have true meaning.

May our Lenten journey enable us to see more and to see better.    Amen