By The Rev. Christopher Webber
“Jesus . . . was led by the Spirit in the wilderness…”
St Luke 4, verse 1.
So let’s think about wilderness.
Some four thousand years ago the Hebrews were a nomadic tribe wandering in the deserts in the middle east. All around them were people who were farmers: Egyptians, Babylonians, Canaanites who raised wheat and barley and melons and other good things to eat and because they depended on the sun and the rain and the rivers, the soil and the seasons, and because these were not always favorable these agricultural people prayed to the powers that they thought determined success or failure, abundance or hunger, and they made statues and images as a focus for their prayers.
But the Hebrews were nomads. In all the years they had wandered in the deserts with their sheep and their goats they had no crops to raise, and no need for gods of that sort. For them there was one God, invisible, all-powerful, a god encountered in the volcano at Sinai and the storms that swept across the desert. Not a God to bargain with. But when the Hebrews came into the promised land and tried to learn farming themselves they naturally looked to the Canaanites for advice and they were told, “Well, here’s what you do: you set up a pillar or carve some statues of wood or stone and you make offerings, and you cry out to Baal or Astarte or whichever god you need at the moment for rain or sun or whatever crop it is. Sometimes it works; sometimes not; but that’s how you go to the gods for help.”
Some of the Hebrews tried it out and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t but, like the Canaanites, they decided it was better to do it than not do it. Hey, you never know. Some tried it, as I said, but others resisted and said, “No, the God of our ancestors commanded us to make no statues because our God is beyond all possibility of representation. And our God also cannot be influenced by the size of our offerings or anything like that. We can try to line up with God but no way we can bargain with God to get God to line up with us.”
Now, that was a conflict that went on for centuries. You can read all about it in the Bible: First and Second Kings especially; an on-going struggle. The Hebrews were divided by it with the prophets and their visions on one side and the practical people on the other. The prophets said, “It doesn’t matter where you are or what the agenda is; there is one God, no other. You can serve God, but God can’t be bribed to serve you.” But the practical people said, “Look, the Canaanites have the experience and the smart thing is to hedge your bets, not put all your eggs in one basket, always backup your computer, don’t take chances.”
But the prophets didn’t give up; always there were prophets who insisted, “God is beyond all this and if this becomes an idol, God can and will destroy it and God can even destroy us, the chosen people, if we turn to our own ways, because God is always beyond, always greater than we can imagine and God asks us to respond in a freedom that lacks the apparent security of walls and borders and images and festivals and buildings and laws. God is not limited by our constructions. God is free. And God calls us to respond in freedom, to give ourselves without limit to the God who loves us without limit.”
Well, that’s what Lent is about: it’s a reminder that we are by origin a wandering, desert people with a radically unconfined God, a God who is free and calls us to freedom. Lent summons us to remember who we are and respond to that challenge. For forty days every year we are challenged to follow Jesus back out into the wilderness of our nomadic ancestors where there is none of the security of plowed land and settlements and walls and well-traveled roads.
The Prayer Book speaks of Lent as a time for “special acts of discipline and self-denial.” It asks us to find out whether we can get along without the images and the idols – the things, the possessions, that tie us down and somehow give us a feeling of security. Can we put them aside and learn to live with God alone? All the old traditional disciplines of Lent – giving up candy and movies and television – the images of Canaan and Babylon – are basically about that: how addicted are you to the local idols? how dependent are we on material things? What is it that takes the time we might have used for prayer or the energy that might have been used to help someone in need or to work to change a society that seems indifferent to the needs of others? It’s probably not something as simple as candy or computer games. It’s things that have become part of the very fabric of our lives and it will hurt to tear them out. The idols are where they are because we’ve learned to love them and depend on them and believe we need them. So Lent asks us to look again, to focus on this fundamental question: who is your God? One of the old mystics used to say, “This too is not God.” It’s a good line to remember. Look around at your life: “This too is not God.” I think some of the most divisive arguments in our public life, church and state, are about idols – not God.
Do you remember back a while ago the annual Christmas fuss about Christmas in public places? Almost every year it seems some mayor or public official tries to find a new way of putting up a creche to see who will complain. And someone always does. But, you know, I used to live in New England and back in Puritan days it was illegal to celebrate Christmas at all because I think the Puritans knew that so much of the celebration was pagan in origin and a distraction from the worship of the God who is beyond all images. The Puritans knew that but now their descendants, calling themselves Christians, demand that they be allowed their images, their creches and Christmas trees, and the very name of Christmas has become an image, as if by saying “Merry Christmas” out loud and in public instead of “Happy Holidays” the God who cannot be named is somehow honored. We still want our images, things to hold onto; We’re still afraid of the desert.
The Anglican Communion is being torn apart these days by those who insist on this reading of the Bible rather than that one, my way of reading the law and the security it gives me rather than your way which makes me nervous. Every ten years, you know, all the Anglican bishops in the world convene in England, at Lambeth palace, to see what they can learn from each other and recently they’ve had trouble doing that because in some parts of the world same sex marriage is not acceptable. The missionaries in the 19th century told their new converts that it was bad and they believed it – still do. Ten years ago quite a few of them didn’t come because the American church had just elected a gay bishop. This year the Archbishop of Canterbury has ruled that bishops with same sex partners can’t bring their partner – or if they do, the partners can’t come to the tea parties. A hundred years ago it was African bishops who wanted to be able to baptize polygamous partners and other bishops were saying, No, only one at a time. There’s always something. And not enough of us are prepared to stop and say, “Let’s really listen to each other; let’s admit that my way and your way both are inadequate images, neither one is an absolute and final and complete picture of God and it never can be. So instead of fighting, let me hear how what you have to say honors God and let me try to explain why I believe my views honor God and one way or another let’s recognize that we both are seeking to honor God and God is not honored by our anger or by a narrow clinging to images. Let’s confess our limitations and try still to love each other even if we no more understand each other than we truly and fully understand God.”
Lots of churches, you know, use purple vestments in Lent. This church, like the one I served for the twenty-two years before I retired, follows the old English custom in Lent which wasn’t purple but monk’s cloth or unbleached linen. You come into church on Ash Wednesday and the crosses and pictures were draped in simple sack cloth and it felt like spring cleaning. Here I think the custom is to do that in Holy Week; the visual distractions are covered and there’s a sense of simplicity and cleanness.
The Russian Orthodox have a custom called pustina, which has to do with going into a bare cell, a room with four walls and no more, to spend a day or two days or more – with nothing to see, nothing to hold on to – “sensory deprivation,” I think might be the modern phrase, removal of distractions. And who needs some such practice more than 21st century Americans whose lives are so full and whose souls are so empty? Lent is a time to clean house, to be rid of idols and images and preconceived notions to go into the “desert” or “wilderness” for forty days.
Years ago, when I was in Israel, we had a guide who took us down from Jerusalem to Jericho – down through the barren land where Jesus spent those forty days – and along the way he showed us a bright splash of green down the side of a steep cliff and he said it came from a break in a conduit pipe that takes water to an ancient monastery and he said it shows you that this is not truly desert but wilderness. There is a difference. Desert, true desert, he said, is where nothing can grow. Wilderness is where growth can take place if only it has water. When the spring rains come the wilderness bursts into bloom. When the aqueduct springs a leak, the barren land turns green.
Think about that this Lent. Yes, go back out into the desert, get rid of the idols, but then ask yourself this: where I am, can anything grow? Am I in the desert or the wilderness? I looked very carefully at the street outside the church this morning. I thought with all the rain this last week we might see some green pushing up through the sidewalk and know that this may be wilderness but it’s not desert. I didn’t see anything. Maybe it’s desert. But maybe we just need more rain to soak down in and get life going.
But what about your office or place of work. What would happen if you poured some water near your desk or work place and watched for a week or so. Is it desert or wilderness? Try it at home. Pour some water on the television set, maybe just a cup or so every day for a week. And watch: does anything grow there? Does any life emerge? But did it ever really enhance your life? It might do good things for you anyway if you water it well. I will guarantee that if you do that – water your television regularly – you will, of course, wind up with a short-circuited TV, but you will also have a better social life, your thinking will clarify, and you will lose weight.
But seriously, this is what Lent is about: Lent is a time to ask where I am, whether I’m in a place of life or not: am I in the desert or the wilderness: which is it? For all the visual richness of our society, a lot of it is desert: dead as it can be and deadening to those who come there. But we are not like the wilderness plants; that have their roots down in a dry place and have to wait for rain to come. No, we can move; we can pick ourselves up and put ourselves in a place where life can emerge and develop – real life, the life of the spirit, life that can transcend even death itself. And we can carry that life with us and make things bloom where we are. I trust this church is such a place: a place that can flourish and grow with your prayers and your presence and your participation. I trust your home and place of work can be such a place. But it depends on what you bring to it from here, from the sacraments ministered here, from the Word of God read and proclaimed and taught right here. I believe that this city, the places you work in the places you live in are not desert but wilderness, needing what you can absorb here and take there and capable of real life. But it’s not automatic and it won’t happen unless you want it to happen and make time for it to happen.
God twists very few arms. God wants us to respond in freedom. But God does want us to grow. God does want us to focus on life. God does want us to turn away from all that which is not God to come, to come, to come now while we have time, to come to the One who is.