Kanekomachi INTO THE WILDERNESS

Mazinde Sermon Preached by the Rev. Dr. Lindley G. DeGarmo

Union Church of Pocantico Hills

March 6, 2022

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

Luke 4:1-13

One Fall weekend, when I was eight or thereabouts, my older cousin and I pitched a tent in his backyard and were given permission to sleep in it overnight. It was my first experience of what we called “camping out.” My cousin’s yard backed up against a wooded area, and we worked several hours that morning staking out our camp site on the far reaches of the lawn, nearest to the woods. We were very excited about being out, on our own, in the wild like this. Still, we oriented the tent so our view from the sleeping bags, through the door flaps, was back towards his parents’ house, 50 yards or so away.

All that afternoon, we outfitted the inside of our tent in preparation for the night ahead. We added pillows and a transistor radio, a container with some snacks and sodas, a checkerboard and some comic books. Then, as the sun dipped lower in the sky and the shadows lengthened around us, we decided to run an extension cord from the house, so that we could have a reliable overhead light. And so we braved the suburban wilderness that long and largely sleepless night, returning triumphant early the next morning to bacon, eggs and donuts in the warmth of my aunt’s kitchen, where we recounted our adventures.

What is it about the “wilderness” that fuels our imaginations and draws us, however tentatively, away from familiar landscapes toward regions untamed and unknown? What—or whom—do we encounter there?

Today is the first Sunday in Lent, the season between Ash Wednesday and Easter, when Christians commemorate the forty days of Jesus’ temptation and fasting in the wilderness. The Spirit of God, Luke tells us in today’s lesson, led Jesus there—into the wilderness—immediately following his baptism in the Jordan River. Traditionally, Lent is a time of prayer and self-denial, a time of calling ourselves back from the comforts and complacencies of everyday life, to remember what it’s like to live by the grace of God alone and not by what we can supply for ourselves. A spiritual basic training, you might say, or an Outward Bound for the soul.

Lent has long had its secular counterparts, perhaps especially so in America. “I went to the woods,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Retreating to a crude hut on the shore of Walden Pond in 1845, Thoreau protested the artificiality of modern life and sought personal authenticity and self-knowledge alone in the woods. Walden remains a classic and well-loved text. And we Americans continue to go to the woods and the wilderness in great numbers, if only—for some of us—through our subscriptions to glossy magazines and attention to public television programs on “Nature.”[1]

The world we live in is increasingly urban. It is ever more challenging to “get away from it all.” Back in the Sixties, Congress passed a law intended to preserve the national wilderness. It actually defined wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”[2] Are there any areas of the globe today truly “untrammeled by man”? Isn’t the inter-connectedness of all life on this planet ever more obvious? Scientists tells us how activities as diverse as cutting down trees in the Amazon Basin and driving our cars and SUVs on American freeways contribute to climate change. It all fits together and, like it or not, we live in an increasingly crowded and stressed global village.

Yet as individuals, we may sense vast regions of wilderness in the personal landscapes of our lives. For wilderness is defined as an area “untrammeled” by our kind, unfamiliar, uncharted, untamed. It’s a place where we ourselves are but “visitors who do not remain”; where we are just passing through. Isn’t it true that as we’ve become more mobile—less constrained by time and space and convention—we more often have the sense of just passing through? And passing through too quickly—cell phones ever at hand—with no time to savor the texture that gives each place and person its unique beauty and enchantment. We can make all our world a wilderness if we take no time to notice, if we forget, with Blake,

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.

We may yearn for balance, but the fact is we are often out of control, buffeted by forces bigger than ourselves. And thanks to the explosion of information and analysis everywhere we turn, we’re more acutely aware of it than ever before.

It’s the rare individual these days who has not personally faced a “wilderness experience,” when some life-shattering disappointment or sorrow or illness or rejection or failure scattered all sense of meaning and left that person feeling utterly abandoned and alone. The great preacher Maurice Boyd likened this region of the human spirit to “a wasteland [where] the springs of joy have dried up, and the rivers of hope that once rushed in full flood have become a bed of cracked and burning clay, and there is no help …in a parched and desolate place.”[3]

At such moments, it’s easy to imagine that God has vanished—or perhaps was never there at all—and that you have been turned over to the enemy. In this morning’s lesson from the gospel of Luke, I sense Jesus himself struggling with that thought. Yet according to Luke, it was the Spirit that led Jesus into the wilderness—not the devil or the unholy forces of the world but the holy spirit of God.

It happened on one of the best days of his life, too. It happened on the same day he was baptized by John in the River Jordan. No sooner had Jesus come up out of the water than the dove that had lit on him turned into a guide bird, leading him away from the river and into the desert with the voice of God still ringing in his ears: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” He would spend forty days there, alone. Well, not quite alone. The devil was there, Luke says, tempting him. But Jesus was alone in that he alone had to make sense of his situation. There was no one else to tell him what it meant, or what to do. There was no one else to take his mind off the quiet of that desolate space or the heat of the day or the cold of the night or the emptiness of his belly as the days dragged on. There was no one to distract him from the things he feared and the things he craved.[4]

It must have been hard. It must have been awful. Surely, by the time the devil came to test him, at the end of those forty days, Jesus must have been at about the end of his rope. After that long, lonely time in the wilderness, he must have wondered whether he’d imagined the whole thing back at the river: the sky opening, the voice from heaven, the dove. Here, there was just him, the desert, and, finally, the devil.

I won’t repeat their conversation, because I imagine you know it well. But notice what was on the devil’s test. First he tempted Jesus to practice magic: “command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Next he tempted Jesus to take control of all the kingdoms of the world: “If you will worship me, it will all be yours.” Finally, he tempted him to call on God for special protection: “Throw yourself down from the Temple.”

In all these tests, the devil suggests to Jesus that he deserves better than he’s getting. “If you are the Son of God…,” why not? Satan is daring Jesus to prove who is by acting like a god instead of a man. Barbara Brown Taylor observes that “if Jesus is not really tempted by that idea, then this is not really a test. It is only a test if he is sorely tempted—to rise above the hunger, the danger, the helplessness of the human condition and seize something better for himself.” [5]

But friends, here is the story in which Jesus—and we—find out what being the son of God really means. “This is the story in which Jesus proves who he is not by seizing power, but by turning it down.” He remains human, and goes on to show us all that a child of God is not “someone who is related to God by rising out of his humanity, but someone who is beloved by God for sinking into it even he is famished, even when he is taunted by the devil himself. It is someone who can listen to every good reason in the world for becoming God’s rival—and remain God’s child instead.”[6]

“According to the gospel, this period in the wilderness was essential to everything that came after it for Jesus. It was a great source of his humanness as well as his holiness. Even after he left the wilderness, he carried it around inside of him, and far from fleeing it later in his life, he sought it out. Without the wilderness, he might not have been the same person. Because of the wilderness he was not afraid of anything.”[7]

The season of Lent invites us to follow Jesus into the wilderness. For those of us already passing through desolate places, it is an invitation to wait patiently for the Lord, to deny despair and embrace the sure promise that God will be with us as we pass through and when we emerge once more from the wilderness and even unto the life everlasting. Wherever we are and however we choose to respond to this Lenten invitation, we will be well served to go into the wilderness with our eyes and ears and minds open to what we will find there. It’s no good wishing we could sleep through it, or that it would just go away.

For if Jesus’ own life has anything to do with ours, then these wilderness experiences are God’s own gifts to us. They are the Spirit’s doing. They are offered to us for our own humanness, as well as for our holiness, if only we will sit down and register where we are.

Where are you headed this Lent? Will you take time to reflect on the maturity of your faith and what it might take to make you a stronger disciple? Will you repent of your past and embrace the good news that God gives you a future and that the Holy Spirit will sustain you when you are tested? To follow Jesus requires endurance and sacrifice, it’s true, but such discipline always occurs in light of God’s mercy and grace. And God will provide strength sufficient for each day’s needs.

In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ we bend our knees and lift up our hearts, giving glory to God forever. Amen.

[1] Explored in Journal for Preachers, vol. 24, no. 2 (2001).

[2] The Wilderness Act of 1964, cited in R. Maurice Boyd, “Wilderness Experiences,” The Fine Art of Being Imperfect (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 112.

[3] Boyd, 115.

[4] I draw here from the language and imagery of Barbara Brown Taylor, Four Stops in the Wilderness, Journal for Preachers, vol. 24, no. 2 (2001), 3-4.

[5] Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Wilderness Exam,” Bread of Angels (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1997, 39.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Taylor, Four Steps, 4.