Sermon for Eucharist
25 February 2007 at :00 am
The wilderness of Judea is a pretty inhospitable place. Burning hot by day and cold by night, almost barren of vegetation and with little water, it is not a place where one would lightly choose to spend a period of time alone. We can easily see why for the Jews of Jesus' time it was assumed to be a place where evil spirits freely roamed. But Jesus, we are told, was led there by the Spirit to be tempted of the devil.
Now it would be a pity if we were to interpret that only literally. For whatever it was that happened historically to Jesus, his time in the wilderness points to an experience that is perhaps all too common for other humans as well.
Jesus was driven there after what must have been the spiritual high-point of his baptism. He had identified himself with the mission of repentance preached by John the Baptist, he had submitted himself to baptism and known some sort of powerful assurance of God's support and encouragement through that experience. But then with him, as so often with us, the spiritual high was followed not by sustained joy, but by a period of bleak emptiness. Was it all worth it? Did it really mean anything? Those must have been the sort of questions going through Jesus' mind as day after day the monotony of the wilderness refused to give him any respite, just as for some of us at times life too seems to be dreadfully monotonous, just one boring yet demanding day after another, each day calling into question the value of the moments of satisfaction, exposing the shallowness and folly of much of what we call fun, and making all our hopes and aspirations appear hollow and worthless. The wilderness is not only somewhere out there, in Judea or Dartmoor or the desolate fens, or whatever bleak bit of the world we can think of, it is inside as well. There's a wilderness of the spirit every bit as frightening and daunting as the external one, and if the truth be known perhaps many of us have known something of that wilderness as well, when life just seems to be pointless and meaningless and almost too much effort.
And in that mood we too like Jesus can encounter the devil. I don't mean by that a literal devil, but the truth of destructive evil to which the mythological picture points is surely all too real and we too can encounter that as it beguiles and tempts us to take some easy route out of our inner wilderness. 'Eat, drink and be merry, have fun, enjoy yourself, live it up for a bit' the devil inside may say in some modern version of the temptation to turn stones into bread. 'After all, there is nothing wrong in eating, and drinking and having fun.' And of course the devil is right, there isn't anything intrinsically wrong with any of those things, until, that is, their consumption and the pleasure they give become merely escape routes from that inner wilderness that we would rather not face. For when they are that then we get hooked, and slowly and surely we will suffocate in their embrace down the paths of gluttony, or alcoholism or sexual licence. I wonder how many of those who, if noise is any guide, are having fun late on Friday and Saturday nights are desperately trying to turn stones into bread and finding that in the end it is no escape from the wilderness within, and that if anything as T.S. Eliot put it you see 'behind every face the mental emptiness deepen, leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about.'
But if we resist that temptation, at least partially, then there may be others. 'Go for power' the devil may say. 'Escape your loneliness by finding some cause or some group of people, a good cause maybe or a good group of people, and throw yourself into that and see if you can find satisfaction there through manipulating and dominating them'. How many politicians or businessmen or, dare I say it, even clergymen have found that escape route from their inner wilderness and found their satisfaction in the power they wield, or at least imagine they wield over others. But then like the satisfaction of physical indulgence it too will eventually fall apart, its hollowness exposed, and at the point of death if not well before, it will seem as if the whole thing has come tumbling down like a house of cards. After all, eventually we all become powerless, final weakness and the folly of our pretensions shadow all our exercise of power at every stage, and even worldly power will provide no long term escape.
Jesus knew those and probably many other temptations as well, he too, like us, has done time in the wilderness, but the whole point of his story is that he didn't try to escape. When he was driven into the wilderness he was prepared to stay there and learn what lessons it had, and behold as St. Mark puts it, he has with the wild beasts and angels came and ministered to him. The hollowness, the loneliness, the emptiness, the frustration of the wilderness, even those wild beasts can become angels ministering to us if we let them. Because each of them can, if we permit it, point us not to escape routes, but to God, whom perhaps we shall meet in a wholly new way if we seek not to escape the wilderness, but rather to travel deeper into it.
And that is what I think Lent is really about. It is not about making ourselves uncomfortable or miserable in some fiddling little way. It is about rejecting the fashionable escape routes of the world, accepting the wilderness within, and so finding God even there in the bleakness and the misery. That's what Jesus did in his Lent. May we all do something of the same this year.