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No sooner has Jesus been baptized and blessed and pronounced beloved, no sooner has he come up out of the Jordan’s murky waters, divine favor dripping off him like so much victory champagne, than the very Spirit of God marches him into the barren desert.
It sounds ridiculous. It seems unfair, bordering on harsh. And yet it totally reflects our own life experiences: peaks followed by deep valleys, feasts interrupted by famine, so much desolation on the way to the promised land.
We are more likely to be driven into the wilderness by circumstances than by God, but chances are that sooner or later we will find ourselves there. It doesn’t have to be a literal wilderness, of course—no remote backcountry or abandoned wasteland. Our wilderness could be the heavy pall of depression, a seemingly endless season of unemployment; it could be a struggle with serious illness (ours or a loved one’s), the unhappy ending of a relationship, the bottomless well of loneliness. Who knows? Wilderness might be the four walls of a meeting room in a church basement, locked away from beloved family. And surely grief, rage, and a sense of powerless brought on by social injustice or the latest mass murder are other forms of wilderness.
When we speak of it like this, we say “wilderness” as if it’s a bad thing—something to be endured and, if possible, survived. That seemed to be the experience of the ancient Hebrews, as they wandered in the desert for 40 years. And if we read other gospel accounts of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, with their emphases on his fasting and famishedness, and the details of Satan’s tantalizing temptations, wilderness comes across as a place to be avoided at all costs.
And yet our scriptures tell us stories of one person after another, and an entire nation of people, finding God there. The gospels say it was none other than Love Divine that forced God-pleasing, wet-behind-the-ears Jesus into the wasteland. And the season of Lent invites us into the wilderness; it asks us to walk willingly through a time of reflection and repentance, devotion and discipline and even death. Why? What is up with that?
Could it be that what we see as disaster can also be holy ground? Could wilderness be the place where we are found and formed? Could it be that God’s best transformative love-work is done in what seems like a void?
If Jesus’ experience is any guide, perhaps time in the spiritual wilderness helps us learn who and whose we are. Maybe it heals us and prepares us for what is to come. Maybe it is a time for forging a life-shaping bond with the Holy that not even death will be able to break.
What if we could experience wilderness as refuge, a place for spiritual grounding? What if we saw our time in the wilderness as an opportunity to strip away all that does not give us life, to learn to trust in the Holy—and her angels—for all we need? What if we could make of our time in the wilderness a sanctuary in the very heart of God?
Might we, like the psalmist, discover that God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble? Might we become more attuned to God’s presence in our lives? Might we be able to let go of our fears, knowing that—no matter how awful things seem, no matter how unending the desert—that a River of Life flows through it, that mercy and goodness are with us even in our darkest valleys?
We tend to be fully aware of all that is wrong with the world. And we here at First Church have a wonderful instinct to try, with God’s help, to fix things—to work for justice, to welcome the outcasts, to serve the marginalized, to liberate the oppressed, to care for the Earth, to react and respond to the latest heartbreaking outrage.
Our lives are so filled with activity and noise, duty and routine—most of them good things! Yet we are constantly being pulled in multiple directions—by jobs and striving, children, family and friends, the next five things on our to-do list, bombarded with bad news, email, and Facebook, regularly tempted to despair and doing more and more in the hopes of avoiding it. Sometimes we don’t even realize that all our busyness allows us to ignore not only God but also ourselves, that we have lost touch with ourselves and the Sacred within us. Sometimes we are afraid that if we slow down we will discover a painful emptiness inside.
When Jesus came up out of the water and found himself blessed and beloved, maybe he was raring to go. Maybe he couldn’t wait to get to work—to begin sharing the good news of God’s love for all, to reveal the reign of God, to start fixing things. And maybe that is why the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness—because Jesus didn’t yet understand all that living God’s love in a world of hurt would take out of him, because he needed to be rooted in a power greater than his own, because he needed to be still and let God be God, because he needed to let God love him before he could love others.
We can never really know, of course, why Jesus was sent into the wilderness. But we can see the good it did him. And we can choose to go there ourselves. Indeed, in these dark times in our world and this very busy season in the life of First Church, when we are working hard to put so much love into the world, to care for our brother Lucio and his family, it may be that we need a little wilderness. Now, as ever, we need seasons of stillness and pure attention. Now, perhaps more than ever, we need to know our belovedness and to be grounded in the Source of Love.
Which is how, after listening to one another, we developed our Lenten theme for this year: Sanctuary of the Heart.
Our hope is that in this season we will be able to let go of all that separates us from the Holy, from one another—even from ourselves. That we will carve out some quiet time, and, like Jesus, make a temporary home in the wilderness, a safe place to acknowledge the wild beasts and not-so-pleasant parts within us. That we could, at least for a short time, let go of our anxious striving and allow the angels—God’s messengers of mercy, the Christs in our midst, and unexpected blessings—to sustain us.
Last Wednesday was a pretty busy day for me—not, unfortunately, because it was Valentine’s Day, but because it was Ash Wednesday. In addition to all the normal Wednesday things, I had to prepare for, and participate in, three different different times, places, and styles of offering ashes as a symbol of God’s love and mercy for us, our need for (and God’s invitation to) forgiveness, our mortality as creatures, and our utter dependence on our Creator. After Bible Study, I went from our Chapel to the sidewalk outside the Black Sheep, home for a while to work on today’s bulletin, and then right back here to this sanctuary.
In the course of all that, I hardly had a moment to check the news or look at Facebook. I saw one post about a shooting in Florida, but there were no details. Then, when I came back to the church for our Ash Wednesday service, I discovered I had accidentally left my phone at home.
And so it wasn’t until after I got home that night that I heard the horrible news: 17 dead, most of them children, others injured, and another community utterly devastated by gun violence.
In addition to feeling sickened and angry about the utterly senseless loss of life, I felt horrible that I had led a worship service without saying a word about the shooting. I imagined that those of you who did know about it might have been bewildered by and disappointed in my silence. I felt I had failed those of you who had come for connection, forgiveness, renewal, and, as I said, to come home to God.
When I finally collapsed into bed that night I did so as one hot mess.
Sanctuary, you see, is not about escape. It is not an invitation to run from our problems or the woes of the world. It is, instead, a place of strengthening and purification, of emptying out all that is harmful and alienating so that we might be filled with love, power, and the capacity for connection. The sanctuary of the heart is about retreat and renewal, so that transformed and sustained by God’s love, we might know delight as well as duty.
Where will your Lenten journey take you? What is your wilderness? What do you need to let go of, to find not only God, but also yourself? What do you need to let go of to make room for new life?
Wherever and whatever it is, “I can tell you,” says Jan Richardson, “that on this path there will be help. … That on this way there will be rest. I can tell you that you will know strange graces that come to our aid only on a road such as this, that fly to meet us bearing comfort and strength.” Because the steadfast love of God never ceases. Because God’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning.
After all the busyness and heartbreak of last Wednesday, Thursday dawned. The second day of Lent, yes, but also, another day of work to be done. As always, I parked in the lot behind the church building and then walked around the building to the front door. When I rounded the corner and started up the driveway, I could hardly believe what I saw. There, hanging from the branches of one of our tulip magnolia trees, were about twenty felt hearts. I had no idea where they had come from, but I loved them! I needed them! Then I saw another 20 or so hearts hanging from the porch railing, I realized that we, First Church and Lucio, had been “heart-bombed.”
The angels had waited on us.
And so they will again, always and forever. So let us go into the wilderness—in trust and hope and love.