Sermon: Feasting in the Wilderness


The name of today’s sermon is “Feasting in the Wilderness”.

Now you might think that phrase to be rather oxymoronic.

Out in the barrenness of the Wilderness of Judea there was little to feast on. The searing sun scorched an arid land, even the smallest creatures that roamed there were accustomed to blistering heat, yawning bellies and preying on their fellow desert dwellers. The people called it “Jeshimon”, which literally means `the devastation’. It’s a limestone desert, about which William Barclay wrote, “Across it ran the ridges and the hills all contorted and twisted, with part of them broken and jagged like a decayed tooth.”

It’s that place about which Asaph, retelling the epic story in Psalm 78 of a merciful God leading a rebellious people out of Egypt and through the desert, and as they looked around at the place where God and Moses had brought them, railed against them both saying, “Can even God prepare a table in this wilderness?!”

The same vast desert which hid young David from a vengeful King Saul; the place of solitude where Elijah went to gather his energies for his prophetic work.

It is the lone wilderness from which John the Baptist cried his lonely witness to the world to `prepare a way for the Lord.’

This is the wasteland into which the Spirit led Jesus upon emerging from the cool waters of the Jordan River.

We read this story of Jesus in the wilderness each year at the beginning of Lent because it represents a retreat from the ordinary, comfortable routines of daily life; “a break from familiar connections and loyalties, complacencies and dependencies.”

“No more ease in self-indulgence,” as biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it. “No more junk food. It might be the food that tempts, but maybe not, whatever it is that soaks off our resolve and our intention. The temptor, the temptation, is to grow fat and compliant and narcoticized, with no edge for the issues of our God-given humanity. [This] story of Jesus begins otherwise, with no yielding to such indulgence.” (Sermon: Strategies for Humanness, Feb. 21, 1999)

 

It is a paradox, this wilderness experience; foreboding and at the same time magnetic. Jeshirnon was the kind of place that could suck the life out of you without you even realize it was doing so. But it could also be the very place where one discovered – or rediscovered – the depth and the essence of life.

 

My dear friend Rusty and I used to go `wilderness camping.’ In February 1984 we spent a week hiking through the Grand Canyon. And here and there along the trail there were these strategically placed – and rather ominous – signs that reminded you to: “Stop! Drink water. You are thirsty, whether you realize it or not!”

We had to pack our water with us down into the Canyon. We took with us only the most basic, essential elements needed for survival. Yet, even so, each of us carried, in our backpacks, about forty pounds of food, water, shelter and other provisions along paths that sometimes dropped several hundred feet in one mile. The first day’s trek (on Grandview Trail from the South Rim down to Horseshoe Mesa) was about three miles into the Canyon with a 2000 foot decent.

That night for diner all we had energy left to muster was a can of spam and water.

It tasted like feast.  

In the course of a few days we descended from a warm, comfortable lodge perched on a beautiful snow covered ridge into a vast rugged wilderness characterized by bone-chilling nights and days that reach temperatures of over ninety degrees.

Sometimes I look back at those experiences and think, “What in the world were we thinking was so great about that?!”

But then, upon deeper reflection, the answer always returns to me.

Rusty – the perennial boy scout of the team – used to call it “getting back to nature.” As a novice cleric, I viewed it more as a spiritual pilgrimage.

Rusty, bless his heart, with his outdoor expertise and Native American instinct, kept us alive in that barren place. I always tried to interpret the experience we were having in the context of a deeper meaning. So much so, in fact, that sometimes, as we sat by the campfire, Rusty would feel compelled to say, “Just shut up for a while and enjoy the quiet.”

And you know what, he was absolutely right. Because the meaning of such an experience is not contrived or academic; it is embedded in its own innate reality.

I have no significant recollection of the conversations we had in that wilderness place, although I treasure the memories of being together with my friend. What I do remember – almost viscerally – however, is the experience of being profoundly alone in that wild place; and yet, somehow, not alone at all.

Far away from the noisome voices of the `civilized world,’ (television, radio, telephones, bosses, teachers, parents) you begin to hear and attend to other things: the mournful rumors of the wind; the hypnotic crackle of a campfire; a complex orchestra of insect life; a coyote’s forlorn howl and soulful chorus in response; the inquisitive `whoo-ing’ of a vigilant owl.

And – it seemed to me that – it would get so still in the desert night, that you could almost hear the deep hum of the world turning on its axis; the moon and stars quietly pulsating as they hovered overhead.

In the midst of that unperturbed place, I could even hear the clamor my own body makes; the burbles, groans, rattles, and thumps.

“Did you know that if you get quiet enough, you can actually hear the hum of your own electricity? It makes about as much noise as the motor on a small electric clock, only most of us cannot hear it because of all the other motors around us. In the desert, you can.” (“The Wilderness Exam,” Bread of Angels, Barbara Brown Taylor, 1997)

For me, the wilderness was about `getting back to myself,’ recovering my essence. It was about finding enough space, solitude and silence to rediscover who I really was and what I really cared about. It was all about just `being’ a creature of God in the midst of God’s vast and glorious creation.

  

Matthew wrote his Gospel for the sake of the church; to help the church discover – or recover – who it is as the church and to define what it means to be the church.

“So, what if this Gospel reading is not about `the temptation of Jesus,” says Brueggemann, “not the last temptation [nor] the first temptation…but [rather is] about the temptation of the church that prays, `Lead us not into temptation’? And what if it is not the devil at work here, but all those many voices of threat and seduction that seek to talk us out of being the church?

Or [to] make it broader [still].What if it is about all those voices that seek to talk us out of our God-given humanness?

“…the forces that want to negate our God-given humanness are all around, daily, public, personal, powerful, attentive, and attractive . . . forces that thin us and shorten us and slot us until we are diminished. Jesus is offered here as a guide and model and resource for how to resist the temptation, how to fend off those voices, how to enact deliberate strategies to be who we are called by God to be” (ibid. italics mine).

 

In a speech given to the Convention of the National Association of Broadcasters on May 9, 1961, Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton N. Minow  coined a, now well-worn, phrase by calling commercial television a “vast wasteland.”

Today live in the communication age. Today the world’s primary GDP is communication. Beyond television – with social media, personal computers, and cell phones that give us all global access to the World Wide Web – over the past some 46 years, Newton Minow’s vast wasteland has expanded exponentially.

We hear a growing – one might even say a deafening – cacophony of voices. Twitter, FaceBook, Google, Blogger, and the 24 Hour News Cycle virtually bombards us with competing voices, differing realities, alternate facts . . . making it difficult, if not impossible, to determine what’s what and who’s really who.

The truth has been so profoundly coopted and exploited, that it is difficult to recognize, in this day and age, what the truth is:

 

“Jesus was hungry and the voice said, “Make some bread for yourself.”

“He was God’s man, relying completely on God, and the voice said, “Push the envelope, see how far you can move God beyond common sense, find out if God is real, real enough to support your miracles.”

“He was sent on a mission to usher in the new rule of God, to displace all the old ordering of life, and the voice said, “Engage in a little idolatry, and you can have everything you want on your own terms, just give in, just a a little.””

“The voices always come at Jesus and the church in our moments of yearning vulnerability,” says Walter Brueggemann.

“hungry . . . make bread.

 trusting . . . find out how far

 responsible . . . get it all by cheating a little”

 

`Like Jesus, we, too, find ourselves in a wilderness of confusion with few resources. Like him, we are assailed by voices that mean us no good.’ (ibid.)

 

Listen: Only you can determine what voices deceive you and lead you away from your `humanness’. Only you know what temptations threaten to occlude your true self.

But here Jesus gives us a model of how to resist those voices of temptation with the resources essential to our spiritual survival.

He had his Bible: memories of those trusted voices that – in the midst of a wasteland of untruths – anchored him in a long faith heritage of truth, and reminded him of who he was.

The wilderness is, indeed, a harsh, demanding and sometimes dangerous place to be. But if we move through it with courage, and fortitude, and the faith that God, and God alone, can and will provide for all our needs, then journeying through the wilderness can be a life-sustaining, self-affirming, faith-renewing experience.

And so, as the story ends, after Jesus had persistently, effectively resisted the destructive voices, the angels came and waited on him; satisfying his hunger with manna from heaven.

Lent is that season by which the church affords itself the time and the space to `get back to basics;’ to care for itself; to remember who we are and how to be the church.

So, today, in the midst of this vast wilderness, let us now also be ministered to by the angels, as we prepare a heavenly feast with the cup of salvation and the bread of life.