A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, February 14, 2016
Two tales from the Wilderness lead to this morning’s Reflection on the Word. They are separated by centuries. They involve different characters and they describe different actions. But, what they have in common is God – the same God who searches and knows hearts and minds, who leads those who will follow in what the psalmist identifies as “the way everlasting.”
I don’t think we can unpack these stories without first having some sense of what we mean by wilderness. The dictionary records that wilderness is “a wild and uncultivated region, as of forest or desert, uninhabited or inhabited only by wild animals; a tract of wasteland; any desolate tract.”
It also lists as a synonym, desert, which connects more directly to our texts. Desert is defined as “a region so arid because of little rainfall that it supports only sparse and widely spaced vegetation or no vegetation at all; any area in which few forms of life can exist because of lack of water, permanent frost, or absence of soil.”
The key common descriptors are wild, uncultivated. Wilderness may appear as a desolate wasteland, a desert, but not necessarily. Wilderness may be as fecund, as full of life, as the chaos from which creation was drawn. We might even argue that God dwells in that chaos, in a dimension beyond our understanding and control. In today’s texts it is clear that God is encountered in the wilderness. The Holy One is experienced in ways quite different from the ordinary patterns of everyday life. This all holds the prospect of being a little bit scary, doesn’t it?
In today’s first story, God graciously offers the children of Israel a homeland, “flowing with milk and honey.” All they need to do is go with God, following Moses, God’s ordained leader, and they would be taken care of. The problems begin when they are confronted with the unknown, when they look out across the wilderness and think maybe they would have been better off in the familiar territory of Egypt, even if it meant slavery. How often do we come up against the unknown, confront chaos, or perceive desolation in some wilderness and say, “Not today, thank you”? We hear the story of the Hebrew people and we recognize it in so many ways as our own. Called to follow, we drag our feet, grumble and resist all the way. Promised land? Way everlasting? Lovely ideas, but what will the journey cost? We’re afraid it will require more than we’re willing to pay. I mean, what if it takes all that we have?
Here they are at the foot of the mountain. God comes close and they’re terrified. Well, who wouldn’t be? You have to be careful what you ask for. You want God to take care of you but then, when God shows up in a sudden storm and you’re out there in the wilderness, you’re not so sure you trust what will happen. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “When it is all over – when the people have witnessed the thunder and the lightning, when they have heard the blast of the trumpet and seen the mountain smoking – every single one of these people who have prayed and prayed to hear the voice of God does a complete about face, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen,’ they say to Moses; ‘but do not let God speak to us, or we will die’” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark, p. 47). How can we survive the presence of the Holy One? Our tendency is to choose the familiar over the fearful, no matter how the familiar may enslave and abuse us.
It is tough enough to face our fears in the comfort of our homes; it can feel overwhelming to have to face them while wandering in the wilderness, detached from the familiar, praying that something or someone larger than we will rescue us. In The Chronicles of Narnia, when the rescuer turns out to be a fierce lion, the children are not so sure they want to trust Aslan to lead them through this strange new world. They are afraid. It takes time and practice for them to let the lion lead them to where they need to be. In the same sense, it takes time and practice for the children of Israel to let go of their fear and trust that God and Moses will bring them through. It takes time and practice for us to trust that God will lead us into the way everlasting. It may be that we will need to traverse some frightening wilderness. We may have to learn to walk in the dark.
In the second tale, Jesus is also drawn to the wilderness. Though the circumstances are different, one might consider that it is the same Holy Spirit that leads Jesus as led the children of Israel. There seems to be something about the wilderness that allows folk to encounter God in a depth and intensity that is not possible in the relative safety of everyday life. For Jesus, this story takes place immediately after one of the high points of his life. And how often is that so, immediately after we have been the mountain top we are plunged into some of the greatest challenges of life? Our spirits, soaring, are sorely tested. Jesus, Luke writes, is “full of the Holy Spirit.” Now I take that to be a good thing. Scripture seems to think it is. I can imagine several other things we might be full of that would be less desirable. But, I wonder how many of us have actually been filled with the Spirit in this way. I can’t help but think that there is also something a little strange about it, a little fearful. It’s exhilarating and scary at the same time. Luke doesn’t say if it was so for Jesus but I wonder.
Anyway, Jesus seems to go willingly with the Spirit into the wilderness on a sort of vision quest, a journey to find a deeper, more intense connection to God. For him, it seems essential to living into his high calling from God. He cannot do the work before him, he cannot walk the road that lies ahead, without God and so he must engage in a spiritual discipline of prayer and fasting to prepare for what is to come. Is it really different for any of us who want to walk God’s way? We need to engage in spiritual disciplines like prayer and fasting to get ready for the journey. That is the point of Lent, to prepare for what lies ahead, to know how to survive in the wilderness so we might come to the comfort of home, to learn to walk in the dark as surely as we walk in the light.
These temptations or tests that Jesus faces at the far edge of his wilderness wandering are uniquely his. They pertain to the work and the walk to which God was calling him. Whatever else you make of them, they were real. They represented alternate ways of accomplishing the task, but they were not God’s way. Remember the thunderous voice from the storm-tossed mountain top, ”I am the Lord your God…you shall have no other gods before me”? This is one of those places where God is fierce and uncompromising. That can be a frightening thing. Jesus had to confront it, as did the children of Israel, as do we.
As Jesus faced his own tests, wrestled with his own temptations, so must we. This is actually a situation in which the humanity of Jesus meets our own. Richard Vinson argues that, eventually, “power comes out of Jesus to heal others, and this sounds a bit like a holy energy that resides in Jesus. But Jesus claims to be able to cast out demons ‘by the finger of God,’ which is to say that he does it as God’s agent and not by his own spiritual power (11:19).” He continues, “If God wanted Jesus to turn stone into bread, he could, but not otherwise; it is a mistake to think that Jesus, by virtue of being Son of God, had supernatural powers residing in him that were unavailable to ordinary mortals.” As we considered a couple of weeks ago, “According to Luke, Jesus assigned the disciples the same authority and ability to heal and to cast out demons, so it was not innate to Jesus, but a gift of the Spirit” (Richard B. Vinson, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Luke, p. 112).
Now there’s a scary thought, to consider how much more we might do to change the world if we trusted the gifts of God and the Spirit’s ability to work through us. We know that sometimes the first disciples measured up and sometimes they failed miserably. A lot depended on their willingness and capacity to face their fears. Remember how Peter succeeded in walking on water in the midst of the storm till he looked around and let his fears overwhelm him? Couldn’t the same be said of us? Sometime we rise to the occasion and sometimes we look around and let our fears overwhelm us.
“Courage,” Greg read, “which is no more than the management of fear, must be practiced…How do we develop the courage to walk in the dark if we are never asked to practice?…If we believe a bright security light keeps us safer after dark, there is not a statistic in the world with power to persuade us otherwise” (Barbara Brown Taylor, op. cit., pp. 37, 71). And so it is with all our fears. If we do not face them, if we are not open to wilderness wandering, if we do not learn to walk in the dark, if we are not brave enough to say “no” to anything that would separate us from God and walking God’s “way everlasting, then we will experience a kind of living death. Life may seem alright on the surface, but someday we will come to the question, “Is this all there is?” Here is the question at the heart of facing our fears, posed by poet, Mary Oliver, “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” (Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”). Are you willing to do a little wilderness wandering? Will you take a chance on meeting God in deeper, more intense ways? Are you ready practice a little courage, learn to walk in the dark, take a chance on the Spirit moving mightily in you – and in us? These are questions to take into our Lenten spiritual discipline. These are the same questions Jesus must have asked as he turned his face steadfastly toward Jerusalem. Will we walk with him, all the way, this time?