The Desert, February 18, 2018

First Sunday of Lent, 2018

Spiritual Geography:  The Landscape of our Faith

The Desert                      Audio available


Psalm 130, Luke 4:1-12
Pastor Donna Buell

In her best-selling book Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, Kathleen Norris described moving from an apartment in New York City to her grandparents’ home near the border between North and South Dakota to live and work as a writer. In the book she wrote about the difficulty of making that geographical adjustment. She wrote about her observations of the way the vast, open, sparsely populated landscape of the Dakotas shapes the faith and the spirit of the people who live there. And she wrote about how this move to the Dakotas brought about a tremendous spiritual transformation in her own life.

A philosopher once wrote: “Tell me the landscape in which you live and I will tell you who you are.”  The geography of the place in which we live can have a great deal of impact upon our spirits. This is perhaps more apparent to those who have lived in more than one type of landscape in their lives.  Those who have grown up near the ocean find themselves out of sorts when they become landlocked in the Midwest. Those used to high snow-capped mountain peaks find the vast flat stretches of the prairie to be somewhat empty and desolate, while those who have grown up on the prairie feel hemmed in when they find themselves in hilly terrain. To grow up on a farm is very different from growing up in an inner city.  Driving to work on empty gravel roads is quite different from sitting in bumper-to-bumper city traffic. Location has an impact upon our mood, our temperament, our personality, our spirituality, our faith.

A number of years ago, the Journal WEAVINGS, published by the Upper Room Ministries, featured a series of 6 issues focusing on metaphors drawn from scripture, rooted in geography, and established in the history of Christian spirituality. Marty and I were both intrigued by these metaphors and thought that they would provide an interesting series of Lenten sermons.  In this series, Spiritual Geography – the landscape of our faith, we will invite you to journey with us to the desert, the mountain, the vineyard, the sea, the garden, and the road, that we may discover what we can learn from these different landscapes to help us grow as people of God.

This morning we begin, as does the season of Lent, in the desert, for it was the forty days and nights Jesus spent in the desert wilderness at the beginning of his ministry that gave rise to the church’s observance of the season of Lent.

Actually the Hebrew word that is translated desert is eremos. And it doesn’t mean a hot and dry place; it means a place that is uninhabited, lonely, with no human population. And a person who lives in the eremos is called an eremite, which is the source of the word hermit.  I’m not sure why, but I have always had a fascination with hermits.  Perhaps it is my introversion, or the contemplative nature of my spirituality, but those who are called to live in solitude have always intrigued me.

Now some people make the choice because they are anti-social, for whatever reason, they don’t want to have other people in their lives. But there are those who choose a period of solitude in their lives in order to separate themselves from the distractions of the people and possessions and expectations that too often crowd our lives. Some choose to spend a period of time away from all of that in order to make time and space in their lives and in their hearts for listening to God. The solitude and silence of uninhabited places allow for that kind of experience.

That desire is not just a modern phenomenon. In the early history of the Christian Church, there were men and women who chose to go out into the deserts of Syria and Egypt to live for a time in solitude. These desert fathers and mothers, as they are called, chose this harsh way life of in order to deepen their experience of God. And others benefited from the insights and wisdom these people gained through their experience. Early Irish monks learned of these desert fathers and mothers and responded, in a country where there is no desert, by going off to rugged outcroppings by the sea.

The gift of the deserted place is the opportunity to have time and space in which to be alone before God, stripped of all the trappings of this world, undistracted by the demands of others.   But this gift may also be the desert’s greatest terror. For the gift and the demand of the desert is to be our self in the sight of the only Observer there is in a place deserted by humans:  in the sight of God. And that can be frightening. (David Rensberger, “Deserted Spaces”)

Some desert experiences are not chosen. Many of us may have had the experience, at some point in our lives, of being thrust into a desolate place; a place, which we may have described as a desert or a wilderness. Such desert experiences may be relational, when we have lost a loved one to death or divorce or the end of any significant relationship in which we have invested much of our lives and our identity. Desert experiences may be bodily, occasioned by illness or injury or the physical limitations that arise with aging. Desert experiences may be vocational, occasioned by the loss of a job, or a lack of meaning or purpose in one’s work. We can find ourselves in the economic desert of poverty, or the social desert that happens when we move to a new place and struggle to make meaningful connections with others. We may experience deserts of time, either too much time that stretches before us like a vast landscape or too little time, where opportunities for nurturing our spirit are sparse. There are deserts of space when we live in cramped conditions or harsh and desolate settings, or when we find ourselves at a great distance from those we love. And all of these can and often do lead us to experience a desert of the spirit, where we may wonder where God is, who we are called to be, and how we can continue to survive under the present circumstances.

Deserts are times when what is familiar and comfortable is stripped away, and we are left only with ourselves before God. Some friends of mine were once thrust into such a desert experience when the home they lived in with his elderly mother burned to the ground early in the morning on Christmas Eve. Fortunately no one was home at the time. But they lost everything they owned in that fire, and as you can imagine, it was a devastating experience. Yet, even within the first few months, while this loss was still very raw, they were already discovering some things in this desert about what was most important to them, about what they had come to depend upon, about how much they were able to live without. And they discovered anew things about the way God ministers to us in times of desolation through friends and faith, through family and church family. My heart has been full of sorrow for yet another community thrust into the life-altering desert experience of a school shooting. And in some ways we have all been thrust into a desert experience this week.

The desert is a harsh place, and it asks some very harsh questions of us. It asks:  How much can you do without? How much can you leave behind? It asks, as Jesus asked Peter, Do you love me more than these? Do you love me more than your familiar relationships? your comfortable surroundings? your abundant possessions? your place and position within the community? your strongly held opinions? Do you love me more than your physical health and well-being? Do you love me more than your independence? Do you love me more than this loved one who has died? These are hard questions. And the desert can be a harsh place where we have to deal with such painful questions.

The desert is as much a place of testing for us as it was for Jesus, a place for questions like, Who are you, really? and What are the values by which you will choose to live your life?  Before beginning his public ministry, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness where he wrestled with those questions. He was tempted to use his divine powers to provide for his own physical needs. He was tempted to take the easy way out in his ministry by using miraculous signs and wonders to draw attention to himself rather than to the kingdom of God which he was sent to proclaim. He was tempted to test the limits of his human body to see whether or not God would really protect him. But in all three cases, Jesus drew upon the resources of his faith and upon God’s Word, and accepting the limitations of his mortal, human form, he resisted those temptations to abuse his divine power. And I believe that in that wilderness time Jesus came to a real clarity about who he was and how he was being called to conduct himself throughout his life and ministry, and that this is what helped him to live faithfully, in humble trust and obedience to God even to the point of death on the cross.

Like Jesus we too must wrestle with temptation when we find ourselves in the wilderness.  Whether we choose the solitude of the desert as an opportunity for some serious spiritual reflection, stripping ourselves of the things we use to hide from ourselves, from others, and from God, or whether we find ourselves thrust into the desert through some painful and difficult experience, we may discover what Henri Nouwen once wrote, that the desert can be a “crucible of transformation.” And in a sense that is what the season of Lent is about. It is about looking deeply into our selves and our lives and our faith to discover who we really are. And it is about asking God to forgive us, to heal us, to accompany us, to transform us into the Easter people God would have us be.

Those words of Psalm 130 seem very appropriate for a Lenten wilderness experience: When we find ourselves crying out for God in a desolate place, stripped of all our masks and roles, we begin to see ourselves for who we truly are, we begin to see ourselves as we fear God sees us.  But, if we trust in God’s Word then we know that God is a God of steadfast love and mercy and forgiveness. And therefore we can wait and watch and hope, even in the midst of the desert.

Now I know that when you are in the midst of a desert experience, it isn’t very comforting to have someone tell you to wait and watch and hope and be patient and trust that God is with you.  On the other hand, you also know that easy answers, and simple solutions, and encouragement to get up and get on with your life ring pretty hollow. Those who dwell in the desert know that there is no easy way out of the desert. There are no short cuts. But the promise of God’s divine presence with us does not offer us an easy way out of the desert. It offers a way through the desert.

I remember hearing the story of a pastor who had accepted a call to a new church. The problem was that he would have to uproot his family and move them to one of the desert regions of the country. His teenage children were pretty unhappy about the prospect of leaving behind their friends and all that was familiar. And they had visited this new church when their father was interviewing, and they thought the desert was a stark and empty and ugly place, which only seemed to reinforce their unhappiness about the move. So you can imagine that everyone in the family was anxious and feeling a bit desolate as they drove across country to their new home.

The moving van was scheduled to arrive in the morning, but rather than stay in a hotel overnight, the family went on ahead to the parsonage. It was dark when they arrived and went into the strange and empty house that was to be their new home. During the night, as they camped out on the floor in sleeping bags, they heard a great thunder storm rumble across the desert. And when the sun came up the next morning, this pastor and his family opened the door, and went outside, and looked out onto what they expected to be a dusty, dry, drab desert landscape. What they saw, much to their surprise, was that the desert had blossomed. The spring rains had brought forth all kinds of vegetation and it was absolutely breathtaking. And so they began this new phase of their lives with a greater sense of hope, for God is the one who promises to make a way in the desert.

As we enter this season of Lent, some of us may be finding ourselves in a desert place: a place where we feel isolated and desolate and vulnerable. Perhaps others of us are choosing to use this season of Lent as a time to look more deeply into ourselves, into who we truly are and who we are called to be. Either way, we may find it to be a lonely, uncertain, and somewhat frightening time. But be assured that it can also be a fruitful time: a time when we can come to a better understanding of who we are and whose we are, and of the God who promises to be with us. So as we move through this season of Lent, as we struggle through a time in the desert wilderness, as we wait and watch and hope and trust in the Lord, let us hold fast to these words of promise, found in book of the prophet Isaiah.  from Isaiah 35

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom,
like the crocus, it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing…
Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God. He will come and save you.”…
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water…
A highway shall be there and it shall be called the Holy Way…
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads,
they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Thanks be to God.


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