Thursday, February 18, 2016

Nourishment in the Desert (Luke 4:1-13)

This Lent, I commend to you heartily the work of Belden Lane, whose fine book The Solace of Fierce Landscapes offers some fine reflections on Christian spirituality, interspersing stories drawn from his own life.  At first glance, the two types of stories he shares seem a bit distant.  One strand of narrative involves the act of being on pilgrimage.  The other strand revolves around our mortality, particularly through Lane’s memories of sitting at his dying mother’s bedside.  Lane weaves these two strands together: pilgrimage and mortality, helping his reader with some sage thoughts about faith, life, and those things that often distract us from the way of following Christ.

At various points of the book, he shares reflections of persons traveling (himself included) to remote places in the world to experience some form of spiritual pilgrimage.  These journeys take you far from places visited by the average tourist, out into the places that most of us would term inhospitable or lonely.  Out into the desert or somewhere in the mountain range, Belden Lane observes one is confronted with the vastness of the wilderness.  Along the way, the pilgrim traveler encounters glimpses of the divine, often in ways difficult to predict or anticipate.  In such places, “the divine preference for self-disclosure in space is declared to be an austere, deserted, feral terrain” (The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, p. 47).

For centuries, various Christian individuals and religious orders withdraw intentionally away, seeking God in places less urbanized or developed.  In our Baptist traditions, we rarely speak of withdrawing away from things.  We tend to be a fairly noisy, “in the midst of the fray” kind of Protestant people.  Thus, the stories of monastic movements in the history of Christianity tend not to be history we rehearse and recall. Nonetheless, in reading of such history, I suspicion you and I might find something we have longed for and appreciate: a deepening sense of God’s presence in the world and our lives.  We yearn, even when unaware, for something more to our lives than the hectic, near chaotic pace of work, keeping up a household, raising children, tending elders, dealing with our bills, and wondering where the day has gone by the time we finally feel like it is “safe” to unwind, and the clock says “10 PM”.

Now that you mention it, a trip to somewhere where you can be alone sounds quite appealing….

Off in the lonely places, Jesus lived for forty days. One might think this a bit of a letdown after the great celebration just beforehand.  Read the gospel again, and the opening chapters of Luke are one big celebration of Jesus.  The Nativity story of Luke resounds with songs of praise.  At his baptism, Jesus is proclaimed as the one greater than John the Baptist.  The voice of God comes from heaven above, declaring Jesus the divine and beloved Son.  The Spirit descends upon him. And just for extra measure to establish Jesus’ credentials, Luke’s gospel inserts a genealogy after the baptism, showing Jesus’ worthy ancestors.  So why does the gospel writer tell this story of Jesus out in the wilderness?   Just as the story builds up steam, Luke has Jesus take forty days away.

Beyond the biblical narrative, why would a time of withdrawal make sense when everything’s pointing toward success?  A reader versed with the financial or political world would be confused by this story.  Why does Jesus go off far away?  He’s just been proclaimed to have the right pedigree, the best resume, and even the “Big Boss” giving a good word.  Jesus gets all of this glory, and what’s he do?  He heads out to….nowhere.

Out in the desert, Jesus spent time withdrawn from people and the basic comforts, if not needs, of life.  He endures out in the midst of a place not for the faint of heart, making John the Baptist’s frugal existence of hair shirts and locusts with honey look positively opulent.  Luke’s telling of the story has Jesus out there for forty days, echoing another era of the Bible as Israel wanders in the wilderness for forty years.  When the Devil shows up, this is the first time Jesus has encountered somebody else for forty days.  I imagine Jesus, quite weary from the relative lack of sleep, fluids, and food, wondering at first if he is hallucinating this figure standing before him.  The first temptation alone (turn stones into bread) would bend, if not break, many of us right off, after three plus weeks away from a decent meal.

The gospels tell this story as a way of demonstrating Jesus’ commitment and obedience to God.  Do not gloss over Luke’s especial emphasis to the forty-day period, for it evidences the sort of discipline Jesus undertakes.  The forty days are just as difficult as the temptations to follow.  Withdrawing to be alone, voluntarily taking leave of one’s comforts is a hard decision to keep, let alone make.  What happens out in those remote places in the desert or in the mountains might be unsettling, far more than losing the assurances of three meals a day and a decent bed at night.

In our day, Belden Lane observes, “Wild places are uncompanionable to the qualmish, to those compulsively anxious to please.” (The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, p. 43) A wilderness experience allows a person to see without distraction the things that keep us from living more fully or obscure our devotion to God.  Lane reminds us of Saint Jerome, a third-century Christian, who said, “The desert loves to strip bare” (p. 23).

Withdrawing allows one to focus, “strip[ping] bare” who we are and what we presume is most important or pressing in our lives.  After forty days and forty nights, Jesus is weak in his physical deprivations, yet as it is said, that which challenges strengthens.  He is offered three temptations that have increasing degrees of enticement:  food to eat, power over the world, and finally to challenge God for power.  Each temptation challenges Jesus to exercise his power, to take the easier path.  Jesus refuses each one, which again, by the general measure of the world, would be increasingly foolish.  “If you have power, use it!” the world would say.  Jesus could have done any of these three things, yet he did not.  Jesus not only refuses, he refutes the very thought of being tempted to stray from God’s ways.

In the forty-day period away, Jesus experienced the fruitfulness of the wilderness.  He claims his authority in its proper use and understanding.  Throughout the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is said to live and minister by an authority that is from God, not derived by his own devising or grasping.  Jesus will minister to those whom society and religion alike have deemed lesser people.  Jesus speaks truth to the powers of Empire and Temple.

The opposite of the Devil, the one who has fallen from the heavens above, Jesus remains grounded in his radical trust of God.  Jesus will derive his authority from God, not by any means necessary.  The desert has stripped him bare, just as surely as the desert would any of the rest of us.  In his sojourn among the fierce landscape, Jesus emerges resolved in his faithfulness and goes onward to live out this calling to proclaim the Kingdom of God at hand.  Rather than draining him, the desert experience nourishes him.

In turn, this story becomes a challenge and an invitation to the reader. For the gospel writers, the story of Jesus in the wilderness and the temptations that test him also serve as stories to challenge the disciple.  While we might never climb a mountain or travel far across a desert, the fierce landscapes still await us in the midst of our lives.  We need times away to be stripped down, to face our issues and to examine ourselves before God.  The “fierce landscape” may come in that day spent away from work, clearing your head while letting the noise of life drift off.  The “fierce landscape” may be the time as Belden Lane discovered, while sitting in an anti-septic smelling hospital room, keeping vigil and companionship with a loved one as they die.

The fierce landscape, whether desert or mountain, is that place where you feel pared down, made to take a hard look at who you really are and whether or not God is there in the midst of your life.  You will know these times for their fierceness, the way they make you feel apart or adrift.  Yet in that ferocity, the journey will be well worth it, strengthening you as surely as it challenges.  As Belden Lane reminds,

In early Christian tradition, the desert was perceived ambiguously, usually as an unfriendly, intimidating domain; but for those able to endure its purifying adversity, an image also of paradise.  If desert terrors can be sustained as the self is laid bare under its harsh scrutiny, dry land becomes an avenue of hope (Lane, p. 43)

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