Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. (Luke 4)
Normally, sermons on today’s gospel focus on the temptations that the devil puts before Jesus. But I want to focus on the setting itself: the wilderness, or desert.
A desert is place of great beauty, but also of great foreboding. Its wide, endless expanse is breathtaking, but it is also seemingly indifferent to human presence. A desert speaks to us of emptiness, solitude, and silence. It is, as Edward Abbey put it in his book, Desert Solitaire, a place that says nothing. “Completely passive, acted upon but never acting, the desert lies there like the bare skeleton of Being, space, sparse, austere, … inviting not love but contemplation.” It is both a place that reminds us of what we most long for in the serenity that hovers over it, and what we fear most, in the dangers that lurk in its vastness.
And so perhaps most powerfully of all, the desert is a place that speaks to us of death. It is a landscape that human beings cannot long inhabit, without provision for water and shelter. It is a place where one has to watch one’s step, for the poisonous snakes that lurk in hidden places or the hard rocks and sharp plants that lie in wait. It is a place, as today’s psalm evokes, where the young lion and the serpent await.
How interesting, then, that immediately following Jesus’ baptism, it is to the desert that the Spirit leads him—some gospels use even a stronger word, that it is to the desert that the Spirit drives him. The pattern echoes what happened also to the people of Israel in their exodus from slavery in Egypt: at the Red Sea, they were “baptized” as God’s own in its waters as the flee the Egyptians, but then rather than turning directly toward the Promised Land (as today’s telling of the story in Deuteronomy would have it), they were driven away from it and into the desert toward Mt. Sinai and the giving of the Law. The desert, it seems, is a place through which one must pass on life’s spiritual journey.
But why there? Why spend time in a place so inhospitable to human beings, a topos so dangerous and threatening? Perhaps the reason is its very identification with death. The point is not just to be in the desert itself, but rather to confront the reminder it gives us of our own mortality and fragility. The early church fathers and mothers certainly knew that dimension of desert encounter: as St. Jerome once said, “The desert loves to strip bare,” even of life itself.
Now, we are all quite accustomed to the affirmation that all people are created equal. We affirm that conviction frequently here in church, and defend the dignity of every human being as made in the image of likeness of God. But there is also at the other end of our life another equalizer about which we more seldom talk: we are also all one in our being toward death.
And how strange, that the two most consequential moments we experience—our birth, and our death—we have no control over. We did not ask to be born, and we cannot resist that we will die. The commonality that they both have suggests some deep connection—beyond the mere biological one—yet whereas we are quite able of talking about life and birth as a gift, we are more reluctant to use that word in regard to death.
Yet perhaps that is the reason for the Spirit driving Jesus into the desert, into the place of fragility and death. Perhaps he—like us—has to confront the trajectory that his life is on, leading to death, in order fully to recognize and embrace the mission that he is to accomplish. Could it be, that without a robust awareness of death, life is left hollow? It has been said, that grief is the price we pay for love. Could one paraphrase that to read, death is the price we pay for life?
And if so, well then what? In a book suggestively entitled, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, Belden Lane weaves together the story of his mother’s prolonged death from cancer, and simultaneous struggle with dementia, with his own encounters of desert landscapes. For those who struggle with the decline of physical strength that comes with aging, it is a profound study of both the physical reality and spiritual mystery of how life ebbs away. He describes his mother as gradually moving into a place where she is neither wholly alive—her mind is confused, her body weakened—nor is she close to death. She inhabits instead a kind of spiritual desert, a place where she has retreated into a silent depth that is hers alone to occupy—a paradoxically healing sickness that the author Flannery O’Conner was bold to describe as itself one of God’s mercies.
In this day when medical science can so readily keep us physically alive long enough for us to lose our mental awareness, this passage into a place of deep interiority is more common than not. Many of you struggle with it, either in yourself, or someone you love. I face it with my own parents, now both in their nineties. And our natural first response is fear—fear of loss, fear of being overwhelmed, even fear of the grotesque.
But I wonder if in some way, what the scripture is trying to tell us today is that having been himself to the desert, Jesus is uniquely prepared to meet us in the wilderness of our own times of physical and mental weakness. I, at least, have recently been struck while sitting with people who are in that condition, of a wide terrain that seems to open up inside them, inaccessible and invisible to the rest of us, but which they in some sense inhabit. One such person simply described that place as “resting in the arms,” echoing that old 19th century devotional hymn:
I am resting in Jesus’ arms,
And I fear not the world’s alarms;
Tho’ its storms assail me on ev’ry side,
In this refuge my soul shall hide.
In the arms of Jesus! ’twas love divine
Made this blessed shelter of safety mine;
And I ask no sweeter abiding place
Than in Jesus’, my Lord’s embrace.
So this first Sunday of Lent, and its evocation of the desert, might be thought of as encouraging us toward a mindfulness of both our origins in birth, and our destiny in death. There is a certain humility required to do that: it requires acceptance that our life is not of our own making, and acknowledgment that death is not of our own choice. But there is also a certain joy that comes through such humility: receiving both life, and death, as gift. Amen.