March 1, 2017, Ash Wednesday – It’s Quiet Out There – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
No recording is available for this sermon.
Preachers and writers, people like me, are very fond of using the image of the desert when they talk about Lent. It’s a good image for several reasons. One reason is that the forty days of Lent remind us of the forty years the people of Israel spent wandering, in between their escape from slavery in Egypt and their entry into the Promised Land. Forty years wandering – in the desert. The forty days of Lent also remind us of the forty days Jesus spent after his baptism, when the Holy Spirit took him away and he was tempted by the devil. Forty days of testing – in the desert. The number forty has significance in the Scriptures as a number about trials and testing. And so it just makes sense to think of the forty days of Lent as a time of trials and testing in a spiritual kind of desert.
And because we are so used to thinking of Lent as a desert full of trials and testing, one of the first things we think of when we approach the season of Lent is what kinds of trials and testing we’re going to take on ourselves this year. “What are YOU giving up for Lent this year?” we ask each other. “Well, I was going to give up desserts, but my wife doesn’t really let me eat dessert that often anymore, and I was going to give up watching TV in the evenings but there isn’t anything good on anyway. So I thought I’d give up cigars, because I really like having a cigar on Sunday afternoons when my son comes over to hang out in the workshop. Yeah, I’d really miss those cigars…..”
Lent seems to be particularly confusing if you’re an Episcopalian. If you’re Presbyterian they’ll tell you that giving stuff up for Lent is only for Roman Catholics. If you’re Roman Catholic the Church will tell you what to give up and when to give it up – meat on Fridays and so forth. And if you’re non-denominational they’ll just look at you funny and say, “What’s Lent?” But the Episcopal Church expects us to make our own choices. Being Episcopal is hard like that. The one thing we think we know for sure is that we’re supposed to give up something we like a lot, because it’s supposed to make us unhappy. That’s what this whole desert image is all about, right? Because deserts are places of thirst and hunger and snakes and sunburns and sore feet. People die in deserts on all those old Western movies; we know that.
The thing is, the children of Israel, and Jesus, God didn’t take them out in the desert to punish them or to make them tougher or more spiritual by making them miserable. It’s true that there were hardships in the wilderness when Moses led God’s people out of Egypt. They faced hunger and thirst and enemies out there. But they faced hunger and thirst and enemies in the Promised Land, too – that’s not what they were out there for. And it’s true that Jesus had to do battle with the devil out there in the desert. But Jesus had to do battle with the devil all the time in his ministry; he didn’t have to go out in the desert to find Satan. No, the reason God brings his people out into the desert is not that it is a place of misery and danger and discomfort. The reason he brings us out into the desert is because it is quiet out there.
God took his people out of slavery in Egypt and he led them by the hand into the desert, because in the desert he could talk to them, away from the oppression and noise of Egypt; away from the demands of the slave-drivers, away from the lure of the pagan temples; away from the temptations of being poor, and wishing they were rich, in a land of luxuries and opulence; away from the cruelty of a ruler that demanded the murder of their children. Out in the desert, for all its emptiness and harshness, it was finally quiet enough for God’s people to hear his voice. It was in the quiet of the desert that those downtrodden descendants of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob became the nation of Israel, God’s beloved chosen people, the unique, strong people that they are even today.
And God’s Holy Spirit led Jesus out into the desert after his baptism, after the proclamation from heaven “You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased, in whom I take delight.” He led Jesus out into the desert, away from the awe-struck crowds; away from the suspicious Scribes and Pharisees; away, for just a little while, from the clamoring people who needed him desperately: the poor, the sick, the blind, the lame, the demon-possessed. Even away from the biological distractions of food and drink; for forty days Jesus fed on, and drank in, only the Presence of his Father. And in the quiet of the desert the Father prepared his Son for the ministry of the next three years, that would extend from the shores of Galilee to the hill of the Cross.
Jesus’ time of testing came at the very end of his long retreat in the desert, when his body was physically weak from long fasting, and when his spirit was primed and ready to take on all that the Father had for him to do. And doesn’t that sound familiar? When we are tired, when we are hungry, when we are hurting, it is then our demons begin to hammer at our weak spots: our fears, our worries, our insecurities. It is almost unimaginable to think that Jesus had fears or insecurities, but the gospels reveal to us how Jesus was fully human even in facing those human weaknesses that cause us so much suffering. Listen to how the devil really zeroed in on him. Jesus’ temptations weren’t general, one-size-fits-all temptations; they were tailor-made for Jesus. “IF you are really the Son of God,” he said. “you could make those rocks into loaves of bread.” “IF you are really the One in whom God is well-pleased,” he insinuated, “take it out for a spin – jump off the pinnacle of the Temple and show me how he’ll send his angels to catch you. IF he will.” And he said to Jesus, “IF you are really the One the Father delights in, you deserve to own the whole world. He put it in my hands, you know; just bow down to me and it’s all yours right now. No muss, no fuss – and no cross.” But Jesus had been in close communion with his Father out there in the desert, and he had all the answers; he couldn’t be tricked.
Know that if you do enter the quiet of the desert during Lent your demons will definitely stow away with you and cause you grief; that’s how the world works, and sometimes it is rather clever. But remember that doing battle with your demons is not why you’re out there. And feeling miserable and deprived is not why you’re out there. You’re out there because it’s quiet. You’re out there because it’s a lovely place to be alone with your Father. You give up the distraction of your little treats, or you give up the time you would have spent on computer games or TV; you set aside extra time to meditate on Scripture, or you let yourself feel what real hunger and thirst are for a meal or two. As the gospel reading reminded us, we can even be distracted by the good things we do, if we are worrying about what people think of how generous or kind we are; how faithful we are in our prayers; or how admirable we are in our fasting.
The truth is, we’re not any holier because our stomachs are growling. We’re not any more virtuous because we powered down our laptop instead of playing Minesweeper. Heading out into the desert of Lent isn’t about self-improvement or self-denial – though we often have to deny the demands of our bellies or our insatiable thirst for entertainment to get there. But letting the Holy Spirit lead us out into the desert is joy and life to us. Listen – it’s quiet out there, without the distractions, without the entertainments, without having to answer the incessant calls of our demanding bodies and our social engagements and our childish boredom. It’s quiet out there. Make full use of this Lenten journey through the desert in the weeks to come – because your Father is waiting eagerly to journey along with you.