Saturday, February 13, 2016
Into the Wilderness: Reflections on Luke 4.1-13 (RCL Lent 1C, 14 February 2016)
Into the Wilderness
Reflections on Luke 4.1-13
RCL Lent 1C
14 February 2016
Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Within the Scouting movement in the United States is a honourary society known as the Order of the Arrow. The purpose of the Order is to promote service to the wider community. Scouts who have been inducted into the Order wear a distinctive white sash and are expected to be leaders within their troops, their schools and beyond.
Each troop was, when I was in Scouting, allowed to nominate two candidates each year to undergo the ‘ordeal’ that would permit them to wear the sash of the Order. The ‘ordeal’ began with a night spent alone in the forest. Each candidate was bound to silence for twenty-four hours and then led by a more senior Scout to a designated place to spend the night. The candidate was allowed to bring a sleeping bag and was given a breakfast ration of two eggs and two pieces of bacon wrapped in aluminum foil and a carton of milk. We were each given two matches to start a campfire.
I still remember that night. I was, I think, fourteen. My guide left me in the designated spot and reminded me of what I had agreed to undertake. I set up my little campsite and prepared the campfire, all in the dark, the only light being the moon and stars. I was embraced by the sounds of the forest and felt secure. I lit the fire --- only one match needed --- and snuggled in for the night. Although I was ‘alone’, I could see a few small campfires in the distance. I had time to think.
For many urban dwellers the word ‘wilderness’ conjures up images of risk, of strangeness and of loneliness. Our world is well-lit, well-regulated and familiar. We are surrounded by people, whether we want to be or not. Some of us have experienced the freedom that the wilderness brings. There may be some of us here today who have known the self-awareness that time, spent alone away from ‘civilization’, evokes.
For the people of Israel the word ‘wilderness’ reminded them that they had become the people of the covenant in the desert of the Sinai peninsula. It was in that wilderness that God had revealed the Torah, the wisdom and teaching of God, that was to shape this people into the future. Frequently, when the people failed to live up to the expectations of the Torah, God’s prophets would use images of the wilderness to call the people back to their vocation and to their primary allegiance.
So, when we hear the words of Luke the evangelist that Jesus, filled with the Spirit, goes into the wilderness of the Dead Sea valley, we hear echoes of the prophets who challenged the people of Israel to return to their roots. Jesus goes into the wilderness to discern what God wishes him to do. Today we might call it a ‘walk about’ or a ‘vision quest’. Although there are risks, the wilderness is a place where God awaits Jesus and confronts him with the shadow side of being the Chosen One, the Beloved.
In the wilderness Jesus embarks on a journey of self-discovery. He probes every dimension of that unexplored country of his identity and mission as God’s Anointed One. As a child of the synagogue and as a young man living in a time of religious turmoil, Jesus knows that he needs clarity of vision and knowledge of God’s purposes. And so, into the desert he goes, trusting that God will be with him and that he will learn who he is and what he must do.
As we begin our Lenten journey towards our annual commemoration of the events of Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem, God invites each one of us to enter into our own wildernesses to discover who God intends us to be and what God wishes us to undertake, whether as individuals or as a community. How shall we begin this journey? The first step on the journey is a commitment to silence. One of the first things Bishop Melissa did after she was consecrated was to send every member of the clergy Esther de Waal’s book on the Rule of St Benedict. I have just finished the book and made a note of these words:
Silence asks me to watch and wait and listen, to be like Mary in readiness to receive the Word. If I have any respect for God I shall try to find a time, however short, for silence. Without it I have not much hope of establishing that relationship with God of hearing and responding which is going to help me root the whole of my life in prayer. (de Waal, Seeking God: The Way of Benedict, 146)
We are surrounded by noise, some of it masquerading as music. We get into our cars and turn on the radio or play a CD or plug in our iPod. But how often do we spend a few minutes, perhaps only two or three, in silence? In that silence we can listen to our breathing and hear the sound of the world around us without the distraction of the ‘elevator music’ of contemporary life. If we can do just one thing this Lent, then let us make a commitment to some silence in our day.
Silence leads us to one more step on the journey of exploring the undiscovered country of our life in God: Prayer. Prayer is simply a conversation with God; there are no magic formulas, no ‘proper’ language to address God; prayer is our heart speaking to the heart of God. One of the oldest Christian guides to being Christian recommends praying the Lord’s Prayer three times a day --- slowly, deliberately, phrase by phrase.
One year Archbishop Michael Ramsey came to my seminary to teach. We had a guest retreat leader who announced that our annual retreat would focus on the Lord’s Prayer. We gathered in the chapel, students and faculty. The retreat leader began by saying, ‘Our Father in heaven’. Bishop Ramsey stood up and left. Later that morning, I overheard him thanking the retreat leader for giving him enough to ponder for the day.
Try saying this familiar prayer slowly. Reflect on each phrase. What does it mean to address God as ‘Our Father’? How do we know God’s will? Do we forgive as we are forgiven? The opportunity for reflection is vast.
Let me finish with one more suggestion. Silence leads to prayer and prayer leads to curiosity. In prayer we become curious about our lives and how God is at work in us, around us and through us. As a result of Bishop Melissa’s book gift, I have just begun to read the Rule of St Benedict. Now, I do not have a vocation to become a monk, but there are things for me to learn. For example, in the first chapter of the Rule St Benedict describe four kinds of monks. One kind, he writes, wanders from monastery to monastery, never settling down to learn. When I read this description, I thought of aspects of my own life where I keep wandering, either physically or intellectually. What might I learn if I settled down to learn what is to be learned in a given place?
Almost fifty years ago I completed my ordeal and the tasks that followed. I am entitled to wear the sash of the Order of the Arrow. But my journey of self-discovery continues, just as this journey does for each and every one of us. It is a journey that begins in silence, is sustained by prayer and leads to curiosity. It is the same journey that Jesus undertook and a journey that he invites us to begin again --- perhaps for the first time.