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The Interior Desert: The First Sunday in Lent

Genesis 9:8-17
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight”’,

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’

Mark’s Gospel is a short one. It moves from story to story quickly, often connecting different events with the connecting word: immediately. Healing, healing, healing, teaching, parable, healing, repeat. And then crucifixion. It’s busy. A movie critic might complain: where was the character development?

So it’s interesting that here at the beginning of the Good News in Mark, Jesus bursts onto the scene, God tears open the sky, gives Jesus his mandate, and then…

… and then, we heard, the Spirit drives him into the desert, where he spends a not insignificant period of time. Interesting how in this short, action-packed Gospel, right when things are gearing up, Jesus stops. Intentionally takes some time. And in going off to the desert, and being tempted — and in Mark we’re not told how — he perhaps gets a clearer perspective on who he is and what he’s been called to do. [I’m reminded of a remark in Joe and Stephanie Mancini’s book about the evolution of The Working Centre, Transition to Common Work, where — to paraphrase — they say something like, ‘in the early days we didn’t always know where we going, but we did have a good sense of our identity and our values.’]

In that baptism scene at the beginning of the Good News, we find a new beginning for creation. Where the Spirit of God hovered over the waters in Genesis, here the Spirit descends on Jesus, coming out of the water. The period of testing and discernment in the desert perhaps recalls Sabbath observance, as a remembrance of creation. Where, after creating, “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on that day he rested after all his work of creating.” This tells us something about the importance of holding together in balance and creative tension, creativity, and re-creation. Action and contemplation.

The desert was a familiar motif, if not a literal experience, for many of the Jews of antiquity, including Mark’s audience. There’s another story about the institution of the Sabbath, in the Book of Deuteronomy, that links it not with creation, but with the exodus from Egypt. The Sabbath is observed“so that your servants, male and female, may rest, as you do. Remember that you were once a slave in Egypt, and that Yahweh your God brought you out of there with mighty hand and outstretched arm; this is why Yahweh your God has commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.”

Thus, a journey in or through the desert, is connected to God’s will for people to be free. Something we hear echoed in the letter from Peter, that the risen Jesus, and us too, in our baptism, are freed from bondage to “angels, authorities, and powers.” All these things made subject to Jesus. And there is a strong tradition in Christian theology, of associating these angelic powers with very this-worldly realities: institutions and ideologies, bureaucracies, and other such idols, that in our everyday lives hold sway over us. We might recognize how figuratively, the only way to get free from these things — especially, for us, technology — is by being willing to go out into (again figuratively) the desert.

So for the person of faith, the desert isn’t just a place. And it’s not just a few historical, or Biblical events. The desert is a part of our spiritual journey. Liturgically, the season of Lent reflects this, it’s literally, a station on the way to Easter. You see it represented in the simplified worship space. In the slightly more somber liturgy. In our Lenten disciplines. A desert period might be an intentional or at least expected stage along the way, like a season of the Church, or the fruits of one’s personal prayer life. At some point, study, and meditation, and prayer might bring you to a point where everything is tougher, and dry. A time of discomfort, and change. But a time of grace, in that out of this, you learn to depend on God, as the Israelites did, in their forty years in the desert.

Or a desert experience might not be intentional or expected. We might find ourselves going through a ‘dark night of the soul’ because of some personal challenge, or crisis. Where just when everything seemed to be going well, someone gets sick, or we come up against some other hardship. Maybe we’re in the desert more than we realize. We just forget that it actually is a spiritual experience, and a way of experiencing and relating to God. Not God’s complete absence.

Rowan Williams, whom you know I refer to quite frequently, writes this: “The only defense religion ever has or ever will have against the charge of cozy fantasy is the kind of experience or reflection normally referred to by Christian writers… as the “night of the spirit.” [….] It is the end of religious experience, the very opposite of mysticism. It is a wall in the way, as Job says [Job 19:8]; it is the evacuation of meaning.” But, he then goes on to cite the writer T.S. Eliot: “Let the darkness come upon you, which shall be the darkness of God.”

And Williams, interestingly, describes the desert, positively, by calling it, “God’s attack on religion.” (Remember, he’s a bishop!) His point is, if we learn to embrace these periods of dryness or darkness, we’ll actually realize how things in life like faith, philosophy, and politics aren’t neat and tidy. But in letting go, we might come back to faith, or philosophy, or politics more creatively, recognizing, he says, “the oddity, the uncontrollable quality of the truth at the heart of all things.” But to get there, we need to let go of our comforts, and habits, and prejudices.

The desert, then, is a place where the Spirit sends us, and a place where we go to meet God. But it can also be a dangerous place, because, as in our story, it’s also where the devil hangs out. Spiritual writer Joan Chittister says that our desert periods, especially the ones we really don’t want, are what help connect us to others. “Only the experience of our own darkness gives us the light we need to be of help to others whose journey into the dark spots of life is only just beginning,” she writes. “Without that, we are only words, only false witnesses to the truth of what it means to be pressed to the ground and rise again.”

So as we begin this new season, as I said earlier in the exhortation, may it be a “holy Lent.” It’s a time in the church year, and in our own lives, where everything is a little bit different. Try to embrace that. The desert we’re called into might feel like a time of fighting off the devil, or it might feel like an experience of Sabbath, of liberation. But it is a stage on the way to resurrection, just as it was a necessary part of Jesus’s ministry.

Catherine de Hueck Doherty, who worked in urban ministry in New York, and eventually founded a retreat centre, near Ottawa, wrote a book that helped shape me, several years ago, called Poustinia, Russian for “desert.” In it she challenges her readers to occasionally spend one day in an interior sort of desert. Whether you go to a retreat house, or just stay in your room, bring a Bible, eat simply, get rid of distractions, maybe focussing on an icon or crucifix. And in that 24 hours, deal with, and set aside, whatever interior noise comes up. Pray, in words, or by entering into silence. Read scripture. And sleep. Sleep a lot if you need to. And in doing this you get in the habit of following the leading of the Spirit, and of experiencing Sabbath.

She writes this:

If we are to witness to Christ in today’s marketplaces, where there are constant demands on our whole person, we need silence. If we are to be always available, not only physically, but by empathy, sympathy, friendship, understanding and boundless caritas, we need silence. To be able to give joyous, unflagging hospitality, not only of house and food, but of mind, heart, body and soul, we need silence.

© 2018 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

References:

Joan Chittister. Between the Dark and the Daylight. New York: Image, 2015.

Catherine de Hueck Doherty. Poustinia. Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1975.

Rowan Williams. “The Dark Night,” in A Ray of Darkness. Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1995.