Sacred Soil

A Dry Weary Land without Water
February 17, 2013, 10:15 am
Filed under: Sermons

Deuteronomy 26:1–11
Psalm 91:1–2, 9–16
Romans 10:8b–13
Luke 4:1–13

I believe I have two categories of wilderness in my mind. The first being the images that come to mind if you ask me about wilderness in church. This wilderness is always arid. Dry. Really, about as alive as the moon, or some hostile planet on Star Trek. There’s always a strange beast over the ridge in this wilderness. Typically, it’s the country I imagine Jesus wandering, as the devil pokes and tricks him in these 40 days from our text for today.

But, if you ask me about wilderness when I’m outside these walls, when I’m eating dinner or playing with my daughter—well, wilderness is the mountains of Washington state, thick with evergreens and cold mountain streams. It is a place far from any human convenience, far from safety, this is sure, but still a place of calm. A place where I am centered and at peace. A place where, at least for me, even the sight of a bear on the horizon, brings no real sense of threat, because I know how to be, how to rest into the beauty. (Now, a cougar, well, that’s a different story.)

I’m actually not sure what kind of wilderness this was for Jesus. Perhaps being the son of God wins you a few perks in the wilderness department…

But I think for many of us when we encounter the wilderness of our lives, we are too often thrust into the hostile environment of a foreign planet, galaxies away from our comfort and our center. This was certainly true of the Israelites, as they wandered their own wilderness for 40 years. They longed for nourishment, for the sense that God was with them, to know God’s desire for them—and their ache for this knowledge brought them to a place that was arid and desolate. A dry weary land without water.

It has been suggested to me that when we see wilderness in the Bible, we might do well to think of this space, this time, as a school, as an instructional period. A place where God teaches, hoping that the people will learn. The Israelites were in school for 40 years, Jesus was an advanced student, and took just 40 days…

That’s why we have this text from Deuteronomy today, this text that implores us, “Remember: a wandering Aramean was my ancestor…” and the saving grace of God is recounted, the lessons learned from that wilderness time.

This is a text to be recited often. To be remembered, not just as a good story, but as part of the very fiber of our being. For lest we forget, and lose our patience with others who also wander in the wilderness. For lest we forget, what our God so earnestly tried to teach us in that wilderness time.

And I think that it’s true that Jesus and the Israelites both learned similar things in their wilderness time…
hoarding manna breads worms, and it does no good to turn stone to bread. Because our God provides.
Worshiping idols is a bad idea, golden calf, or the devil. Both are temptations place our own fear and death at the center of our lives.
And finally, God does not need our tests. Don’t go counting on angels to catch you, or whine for meat when you have manna. God is revealed in God’s own way, and our little tests just aren’t helpful.

I know many of you have experienced real times of wilderness in your own life. Some of you live there now. These are real times when God seems removed and cold. Real times when the learning is difficult, and the lesson unclear. Some days the wilderness is lush and green, though civilization is a ways off. Some days this wilderness is a place of centering, getting priorities straight. Yet, other days, too many other days, this wilderness a place so unknown and frightening, it seems there are cougar on every ridge.

But there’s another thing about wilderness. I think it’s actually the thing that makes “wilderness school” possible. The most important lesson of wilderness school. And it’s a promise. It is the promise that the Holy Spirit is there with us. Always. Even when we are numb to its presence. The Holy Spirit enters into those days and years in the desert, walking along side us. This is a sure promise, the promise that our God will not forsake us.

This is why, I love the tradition of remembering—this ancient tradition of reciting the wilderness stories. We do this every year at the beginning of Lent. We do this because it is tempting, so tempting, to forget that promise. To only remember the devil tempting us with food we cannot eat, with power that is not ours to have, with the desire to prove god exists… though such proof would never really satisfy. It is tempting to remember these stories, and our own stories, in terms of the annoyance and anger, in terms of the frustration and fear. In terms of hurt and sadness. To remember them as if we experience them alone.

But, to remember it this way, to hold the wilderness in this way is to forget, to forget the Spirit that accompanies us in our journey, whether we are aware or not.

When I was a kid I would talk to God as I walked home. For a while I got into these things I called “iffers.” In a sense, these walks were wilderness for me, and I longed to have some real sense that God walked with me. So, I would ask God to prove it. I’d say things like, “If there’s a ripe blackberry on this bush, then I know there will be chocolate chip cookies at home.” They were always benign, but always testing, putting God up for something. Sometimes they came true, though usually only when I’d given God an easy test, like “if the sun is out, then my brother will be playing in the yard.” But even then, such iffers never really increased my faith in God. They were just a game I played, trying to poke.

I couldn’t really appreciate how present God was then—my conversation partner. The one who made the blackberries ripen, who brought the warm sun, the one who brought the occasional friend to walk along side. The one who made cookies delightful.

But now, as I remember that wilderness school, I am reminded that the Spirit walked with me in that time to reveal God’s presence in the midst of wilderness. That for all my fear, I was never alone. Never.

And I think this is what we have in our texts today, the remembrance that a wandering Aramean was our ancestor, and that the Lord heard our voice and our affliction, and brought us out of Egypt with a might arm. We remember that our God took on flesh and stood up to the same demons that tempt to drag us down daily. We have the remembrance, the teaching, that our God will never forsake us.

So it is my prayer, that you, in whatever wilderness you may find yourself—a wilderness that is lush with the green of life and hope, or the wilderness that scarcely supports life—it is my prayer that as you travel this wilderness that you may know God guiding your feet as you move through. That you may know God in the midst of your prayers and your wandering. And that at some point, when the time comes to remember this wilderness, that it will become clear how God was with you all the way. Never forsaking you. Never.


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