Saturday, March 04, 2006

With wild animals and angels

A year or so ago, I got myself lost.  Right here, in the middle of Perth – looking up the UBD I found where I wanted to go – such and such street in Welshpool – then when I got there I found that such and such street was a dead end – worse than that, it started off as a regular paved road then kind of petered out into a muddy track and before I knew where it I was in the middle of an industrial site surrounded by semi-trailers.  So I went into a sandwich bar on the corner and asked a bemused-looking girl, ‘do you know where such and such street is?  I thought this was it!’ – and she said to me, with exaggerated patience as though everyone should know this, ‘well, you can’t get there from here’.  In the way these things are, it was the same street but it was broken into bits that didn’t connect, it turned out I had to go almost back where I’d started from, more or less go back home and start again to end up where I needed to be.

Have you ever had anybody tell you that when you’ve stopped to ask directions?  ‘You can’t get there from here’.  Sometimes you’ve got to go back - take a really long detour before you can move forward – and in our Gospel reading this morning the detour is called Wilderness.

Jesus is here for a purpose, and that purpose has been revealed to him at his baptism – of all the Gospel writers, Mark is the one who’s most economical with paper and ink – never write a paragraph when a sentence will do, seems to be his motto – and most of the seven verses we read this morning we’ve already heard this year – the only verses that are unique to this morning’s Gospel reading are verses 12 and 13 – but typically Mark has packed a whole lot into those two verses.

Jesus has got a job to do, and in verses 14 and 15 he starts to get on with it – proclaiming the good news of God’s kingdom – but first he has to take a detour.  First the Holy Spirit taps him on the shoulder and says, ‘you can’t get there from here.  If you want to go forward, you’ve got to back.  Back to basics, back to where it all started.’  And so the Spirit of God drives Jesus out into the desert.

Notice how strong this language is!  Not, ‘the Spirit of God suggested ..’  Not even, ‘Jesus thought it might be a good idea …’  When you’re called and chosen by God – as you are and as I am – then sometimes we find ourselves shoved.  The Spirit of God drives us.

So Jesus is pushed out into the desert.  Now, I think we Australians know something about desert – we’ve got a lot of it.  And the first thing that maybe springs to mind is that just staying alive in the desert is going to take some doing.  It takes some skill and some courage – in the desert people get disorientated and driven mad by thirst, and find themselves walking around in circles.  It’s a harsh and challenging environment that’s going to test Jesus physically and emotionally.

But the second thing we understand about the desert is that it’s a place of beauty and wonder.  It enters into you somehow.  You get changed by it.  And we’re awestruck by the ease with which Aboriginal people who call the desert home can find their way around, can find water and food, how they can read the signs and live in harmony with the desert.

So it’s not hard for us to understand that for the people of Israel, too, the desert had both these aspects.  The desert is regarded as the place where God calls and shapes his people.  And I think that in these two short verses we are meant to see the connection between Jesus being tested in the desert for forty days, and God’s people being tested in the desert for forty years.

And Jesus is with the wild animals, and attended to by angels!  Mark paints a slightly different picture of all this than Matthew and Luke do with their vivid description of the duel between Jesus and Satan.  For a start, I don’t think the wild animals in Mark’s version are meant to remind us how dangerous the desert is – rather, it’s an idyllic picture of Jesus surrounded by peaceful and attentive animals like St Francis, with even his basic needs being met by the hand of God.  For me, it’s a picture a bit like the garden of Eden, as though Mark is reminding us that the relationship Jesus has with his Father, and the relationship Jesus has with even the natural creation, is what God originally intended for all human beings.

In other words, that Jesus is revealed as the very point of contact between God the Creator, and the Creation that God loves.

So I don’t think it’s coincidental that Jesus goes out into the desert, or that it’s God’s Spirit that compels him.  Because even though Jesus doesn’t need to be confronted by his own sin, he does need to discover who he is, and to recognise what is and what isn’t part of God’s call for him.  Where that happens for him – in fact, where that happens for all of us – is in the desert.

You see, in the desert, everything that is non-essential gets stripped away and discarded.  To survive in the desert, we need to get back to the basics of who we are and what we’re about.  In the desert, when all the mod-cons are gone, we learn the true nature of ourselves, and the true value of love.  We retreat in order to go forward.  Writer Madeleine L’Engle puts it this way,

To learn to love

Is to be stripped of all love

Until you become wholly without love


Until you have gone

Naked and afraid

Where all love is taken from you

You will not know

That you are wholly within love. [1]

The journey into the desert is a journey into the heart of a paradox – a contradiction in terms, which is that finding our own centre in the heart of God means looking for our centre right where God’s love seems most to be missing.

So, what does this mean for us?  If the desert is a symbol, and particularly if it is a symbol for us of our own Lenten journey into the heart of God’s love that we take over the next forty days before Easter – well, what does it stand for?  How do we get into this desert, and how do we find our way back out again?

There are three movements, I think.

First, it’s about recognising our own brokenness – this is the first step into the desert, and we name it first up, very forcefully, in the liturgy of Ash Wednesday – we remind ourselves that we are sinful, and we call to mind the ways we distort God’s creation – both our individual sinfulness and the structural sinfulness of the society we live in – the sinfulness that creates human misery and that causes God to grieve.

That’s the first movement into the desert, and it leaves us sitting in the ashes of our own failure.

And the second movement is this – recognising our own emptiness.  In the desert one of the fist things you notice is the silence, and it’s the same with our own Lenten desert journey.  Cultivate silence for the next six weeks.  Attend to the things of the spirit that so often get neglected in the general busyness of life.  Instead of giving something up for Lent, why not take something up – like reading a book on spirituality, starting a journal, learning to paint or writing a poem?  As you move deeper into the empty places within you, that’s when you experience the fullness of what God wants to give you.

And the third movement?  - reflecting on solitude.  In the desert, apart from the animals and the angels, Jesus is utterly alone.  And yet his whole life, and the purpose of his life, has meaning only within the context of his community and the history of God’s people.  As you move deeper into the quietness of your Lenten desert retreat, reflect on the quality of your relationships with the people you love and share your life with.  Recognise the ways in which, even when you are alone, your very sense of who you are is built on the relationships you have with those around you.  Recognise your utter dependence on your communion with human beings and with God.  Give thanks, and recognise the sheer gift that is your life.

And then we will be ready to step out of the desert, together, into the bright new morning of Easter Day.


[1] From Madelaine L’Engle, 1969, Lines Scribbled on an Envelope, New York, Ferrar, Straus & Giroux; p.49.