Friday, February 24, 2012

First Sunday in Lent

In Patrick White's classic novel, Voss, two unlikely and essentially unlikeable characters meet in Sydney in 1845 and fall instantly, if somewhat dispassionately, in love.  One is a prickly, orphaned young woman marooned in high society – the other an arrogant, middle-aged wannabe explorer, newly arrived from Europe with the express purpose of crossing Australia on foot.  The character, Voss, is loosely based on a real-life explorer of the Australian outback, Ludwig Leichhardt, who died in the desert in the remote west of Queensland in 1848.  Voss ultimately comes to a similar end – what makes the novel so powerful, apart from White's incandescent literary style, is its exploration of the role that the desert itself plays in the Australian psyche – as a force to be reckoned with, an obstacle to progress to be crossed and tamed, a void filled with fantasised treasure to be exploited, but also as an emptiness of almost mystical dimensions that both fascinated and horrified colonial society.  In the book, the desert works as a sort of blank canvas that reveals most of all the unexplored depths of the human mind and soul – the essential backdrop of course for the gradual unravelling of Voss's sanity.

Our Gospel reading this morning is about three quarters made up of verses that we have read already this year, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River that maybe we should read as his coming to an awareness of his place in the history of God's relationship with the people of Israel.  Jesus' baptism is not just an affirmation of his identity – notice that the voice that reveals this is heard by Jesus alone – but a commissioning.  Jesus has a mission to accomplish and in the final verses of this passage he begins his ministry of proclaiming the good news of God's kingdom.  In between – are the verses that we need to focus on this Sunday, as we enter the season of Lent.  Because before he can be who he needs to be in relationship with other people, Jesus needs to explore what it means to be himself.  And so the Spirit of God drives Jesus out into the desert.

Not, 'the Spirit of God suggested ..'  Not even, 'Jesus thought this might be a really good idea …'  This is something he apparently doesn't have a choice about – there is a note of compulsion and even violence – he is shoved out into the wilderness.

We Australians think we know about desert.  Perhaps we no longer even fear it in the same sense that early settlers and explorers did, after all the remotest parts of the Gibson Desert are now criss-crossed with well-made roads constructed by mining companies, and the mysterious art of the Western Desert graces our richest boardrooms.  But I think we are still a bit ambivalent about it, we understand it as a place of horrifying risk.  So the first thing that springs to mind is probably 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.  We are uneasy about it even as we are drawn to it.  You get changed by spending time in the actual, physical desert.  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 the defining story of the people of Israel, the story of the escape into freedom from Egypt and the forty years long experience of testing in the wilderness.

Mark tells us Jesus is with the wild animals, and attended to by angels!  This is a slightly different picture than Matthew and Luke paint with their imaginative description of the duel between Jesus and Satan.  For a start, I don't think the wild animals in Mark's story 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.  And it strikes me that this is a picture that's meant to remind us of the Garden of Eden, the Gospel writer 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.  Jesus doesn't need to be confronted by his own sin, but 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 places of our experience.

In the desert – especially, of course, in the old days without GPS devices and four wheel drives - everything that is non-essential gets stripped away and discarded.  To survive in the desert, you need to get back to the basics of who you are and what you're about.  In the desert, when all the mod-cons are gone, you learn the true nature of yourself, and the true value of love. 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.  The desert in your life then might be a medical diagnosis.  It might be a divorce, it might be unemployment, the loss of someone you love.  We generally don't enter willingly, but there is always something valuable to learn.  And often it turns out to be the only way to get back to where we really belong.

This, I think, is the true meaning of the temptation that Mark says Jesus endures in the desert – the desert tests us because it is a place where our regular resources fail us, and our regular props are missing.  The temptation is to panic, to say, 'I can't live here, I can't endure this place of emptiness'.  Not only the physical means of sustaining life are problematic in the desert but the stories that sustain us, the myth of our own self-sufficiency and even the narratives of who we are vanish like a mirage.  The technology of our everyday lives – our computers and calendars and clocks – are meaningless.  And in the deserts of our experience – especially the deserts we enter unknowingly or reluctantly – God also seems to be absent.  The temptation, then, is to despair, to walk around in circles, and to believe that we are lost.  The only alternative is to recognise our deep dependence on the one who lead us into the desert in the first place.

In the story from Genesis, Noah is in a different sort of desert, but the 40 day voyage of Noah is also – I believe - intended to remind us of the 40 years the people of Israel wandered in the wilderness.  The name, Noah, actually means 'rest', and his role in this story is essentially passive.  God shuts him – and his family and animals – the vestiges or seeds of creation - into the ark and seals it up, and the world they know is submerged and vanishes in a chaos of water which represents nothing less than the unmaking of creation.  It is a journey into trust and radical dependence, and ultimately what is at stake is a new creation.

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 named it first up, very forcefully, in the liturgy of Ash Wednesday – we reminded ourselves that we are sinful, and we called 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.  Reflect on the desert places of your life, and remember what you have learned there that will sustain you.

And the third movement?  - is experiencing the gift of solitude.  In the desert, apart from the animals and the blessedly silent 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 radical dependence on your communion with human beings and with God.  Give thanks, and recognise the sheer gift that is your life.

Acknowledge the truth about yourself.  Empty yourself of baggage.  Fast on solitude and silence.  This Lent, adopt the spirituality of the desert, trusting in the One who made you and who sustains you in love, and be refreshed.