A Sermon for Covenant
“The Forced Fast of a Fierce Landscape”
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
First Sunday of Lent
February 17, 2013
Kyndall Rae Renfro
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
A three-year-old once asked his mother, “Mom, what do you know about the devil?” The mother hesitated, then answered in the best way a parent can, “What do you know about the devil?” she asked. “Well, the devil talked to Jesus, and the devil was mean,” he answered. And then he whispered, “If we were at a store, and you and Dad were in one aisle, and I was in another aisle, and there was candy, the devil would say, “You should take some!”
“Honey, if we were at a store, and Dad and I were on one aisle, and you were in another aisle, and there was candy, and the devil said, “you should take some!” What would you say back to the devil?”
“Oh! I would say thank you!”
Even as grown-ups, we sometimes see the devil as that welcome little voice that tells us, “Go ahead. Have some chocolate.” Thank you, devil, don’t mind if I do. But I would wager that things were a bit more intense for Jesus wandering in the wilderness, facing temptation.
Trouble is, it’s hard for me to wrap my mind around it. I can’t quite imagine what it’s like to be Jesus—what he thought, how he felt, what sort of things might tempt him, really tempt him, and why. I tend to envision Jesus as relatively un-tempt-able and rock solid, but this fiasco with the devil was hardly just for show. Something was going on here, but what?
It’s less difficult for me to imagine a wilderness, whether literal or metaphorical, so let’s begin there, with something we can picture. A dry and barren land with very few resources for survival—if you’ve haven’t been to a desert physically, you’ve at least been there emotionally or spiritually, that long-suffering isolation of inner exhaustion.
I’ve been reading a book my father-in-law gave me for Christmas titled, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality by Belden Lane and it is chalked full of quotes to disturb you. For example, near the beginning of the book I read a quote by Ivan Illich, “The emptiness of the desert makes it possible to learn the almost impossible: the joyful acceptance of our uselessness,” and that phrase, “the joyful acceptance of our uselessness” has been haunting me ever since. It keeps popping up in my journal entries, toppling around inside my head, calling to me in moments of distress, and I still don’t understand what it means.
But that’s the point of desert landscape, you see, to take you beyond knowing, right into the thick of what you cannot comprehend, then leave you stranded in the arid terrain for days. The desert is that place where you get stripped of all you thought you knew, all the platitudes and opinions and solutions that have kept you cushioned and comfortable. This is why deserts remain largely empty. Few people choose to enter the scorching heat of losing all their answers.
But everybody, at some point or another, finds themselves in a barren wasteland, often not of their own choosing. The Holy Spirit may have led you there or a tragedy may have landed you there against your will. You wake up one unpleasant day and find yourself in dust storm in the middle of the desert and you haven’t got a map. Even if you had one, it wouldn’t much help, as the winds move the dune over here to over there before you can wipe the sand out of your eyes.
No one’s inner geography is without a desert space, so at some point you will wander into yours just by the sheer act of living. It is a forced fast, if you will, because sustenance will suddenly seem out of your reach. Unanswered questions plague you, the silence of God envelops you, the weariness of grief and confusion and hardship threaten to do you in, wild animals seem to lurk in the shadows.
It is the trickiest place in the world to suffer temptation because it is where you are least clear on what is right from wrong. Everywhere you look there is no black and white. Everything, everything has the same sandy hue, all your choices seem not only covered in dust but also laden with risk. One wrong turn may keep you wandering in circles, but your compass went missing Day One.
I also read in my book that “certain truths can be learned, it seems, only as one is sufficiently emptied, frightened, or confused.” Perhaps you have had that desert experience too. The moment where empty wandering produces a valuable lesson you just couldn’t have learned otherwise. The prophet Isaiah describes such a moment this way, “Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs, in the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.” (Isaiah 35:6b-7)
It’s wonderful when the springs of water erupt, but the trick is that they come from the sands. You don’t get transported into a sudden oasis. Rather the landscape you are in transforms around you into something you never could have expected when you were fainting of thirst. It’s entirely counter intuitive, but the only way you find the spring of truth is by wandering the desert land. Belden Lane writes that the desert “involves entry into what is unnerving, even grotesque in our lives, into what quickly reveals our limits. It seems at first, like most beginnings in the spiritual life, a mistake, a false start, an imperfection in God’s planning, a regression in our own growth. Only through hindsight do we recognize it for the unexpected gift that it is.”
So, back to Jesus and the devil. Sometimes this little scene gets kind of skipped over—I mean, of course Jesus isn’t going to cave to the devil! Hardly worth noting. Next story please! Jesus is in the wilderness—led there by the Holy Spirit—for forty days and when you’ve only got a three year stint in which to do all your ministry, forty days is one big chunk of time. Whatever happened there, it was important.
If you didn’t notice, the devil is pretty chatty. He’s got a lot to say, and isn’t a bit shy to say it. You think he might be a little intimated, you know, talking to Jesus, but then again, Jesus may have been looking a little faint and overheated. God the Father, on the other hand, is entirely and completely silent. No dove sent from on high. No voice from heaven saying, “This is my beloved. (Leave him alone.)” So far, this resonates with what Christians over the centuries have described in wilderness experiences. Lots of devilish speak. A silent God. One lonely person, listening for God’s silence beyond the hellish noise wrenching the soul. The hardest thing to hear is silence. Jesus isn’t too talkative himself. If you notice, the only words he utters are quotations from Scripture. Perhaps he didn’t trust himself in his sheer exhaustion to say anything original.
I picture him trudging along day after day with no food. Despite the Holy Spirit having led him here, did he ever wonder, “What is the point of all this misery?” Just like us, did Jesus wonder, “Why?” and “Why me?’ and “For how long?” and “What should I do to survive?” It isn’t much of a story, is it, unless Jesus had a real desert experience, sunburn and blistered feet, physical thirst and spiritual drought, weary confusion and unanswered prayers? Now we’re talking a language we understand—that point of mental exhaustion where the devil could tempt you to ride a pogo stick and you’d jump on it if only it could make you less thirsty.
This is where it gets really, really tricky. All the devil has to offer is only a mirage! But how can anybody tell the difference between reality and illusion when you’re stranded and starving in the desert?
We tend to think Jesus would have resisted temptation anywhere. That he could not, would not sin, not on a boat, not with a goat, not in the rain, not on a train, not in the dark, not in tree, not in the car, Sam, you devil, let him be! Not in a box, not with a fox, not in a house, not with a mouse. We’re convinced Jesus would not like temptation here or there, Jesus just would not, could not, not anywhere.
But what if he had to go to the wilderness to learn his truths? The desert was necessary in his becoming who he was, crucial to his preparation. He really could have caved, but he didn’t. The text says the devil will “be back” at an “opportune time,’ and what better time could there be than the Garden of Gethsemane. If ever there was a chance to snag Jesus, it would be when he was in such distress as to sweat drops of blood, but maybe it is something about this trek through the wilderness that leaves footprints all over Jesus’ soul that cannot be erased. He has set a course for himself that cannot be revoked. He emerges from the wilderness knowing who he is and how to tell a spring of truth from a tantalizing mirage. These are tools, gifts, that will serve him later down the road when the hope of the world is hinging on his ability to stay the course.
Next time you find yourself smack in the middle of a wasteland without so much as a compass and with a dusty canteen that’s ever closer to empty, maybe it’ll bolster your weakening knees to remember that Jesus walked that road too. Maybe you’ll hold onto the hope that blessed truth will spring up when you least expect it. Maybe you’ll tune out the devilish sneers and bad advice and listen instead for the silence of God, the frightening quiet that holds you with love.
There once was a stream that arrived at a desert’s edge. Having washed over many an obstacle before, the stream fully expected to cross this barrier as well, but as soon as its waves hit the desert, they quickly disappeared into the sand. The stream was stuck and could not cross.
“You’ll never get across that way. You have to let the wind absorb you!” whispered the desert. But the stream couldn’t accept this. It could not trust itself to the winds and lose itself! “Why can’t I remain the same stream that I am?” the water cried. And the desert replied, “You never can remain what you are. Either you become a swamp on at this desert’s edge or you give yourself to the winds.” The stream thought back on its past, and really, it had always conquered by yielding, so it raised its vapors and gave itself to the wind. Approaching distant mountains on the desert’s far side, the stream began to fall in a light rain, then a steady downpour.