I preached this sermon tonight: week three of Lent
The Bible describes the “Wilderness” with three different scenarios or metaphors. The first, as we discovered week one of lent comes from Mark chapter 1 with Jesus being tempted in the Wilderness. In addition we see Jesus being tended to by the angels which leads us to a second description of the Wilderness, that being one of rejuvenation. As Don mentioned two weeks ago, Hosea describes the Wilderness as a honeymoon of sorts, a place to return to and rekindle an intimate love. Not in my top five for Honeymoon resorts, but it is a metaphor we are given. Our third description of the Wilderness comes from perhaps the most familiar Wilderness story of all: the Exodus. There we find Moses and the Israelites wandering in the desert for over 40 years.
During Lent, we rely heavily on the first description of Wilderness. Just as Jesus was tempted and tried, so do we try to give up something: caffeine, alcohol, chocolate, or we fast as Jesus did, to remind ourselves of the trials he withstood. This is Lent’s symbol, the wilderness. Its forty days ends with Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday: the three darkest days of our Religion: the days our Savior died.
However, as much as we try to recreate the trials and pain, the death and anguish, we still sit on this side of Easter. We know Lent ends in 40 days. We know there is light at the end of the tunnel, a resurrection at the end of the crucifixion.
But this is not the only Wilderness described in the Bible.
For some it is the temptation. For some it is the remembering. But for some, it is the Exodus: a journey through a literal wilderness into a foreign land.
For the Israelites, the Exodus was a transition period with a promised happy ending for the people of God: the Promised Land. A land flowing with milk and honey. A land with no more slavery. A promised land where they could worship God freely. For Israel as a people there was hope on the horizon. But what about Israel as individuals during the Wilderness wanderings?
Think back with me to what happens to the weary travelers. After testing God ten times, God finally gets fed up with the people and announces in Num 14:20-23 that none of them shall enter into the Promised Land. Even Moses is punished in Numbers 27:14 for his quarrelling with God in the Wilderness. We get a second version of this story in Deuteronomy 1:34-37 which attributes this punishment to fear and a lack of faith for the Israelites when they saw all the huge people that inhabited the Promised Land. In this latter version God is angry with Moses for the people’s sin. Either way the story goes, a whole generation is rescues from slavery in Egypt with promises of inhabiting a new land that they never actually get to live in. From slavery to the Wilderness with but a fearful glimpse of the Promised Land.
I think about the people who died in the Wilderness waiting for the Promised Land and it reminds me of all the people today who will never see a promise land. I think of Anne Frank and the millions of other Jews who thought the Promised Land was coming, that they would escape hiding and be freed from the concentration camps. On July 15, 1944 Anne wrote: “It’s really a wonder I haven’t dropped all of my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the suffering of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that I will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again. In the meantime, I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out.” Anne Frank died in a concentration camp in March 1945. She never made it outside of the Wilderness and into the Promised Land.
On a larger scale I think of others who may never make it out of the wilderness: I think of the starving children in India, of the victims of genocide in Rwanda, the orphans in Indonesia, the 2 out of every five people dying of AIDS in Africa: these are people who live in the Wilderness literally, daily. Until you’ve walked in their urine, touched their mangled faces, looked away from their bloated bellies you haven’t seen the wilderness at its worst. To the ungrateful Israelites, God dropped manna from the sky, brought pheasants from the earth and water from a rock. But who feeds the starving now? Who heals the sick? Who rescues the oppressed? Who adopts the orphaned?
Moses dies having only dreamt of the Promised Land that flows with milk and honey, and it is Joshua who leads the next generation of Israelites into it. Many of us think of the Promised Land as the city of Jericho which the Israelites marched around seven times for seven days and when they finally blew their trumpets, the walls of the city fell and the city destroyed. But was that the Promised Land? The crumbled remains of a city? Where’s the milk and honey in rebuilding a demolished city? Never mind that none of the other cities in the Promised Land came so easily as Jericho. Joshua 12:24 states that 31 kings were defeated by Joshua and his army. That has to be at least 31 battles if not more. So the Promised Land is full of war and desolation? Doesn’t sound too promising to me.
So when did the Promised Land become the Promised Land? Was it less of a physical land and more of an ideal? Did it come during the period of the judges? Still more war then. What about during the United Monarchy when Saul, David and Solomon ruled the nation? The Israelites seemed to have finally received the fulfillment of the promises given to Abraham: they were a nation, a people, they had a land, they had a God . . . But I think about King David and still I wonder about the Promised Land. After all, it was David whose own son tried to kill him. And it was also King David who penned most of the psalms of lament. And what about Solomon, his son, who built the Lord’s Temple and had riches and women galore? Everything was at his disposal. But from him we get Ecclesiastes and the famous words, “All is vanity, a chasing after the wind.” Was that the Promised Land?
Does the Promised Land necessitate economic prosperity? A land flowing of milk and honey is a land that produces food and elements vital to the world, worthy of trade and prosperity. A land of milk and honey is one that is beautiful and vital, full of the greenery that flows between the Tigris and the Euphrates, the Missouri and the Mississippi. Is the Promised Land a place where people feel safe and happy and have jobs and big families?
Is America the Promised Land with its drug overdoses and teen pregnancy? Is France the Promised Land with its old empty churches, and stale religion? Ireland with its alcoholism? Are we the Promised Land because we are the rich and powerful?
Or are we living all the more in the wilderness without even knowing it?
The Israelites knew they were in the Wilderness. God had told Moses to lead his people from slavery in Egypt through the Wilderness and into the Promised Land. To some Israelites, this seemed the raw end of the deal. “At least in Egypt we had good juicy fruit and fish and garlic!” they complained. And I think perhaps that it was then that the Israelites moved from the literal wilderness into their metaphorical wilderness. It was then that the wilderness became real as they abandoned their faith and began walking away from God. Their sin (as Don discussed last week) brought on their wilderness, and they knew it as they experienced God’s distance and disdain. And then I wonder about those whose knew they were in the Wilderness, but knew also that it had to be traveled before the Promised Land would be reached. They knew the wilderness was something they could not control but just had to experience. And then I wonder about those who worshipped the golden calf, and afterwards came in contact with Moses’ light from God and the Ten Commandments and finally realized, “We were so foolish to have thought that calf could save us!” Those are the kind who can’t see they’re in the wilderness until after they have gone through it and experienced the other side.
Perhaps you relate to one of these scenarios. Perhaps you can remember a time when your own depravity pushed you into the wilderness, or a time when you did nothing to cause your wilderness, but knew it had to be dealt with, or a time when you didn’t even realize you were in the wilderness until after you had experienced something better. Maybe that time for you is now.
But what am I saying about this type of wilderness or that: the kind that we know or don’t, the kind brought on by sin or God or just the course of life, the kind even where one draws close to God or is distanced from him? I guess what I’m saying is that there is no standard formula for wilderness, and likewise no standard formula for getting out. I can offer helpful tips for making your way toward the Promised Land like “name your sin and then stop doing it,” or “read your Bible and remember your roots,” or “pray to God for mercy and courage,” or “cry to a friend,” “embrace your community.” It’s ironic that we freak out about being in the Wilderness yet often do relatively little to get out. (For being as “Emergent” as we are and as tuned in to the real message of Jesus, we sometimes do very little reading about Him or talking to Him.) If you have questions about these suggestions for getting out of or through the Wilderness, please ask because I’ve been in and out of the wilderness more than once in my life as have many people here tonight. But with our love and sympathies for each other as we journey through the wilderness, we all know there is no set formula for Wilderness. No certain amount of time before we’re guaranteed to move on. No six steps to successfully getting out. This is not a formula we’re living but life, and as Antoine de Saint Exupery once wrote: Life always bursts the boundaries of formulas.”
For the Israelites, the Promised Land was an actual location, one that God had prepared for them. But I think the Promised Land too was the time when Israel walked hand in hand with God, obeying God’s commandments to love Him and take care of each other. And that is our promise land today too. In loving God and loving others (as hard as that may be), we find our promises fulfilled and live fully in God’s presence. But tonight we do not focus on our promises: He comes Easter Sunday. Instead, we focus on our wilderness: on our trials, our battles, our occasional triumphs and our frequent failures, our depravity, our sin, our wilderness.
I asked a friend of mine on the phone Thursday how her day was going, and she responded, “My life sucks. My marriage is falling apart. I’m still recovering from pneumonia. I study 15 hours a day for med school, and when I get home my husband is never there and we go for days without seeing or talking to each other.”
When discussing music with one of my students the other day whose favorite music was rap and country, I told the kid that I preferred Rock. Upon hearing this he replied, “Rock? That’s just a bunch of white dudes singing about slitting their wrists and jacking off!” A commentary on the “white American male” from one of my “special ed” students.
A teenager writes: “A raindrop just splashed on my forehead and it was like a tear from heaven. Are the clouds and the skies really weeping over me? Am I really alone in the whole wide gray world? Is it possible that even God is crying for me? Oh no . . . no . . .no . . . I’m losing my mind. Please God, help me.
I gather from the sky that it is early morning. I’ve been reading a paper that the wind blew up beside me. It says one girl had her baby in the park, another had a miscarriage and two unidentified boys died during the night from O.D.’s. Oh how I wish one of them had been me!” - the journal of an anonymous girl addicted to drugs.
Saint Exupery wrote that “One’s suffering disappears when one lets oneself go, when one yields – even to sadness.” And so tonight, in this third week of lent, we lend ourselves to our sadness, we give ourselves over to our wilderness and to God, and we pray for the Promised Land.
February 27, 2005