So many episodes of the biblical story occur in the desert, that uncertain, unsafe place, where people feel lonely and afraid.
It is in the desert that God speaks to Moses from a burning bush, and sends him off to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.
It is in the desert that these Israelites spend forty years wandering, directed by a cloud during the day and by fire at night.
It is in the desert that Elijah, fearing for his life, cowering inside a cave, hears God’s quiet voice.
The prophets speak often of the desert.
Isaiah says that the desert will blossom, that there the chosen will find their way home.
Hosea promises that in the desert God will again win his people’s loyalty, and open for them a door of hope.
And finally there comes John the Baptist, a voice heard in the desert, who calls for the Lord’s path to be prepared.
Biblical faith is born in the desert. But this desert is not just some area in the Middle East. It is not the sort of wasteland that appears on maps. The desert is a state of existence. It appears time and again in every life.
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Listen to the description offered by Charles Cummings, Trappist monk: “The physical desert, with its appearance of unlimited godforsaken emptiness, is a symbol of the human experience of the absence of God in our life, and the feeling of being abandoned by him and left to our own resources . . . . In the spiritual life, a desert experience is the feeling of inner emptiness that comes from being somehow cut off from the divine presence that is our deepest satisfaction and fulfillment.”
Wherever we are, we are in the desert when we feel God’s absence, when we believe that God has abandoned us. The world where we pass so much time–the world of marketplace, school, factory, office, perhaps even home, and at times even church–can seem to be a desert. We experience God as unavailable.
The desert is not a place where we can expect to dwell secure. It is a place in which to wander. Today’s readings tell of two who wandered this way before us.
In our passage from Deuteronomy, there appears a statement of faith used by the Israelites when they offer to the Lord the first fruits of their harvest. This statement centers on Jacob as their nation’s ancestor. Here is what they say:
“My father was a homeless Aramaean who came down to Egypt with a small company and lived there until they became a great, powerful, and numerous nation. But the Egyptians ill-treated us, humiliated us, and imposed cruel slavery on us. Then we cried to the Lord the God of our fathers for help, and he listened to us and saw our humiliation, hardship, and distress; and so the Lord brought us out of Egypt. . . .”
What makes this a statement of faith is that the wanderer, the homeless one, does not remain such. He experiences deliverance. He receives a home. Here the desert experience appears within a larger story. As such it calls us to faith. It challenges us to look beyond our present wilderness to the home that awaits us.
The other desert wanderer in today’s readings is Jesus. Luke’s Gospel states that for forty days he “was led by the Spirit into the wilderness.” His wandering is holy. It is directed by the Spirit of God.
Here too a desert episode becomes part of a larger story, serves as an invitation to faith. The wanderings of Jesus in the wilderness and his subsequent temptation prepare him for what he must do and what he must endure. Even so they challenge us to look beyond, to look beyond our present moment, our present wilderness, to where the Spirit wills to lead us.
What crowns the wandering of Jesus in the desert is his triumph over temptation. The contrast between Jesus, filled with the Spirit, and the desert, filled with emptiness, becomes increasingly tense, then finally explodes. Jesus always has God for his center, but there in the desert he must go on to claim God as his center. Otherwise he will become a victim of the desert, one who wanders not just for a season, but forever.
The devil offers such a deal! Cheap solutions, short-cuts. He begs Jesus to accept as his center something inferior to God. But Jesus refuses to play along. He decides not to accept as his center security or power or self-preservation. He will have as his center God alone. What Jesus insists on is remaining in relationship with God.
Thus it is appropriate that he refutes the devil each time by quoting scripture. He does not answer on his own terms alone. He answers temptation by a reminder of his relationship with God. He answers in terms of that relationship. The desert forces the question, but Jesus will not isolate himself from God.
The desert where we sometimes find ourselves forces the same question on us: Will we be faithful or will we not? Of course, the question comes to us in more attractive wrapping than that.
Our first temptation, like that of Jesus, is to satisfy our hunger at any cost. What can happen is that we shrink to become nothing more than desire, a partial self living a distorted existence.
Our second temptation is to replace God with something else. What we put at our center in the place of God can never give us satisfaction, but leaves us open to disintegration.
So the first of these temptations falsely inflates some aspect of ourselves, some desire.
The second temptation falsely inflates some other created thing, from which we expect satisfaction.
The third temptation falsely inflates God!
We throw away the responsibility God gives us, and demand that God do nothing but care for us. We make God meet our needs. We ignore his will for us. This temptation is the most popular one inside the Christian community.
The desert forces a question on Jesus. The desert forces a question on us. Our answer needs to be the same as his: we will not isolate ourselves from God.
Out in the desert, where God seems absent, we will seek his presence. Once again we will hear his voice. The desert will bloom. Again he will win our loyalty and open for us a door of hope.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2001, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.