In the Desert

Homily for the First Sunday in Lent, Year B
Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church

Lectionary Readings

If you thought you just heard a familiar lesson, you are exactly right: today’s Gospel lesson begins where our past reading from the first Sunday after the Epiphany ends. By stepping back into this narrative at Jesus’ Baptism, we are reminded again that our own lives of faith begin immersed in those same waters. Holy Baptism, this sacrament of initiation is both of this world, and beyond. But now, the story continues as the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. Unlike accounts in Matthew and Luke, Mark doesn’t emphasize the detail of Jesus’ temptation. Mark begins with the urgency of the Holy Spirit breaking through at Jesus’ Baptism with a message of immediacy as soon as Jesus’ full identity in and with God is proclaimed. Jesus is driven into the wilderness by the Spirit using the same language form we hear when demons are driven out. There is a spiritual urgency underscoring this time of formation, necessitating intentional nearness with God. Mark tells us only three things about this deeply formative time: Jesus was tempted by Satan; he was with the wild beasts, and angels (divine messengers, ἄγγελος) waited upon him, conveying hope and good news. [Ἄγγελος, as an aside, is where our word “evangelism” has its root…messengers of the Good News]. Jesus’ wilderness is both of and beyond this world, filled with the wild and the divine, but in constant communication with God.

So, what does our wilderness look like this Lent?

Twentieth-century theologian Paul Ricoeur uses this metaphor of wilderness…or to Ricoeur, “the desert,” to describe the intellectual and spiritual landscape where our faith is formed. To Ricoeur, “the desert” is a place of deep formation and transformation which we enter through moments of critical discovery: a new idea, a deepening intention, a glimpse of insight about who we are. The desert can also look like a crisis of health, the death of a loved one, senseless violence, or even a critical questioning of our faith in a way which shatters our assumptions. In that desert of uncertainty, we may feel besieged, but we also may begin to see that we are being cared for by messengers of God, sharers of good news who remind us of God’s presence. We may begin to experience a deeper, transformed understanding of who we are, and how God is present in our lives. And when we begin this transformation, says Ricoeur: “Beyond the desert of criticism we yearn to be called again.”†  Ricoeur reminds us that as people of Christ, we do not need to crawl our own way out of the desert. We are called out, given a divine message which compels us to move from the wilderness where we wander and into our next place of knowing. Ricoeur rightly calls this our “second naivete” because this process happens over and over again across our lives of faith, forming us with depth and intention. Without knowing who we are, we cannot recognize the divine messengers in our midst. Without entering the desert of criticism, we cannot grow into the fullness of who we are called to be.

Like Jesus in the wilderness, our lives of faith are fueled by the yearning to hear and respond to God’s call, supported by God’s messengers who nurture our growth.

As I’ve been engaging with this scripture this week, I realize that desert landscape is familiar territory. I’ve learned that taming the wild beasts of my own restless spirit is one thing: I can learn to see and know more about them, and find ways to live in harmony with my inner wild child. The principalities and powers of evil, on the other hand, are stealthy and often invisible. Fear and ignorance can leave us blind to seeing the structures of evil into which we can quickly become entangled: hatred, oppression, violence, greed, apathy to name a few. Our blindness traps us in the desert, where we yearn to be called out by the divine voice who knows us and speaks our name. And sometimes, as I think Mark’s Gospel reminds us, we need the messengers of God to minister to us and help call us into God’s possibility instead of the snares and structures of evil that surround us.

Let me offer a little illustration. When I was 19 and knew everything about the world, I was putting myself through school working in the activities department of a nursing home in Buffalo…the Episcopal Church Home, as a matter of fact. This was a caring non-profit serving predominantly low-income seniors and for years, the top “wish list” item was a bus to bring our residents to local concerts and events. We finally reached our fund-raising goal and my colleagues and I were able to greatly expand the quality of life of our residents through these community outings. I had to be trained to drive the bus, and it was our Director of Transportation and Security, a very kind and gentle older man named Gene, who was my driving teacher. Gene was one of the first employees of that facility 30-something years earlier, and he was now a well-loved department director and, incidentally, the only person of color in a management position. Gene was a patient teacher, and I passed his final driving test just in time to take a bus filled with residents to a concert at a local church one Saturday afternoon. All was going perfectly, until it was time for me to move the bus from the now filled parking lot to the front of the church to pick up our residents. Trying to maneuver the big bus while compensating for all the parked cars, I accidentally hooked the back bumper of the bus on the edge of a metal gate. I moved forward, and heard the sound of the back bumper of our brand new bus being pulled off. While it was drivable and all the residents were safe and sound, I was devastated. In my fear, I decided not to call anyone on their day off. Instead, I left a note with reams of details justifying my driving and the inevitability of this accident for my supervisor, signing off by saying “I hope you can calm the savages for me before I come in on Tuesday.”

On Tuesday morning, I came in to work and my supervisor said, “Gene told me to ask you to come to his office as soon as you got in.” My heart sank. I went to the office thinking of all the things that might happen: my fear projected being yelled at, or fined, or fired. When I arrived at Gene’s office, I gingerly knocked and he motioned for me to come in, and sit down. Without even giving him a chance, I immediately jumped into my own defense, explaining how hard I was trying to drive well and care for the bus and make sure the residents were safe. He stopped me mid-explanation: “Sarah, I don’t care about the bus. That isn’t why I asked to talk with you.” Without a hint of reprimand or condescension, Gene looked me in the eye and said, “What I want to know is, what have I ever done that would make you think of me as a savage?”

It was as if blinders fell off, and I could see the world from an entirely different perspective than I could in while trapped in my own ignorance and fear. I realize now that I was already in the wilderness, wanderly blindly and unable to see all the “isms” and assumptions that my fears were so quick to grasp onto in that carelessly written note justifying myself. I was trapped in my wilderness where the wild beasts of my own fear and the assumptions of racism, sexism, authoritarianism, and ageism were holding me captive so that my careless and thoughtless words caused pain to a caring and kind person. That meeting would have been entirely different if the wild beasts and structures of oppression had dominated. Instead, God prevailed. My nurturing colleague met me in relationship, and saw me capable of growth and deserving of the respect that I had not shown to him. His gentle question broke down all the structures that had blinded me. I had to be called out of the desert of unspoken assumptions, so that I could move into the depth of divine relationship: of seeing Christ in the other without all the racism, sexism, classism, the oppressive powers and principalities of this world interfering in how we relate to each other as people of God. I was called out of that wilderness by God, through one of God’s messengers who was willing speak a divine and transforming truth. My heart opened. I remembered the words of the Baptismal covenant we make to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to respect the dignity of every human being with God’s help. I am grateful for my friend and colleague Gene, for being the ἄγγελος God’s messenger, who ministered to me in that wilderness.

I can’t know what the wilderness looks like for you. But I can tell you that when we find ourselves surrounded by wild beasts and temptations, we might just be there already. It might take an eye-opening experience to recognize what we aren’t seeing that keeps us from fully recognizing God’s voice, of hearing our call to live into the fullness of our baptismal identity, as individuals and as a community. Perhaps Lent means recognizing the desert spaces where we have already been driven with urgency, and listening with our hearts filled with yearning to understand God’s call on our lives. If you feel rocked by the structures of fear, power and pain that have besieged our world this week; if that fear keeps you from hearing hard truths or asking challenging questions then listen for the voice that is calling you to some new way of understanding, to some new depth of serving God in each other. Look for the messengers of good news who may be ministering to you, even if the message may be hard to hear at first. Avoid the temptation to crawl your own way out or to pretend not to see. Open your heart. Pray. Lift your voice to God in prayer, in lament, in song. Lean into the yearning to be called out of the desert spaces of your life so that your heart can hear the words the Spirit is speaking. Live with the yearning to be called out, and be willing to be transformed in the process.

“The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

† Paul Ricoeur,The Symbolism of Evil, trans. Emerson Buchanan (Boston: Beacon, 1969), 349.

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About harasprice

Social worker, professor, seminarian in The Episcopal Church, student, parent, teacher, writer, advocate, and grateful traveller along this journey through life
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