Year B, Lent 1 February 22, 2015 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“And the Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness.”
So it all starts here. In St. Mark’s gospel, it starts here, Jesus’ baptism by John into the Jordan River, the tearing open of the heavens, the Holy Spirit descending “like a dove,” and a voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Then that same Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness. It all starts here.
So He’s thirty-ish, Jesus, when the narrative begins in St. Mark’s Gospel, St. John’s, too. All the birth and childhood stories are gifts of SS. Luke and Matthew. He goes out to meet John at the Jordan, the frontier of civilization. He’s baptized and by some archetypal miracle, he knows, fully, completely knows that He is God’s Son and that God is wholly pleased with Him. Goodness, can you imagine what that must have felt like? The Robert Heinlein word grok is useful here. It means, “to understand something so thoroughly that the observer becomes part of the observed.” Can you imagine what it must feel like to grok, to know with every fiber of your being that you are in fact beloved of God? Can you? I can’t. And neither could Jesus, because as soon as He heard this, “…the Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness.”
The Seven Storey Mountain is Thomas Merton’s autobiography. It is the story of how he found his way to his monastic vocation, to the Church, and to Jesus Christ. At one point he went to visit the Abbey at Gethsemane, which would later become his home. He went and during his stay a novice was clothed into the order, he received his habit, was literally robed in front of everyone. As Merton described it, the man stood before the abbot and the brilliant white Trappist robes were placed on him. Then the massive hanging hood was pulled down over his head and he was led back into the choir and as he stepped back into his stall he melted in amongst all of the other brothers. He, that individual man, he ceased to be, his old self died and he became part of a much larger thing.
I knew a professor who did something similar. Here was this man, a tenured professor of patristics, early church history and theology, tenured at Harvard, and he was called. He was Greek Orthodox and he was called to monastic vocation and soon found himself on Mt. Athos, the legendary monastic mountain in Greece that is its own autonomous state. I don’t know what he is called now, but Nick Costas ceased to be. His old self died, and a new one was born.
Then there is my own humble story of how I got here, how I became a priest. After a short 2 ½ year stint in the business world, I became disillusioned with capitalism but had no idea what to do. So, being 29, I bought a bicycle and went to Europe. Easter morning came around, and sitting in a little CofE church in southern England (when in Rome), I had a moment of consolation, and I knew, fully, that that, what the vicar was doing, that was what I was supposed to do. (I had no idea what she was doing or what any of it meant, but that was it).
Now it is always good to hear fantastic stories. Disappearing onto Mt. Athos, melting into the choir at a Trappist Abbey, emerging from the River Jordan and seeing the Holy Spirit descending like a dove from a hole ripped in the heaves… These stories offer a poetic vision of call, of transition, an archetype of transformation. They died to their old selves and then dove into the wilderness of the novitiate, the wilderness of Mt. Athos. But these stories are fantastic. They are not so much a model, but are a point cast onto the horizon that we might navigate by, orient ourselves to. They are not realistic templates for our own lives as householders, as people in the world, people with responsibilities.
I offer my story in there, but it is not too fantastic. Mine is fantastic only in the fantastic amount of freedom that I had to follow that call. Twenty-nine, single, no kids, debt free, respectable by most every hegemonic cultural norm. Many of us get called, but how often do you feel that can you drop everything and follow it? Freedom, one side of which can be lack of responsibility, freedom can be a liberating thing, because true change, not only does it mean death to a former self, it also means, as Jesus shows, a journey into the wilderness.
In the waters of John’s Baptism, In God’s revelation that Jesus was the Beloved, He dies not only to sin, but to all of the entanglements and false loyalties and obligations He felt as a 1st century Galilean Jew. Jesus was no long beholden to the Temple. He was no longer accountable to Herod or Pilate. He no longer fell under the authority of Caesar. Even the laws of nature wavered in His blessed presence. The baptism of Jesus was a fully encompassing act, religious, political and economic because as He emerged from those waters under the torn asunder sky, He was, as one author writes, “the first citizen of God’s empire,” beholden to none, free of obligation to anyone or anything but God. His old self died, and His new self, the Savior of the World was born, but first, He went to the wilderness.
That new birth, you’ve all had it. Most of us can’t remember it, baptized as we were in infancy, but that was it, the full, sacramental revelation that you are a beloved child of God. That’s what our evangelical friends are talking about when they talk about being saved, being “born again.” When we realize that we are that loved, that close to Christ, that full of the Holy Spirit, that we are able to know and follow God’s will, we are born anew. That is the mystery of the sacrament of Baptism. But to assimilate that, to grok it, to make it part of ourselves… that is where the wilderness comes in.
What is the wilderness but a place free of the distractions and attachments of civilization? Of the distractions and attachments of other human beings? (There are plenty of other things to contend with, just look at the cover of our bulletin this morning). Letting our old self pass and a new self emerge is hard to do in the presence of others. So much of who we are is all tied up in those we share our lives with. That is a deep, deep life-giving blessing (if it wasn’t the monasteries and convents would be full), but sharing lives and space and pasts and potentially futures… relationship all to frequently becomes entanglement and co-dependence and the freedom promised (and very real) that is found in obedience to God, when entangled, is hard to find.
After my Easter morning moment, I went into a wilderness of sorts. I rode that bicycle like a madman around most of the coast of Ireland for the next 2 months. I rode 60 – 80 miles a day. I read voraciously, but most importantly, I didn’t talk to anyone. “Could I get a room tonight?” or “Another Guinness, please.” That was about it. I was alone. In solitude. In the wilderness. Goodness do I miss the clarity of such solitude. So liberating. So wide open. So quiet! Well on the outside; on the inside… busy, busy, busy.
But we, here, most all of us, are householders. That doesn’t mean we own something, it mean that we have responsibilities. Most of us can’t take off for forty days in the wilderness to become what God intends us to be, let alone find a few hours of silence to hear that call in the first place, right? I am a priest, it is my job to do this stuff and it is very hard to find time to pray. But… but, we have the opportunity, even the responsibility, particularly in Lent, to find those moments of solitude, to make even minute excursions into the wilderness, that we might become what we were born to be, that was revealed in your Baptism. That is, of course that you are a child of God, beloved, with whom the ground of being itself is well pleased.
The stillness of Morning Prayer can become a wilderness. The Rosary. A walk in the woods. Watching a sunset and only a sunset from start to finish. I’ve heard of a good hot bath being a mini-wilderness experience, a time where your perspective changes, where you can see the world from a different angle, where you can see your relationships, entangling and otherwise, in a different light. Most importantly, though, it is a time where you can see your self as your self, even if for an instant, you can see your self in relation to God, Holy and Mighty, and get a glimpse, even for an instant, of how beloved you actually are. And in the light of that knowledge, you just might have the courage to be and do what God wills you to be and do.
That was how it worked for Jesus. This terrible revelation is given to Him, so He fled, was driven into the wilderness but why? So that He might make sense of it all? He might integrate it into His being? We don’t know much from St. Mark’s telling, only that he was tempted by Satan, waited upon by the angles, but He came back to civilization, to Galilee, empowered to reveal Himself and His mission to the world as he preached his very first sermon: “The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” The produce of the wilderness is rich indeed.
I exhort you, this Lent, to seek little wildernesses for your self. Moments of quiet. Moments away from the daily hustle and bustle we all endure. Everyone needs forty days, if not forty years of the wilderness to make sense of the awesomeness of God, but forty minutes might have to do. Or four minutes saying Compline to yourself in bed. The Holy Spirit is alive in each of us, and She wants to lead us all into some wilderness, some solitude where the still small voice of God can be heard over the din of the world. So join us at 8:30 AM or 5:30 PM on Fridays for silence. Walk the Way of the Cross at 9:00 on Fridays. Say morning prayer. Sit still. Breathe in the blips of silence afforded in the Mass. Stray into even a little wilderness that you may behold that you are a child of God, and learn what to do about it. AMEN