I wonder what comes to your mind when you hear the words ‘trackless wilderness’? I wonder if you’ve ever been in one?
I’ve never really experienced a hot desert, but I’ve got a lot of experience of the cold variety. We lived in the Northwest Territories from 1984 to 1991, and while we were there I made many hunting trips out on the land. Aklavik, our first Arctic home, was an hour by snowmobile from the Richardson Mountains. The trail there led through small trees at first, but eventually as we climbed, the trees disappeared and we were in a ‘trackless waste’. The locals didn’t think of it as ‘trackless’, of course – they knew it well! One friend I was hunting with asked me if I was okay to find my way back to Aklavik by myself. “There’s a road you can follow”, he said. That didn’t make any sense to me, until I remembered that the Inuktitut word for ‘road’ can also mean ‘trail’, and a skidoo track in the snow was a trail to him!
We’re not told where the particular ‘wilderness’ was that Jesus went out to for forty days, but it’s traditionally been assumed that he went south into the Negev, or south-west into the Sinai Desert where the Israelites had wandered for forty years before entering the promised land. Mark’s gospel tells us very little about what happened during Jesus’ forty-day wilderness pilgrimage; we turn to Matthew and Luke for more details about the devil’s tests, but Mark has nothing about that. What he does tell us is that, first, it was the Spirit who led him out there – the word actually used is ‘drove him out’, a surprisingly forceful word; second, that while he was there he was tempted – the word can also mean ‘tested’ – by Satan; and third, that he had company while he was out there – wild beasts and angels!
So what’s it all about, this wilderness experience? And why has it been such a strong symbol for the Christian journey for two thousand years since then?
I already mentioned the story of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness with Moses for forty years. But Moses himself had first met God in that same wilderness, at Mount Sinai, where he was looking after his father-in-law’s sheep; he saw a burning bush and had a dramatic encounter with Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It was in the wilderness that the Israelites heard God speak and received the commandments and the rest of the Law through Moses. They had to wait there a long time – forty years – before entering their promised land.
Later on in the Old Testament we read of how the prophet Elijah was on the run from the wicked Queen Jezebel who was trying to kill him. We’re told that he took a forty-day journey into the wilderness, fasting all the time, until he came to Mount Sinai, where Moses had met God. There Elijah too had an encounter with God’s ‘still, small voice’; he heard an encouraging and challenging word of God, and he was strengthened to go back and continue his struggle. These are just three of the many wilderness stories in the Old Testament.
So there’s a long tradition in Israel’s scriptures of the wilderness as the place you go to meet with God. It’s also a place of repentance. The Israelites had to wander there for forty years instead of entering immediately into their promised land, because of their lack of faith, their grumbling and complaining, and their idolatry. John the Baptist appeared in the Judean wilderness ‘proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Mark 1:4). And Matthew and Luke give us stories of Jesus being tested by the devil, tempted to take unholy paths rather than following the hard road of the cross; he intentionally turned from those dead-end paths and chose to do the will of his Father instead.
What is it about the wilderness that makes it such a fruitful place to have an encounter with God? I think it may be the lack of distractions there.
Let’s think about that for a minute. Here we are in the middle of a bustling city. Our senses are bombarded with sights and sounds and smells, every day, twenty-four hours a day. Many of us check our email first thing in the morning, maybe even before we brush our teeth, and we’re doing it again many times through the day. On any given day there are many, many things we need to do, probably far more than we can reasonably fit into twenty-four hours. And we’re constantly being bombarded with ads telling us we don’t have enough stuff yet; there’s at least one more thing we need to buy, and then our life will finally be complete.
These are the voices we choose to listen to. But where in the midst of all that distraction do we take time to listen to God? When do we slow down and take time for unhurried reading of the scriptures? When do we turn off the noise, so we can make friends with the silence, not saying anything, just content to rest in God’s presence?
We can do that in the city, or the country, in the midst of our busy lives, but it takes practice and discipline to be able to do it well. But the wilderness is a place where there are very few distractions. In the wilderness, it can sometimes be much easier to hear the voice of God.
In the history of Christian spirituality there have been monks and nuns who have intentionally gone out to live in caves and huts in the desert, away from all distractions, so they could spend all their time in prayer. We call them ‘the Desert Fathers’ (there were some Desert Mothers too, but you don’t hear of them as often). Later on, of course, monks and nuns got a little more organised, monasteries were founded, and people’s time was regulated in a way that left lots of room for silence and contemplation. Many of the classics of Christian spirituality were written by people living in situations like that.
But you and I don’t live there. We aren’t monks and nuns. We live ordinary lives in the world, many of us work jobs and raise families, and somehow we have to muddle along and try to grow a relationship with God in the midst of our daily routines. So what does the wilderness have to say to us, when we can’t go there?
Well, maybe we can. Remember, the wilderness is about turning away from distractions so that we can pay closer attention to the still, small voice of God. It’s about turning away from earthly comforts for a while so we can experience the comfort above all comfort – knowing ourselves to be loved and supported by God. It’s also about turning away from distractions so we can come face to face with the truth about ourselves – the ugly as well as the good. Yes, there are strengths and loves, but there are also behaviours we’re addicted to, and we don’t discover that until we try to do without them for a while.
That’s where Lent comes in.
I don’t have time this morning to tell you the long history of the evolution of Lent. I will just say that from ancient times it was connected with Easter, and the preparation for the baptism of new Christians which took place at the Easter Vigil. For the final few weeks of preparation, the new converts went through an especially rigorous time of fasting and praying, and it became the custom for the whole congregation to join them in this time. Gradually this season became associated with Jesus’ forty-day wilderness pilgrimage - Lent is forty days long if you don’t count the Sundays – and so it became a time of fasting and prayer and self-denial, with the goal of drawing closer to God.
That’s why we give things up during Lent. Giving things up is not a good in itself; there’s nothing especially meritorious about giving up sugar or alcohol or Facebook for Lent. But Lent is an opportunity for us to ask ourselves honestly about the things that are distracting us from God. Is that ‘comfort food’ becoming a snare for us? Do we turn to Facebook before we turn to the Bible in the morning? Is it time for us to intentionally ‘declutter’ our lives for a while so that there’s more room for God, more time to listen to him, less distraction when we do?
I’ve given up blogging and Facebook for Lent a number of times, and it’s always been beneficial for me. I get a lot of enjoyment out of social media, but it can seem like a very noisy and crowded world from time to time. It’s not for everyone, but for me, going on a blogging or Facebook fast has often been a very powerful spiritual discipline.
Let me suggest three questions we could ask ourselves when we’re thinking about possible wilderness disciplines.
First, what has gotten such a hold on me that I can’t imagine being able to live without it? Is it that wine bottle that lives in the fridge all the time, or in the cupboard above the stove? Is it that constant Facebook conversation? Is it the luxury of a daily latté at Starbucks? If we’ve become so dependent on something or some habit that we can’t imagine living without it – maybe that’s a sign we need to live without it for a while.
Second, where could my self-control muscles use a little exercise? Self-control is mentioned in the New Testament as a fruit of the Spirit – a virtue that the Holy Spirit grows in our lives. But my experience is that he usually grows it by exercise! When we’re trying to break a negative habit or form a positive habit, we’re always tempted to give up. Self-control grows as we practice not giving up. That’s why Lenten fasting is helpful too – it teaches us that most people don’t die of hunger when they miss two or three meals.
Third, what might be the biggest distraction from God in my life right now? What is taking up the time that I could be giving to quiet prayer and Bible reading? What’s filling my mind when I could be focussing on loving God with my whole heart and loving my neighbour as myself? Where do my thoughts, money, and spare time go? Is it possible that might be my real god, even though I think I’m worshipping the one true God?
Let me encourage you to think about these questions. Don’t put it off. Take a copy of this sermon home with you - or look it up on our church website this afternoon. Remind yourself of these questions, think and pray about them, and make some decisions about Lenten disciplines that are right for you.
Finally, let’s remind ourselves of where we want to refocus our attention. What are we being distracted from?
We said on Wednesday that the convergence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day this year was a good reminder that Lent is all about love. Jesus told us that the two great commandments were, first, that we love God with our whole heart and soul and mind and strength, and second, that we love our neighbour as we love ourselves. The meaning of our life is found in a strong relationship with God and a strong relationship with our neighbours – the people close to us, the people we meet every day, the people we’re able to help.
So it’s no good just giving things up for Lent and leaving it at that. We need to replace those things with better things. For instance, one of my Lent disciplines is a weekly two-meal fast – I miss breakfast and lunch and I don’t eat in between meals, so it’s almost a twenty-four hour fast. But I also make it a habit to take the lunch period, find a place where I can be alone, and spend the time in silent prayer, just sitting and listening, opening myself up to God’s presence.
So if you decide that watching TV while you eat supper is not a good thing and you want to give it up for Lent, what are you going to do in its place? If you’re living with your family, the obvious thing is to try to make supper more of a time of family interaction – conversation, storytelling and so on. And why not try ending the meal with a family devotional time, a short Bible reading and prayer?
Let me say this in conclusion: I have to confess that I really love Lent. It always arrives in the nick of time for me, as I’m getting too distracted by stuff that’s not important. So, let me encourage you to use this season to the full this year. Turn away from distractions and turn toward God. Trust me, you will be surprised at how much benefit you get from it.