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Our Inner Wilderness
EXODUS 34:29-35, LUKE 9:28-36
You never know what will happen to a person in the wilderness. Sometimes you meet God in the wilderness. Sometimes you meet the devil. The Scripture lessons this morning tell how Moses and Jesus met God in the wilderness.
Moses already was in the wilderness. Moses led the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt into the wilderness. For forty years they journeyed throughout the Sinai peninsula. From time to time Moses felt the need to go even further into the wilderness, and to go by himself. He would leave his people and go up the mountain. I've been there. Mt. Sinai is a hot, dry, treacherous place. It is a mountain of rocks with no trees, scant vegetation and scarcer water. Into this formidable region Moses went to pray and to think things through.
How was he to lead these people?
How was he to organize them?
How was he to prepare them for the promised land?
How could they co-exist with the Canaanites?
What laws should they have?
Was he, Moses, capable?
Moses had a lot to think through, and into the wilderness he went. On one occasion, described in the lesson today, Moses met God, and the encounter so transformed him that his face shone. The light of God shining in his face so intimidated the people, Moses put a veil over his face.
The Gospel lesson this morning tells us about the Transfiguration of Jesus. Jesus often went into the wilderness. The wilderness in Israel is like Sinai--formidable, hot, dry, rocky, with little vegetation and water, and no trees. Jesus often felt the need to pray and think things through. On this occasion, he took James, John, and Peter with him. They met God in the wilderness, and the encounter was so powerful, Jesus was transfigured, transformed, surrounded by light, and transported into the spirit world, while Peter, James and John stood and watched in awe.
Sometimes, however, the devil is encountered in the wilderness. After Jesus was baptized, and before he began his public ministry, Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness by himself, and there he met the devil. Jesus went to pray and think things through. He needed clarification about his ministry. What was he to do, and how was he to do it? Jesus took his confusion, his unanswered questions, into the wilderness and there he was tempted by the devil. Jesus struggled forty days in the wilderness.
We remember Jesus' forty-day struggle in the wilderness by observing Lent. Lent begins on Wednesday and lasts for forty days, excluding Sundays. Lent is a time for us to go into the wilderness to pray and think things through. As did Jesus, Lent is a time for us to examine our lives and our relationship with God. We begin Lent on Ash Wednesday with services that remind us of our sinfulness and mortality through the imposition of ashes, and remind us of our hope through Holy Communion.
This Lent will you go into the wilderness?
There is a wilderness out there. We may not have rocky terrain with limited water and vegetation, but we've got wilderness out there where the devil runs rampant. We have crime, drugs, child abuse, wife beatings, maniacs who take military weapons and gun down little children, youth gangs, chemicals that are eating away at the ozone level to eventually burn and flood the earth, and we have so-called civilized people willing to blow up the world with nuclear arsenals.
There is a wilderness out there. There is a fine line between civilization and barbarism, a fine line between order and chaos, a fine line between safety and destruction. There is a fine line between having economic security and being homeless.
The Bane Company, a consulting firm in San Francisco, donated its services and conducted a survey of the homeless persons in San Francisco to find the profile of a "typical" homeless person. Surprisingly, the survey did not result in the mentally ill or drug addict as being "typical." 1/3 of the homeless fit that description. What they found to be the typical homeless person or family are people who lost their jobs, or had a health problem and couldn't continue working and so lost their jobs, and no longer could pay the mortgage payments or rent.
One commentator observed that, because of the high cost of living, many people in our society are living so close to the edge, they are only one pay check away from losing everything they have, and ending up on the streets. Once they are on the streets, how do they get off? They need addresses to find respectable work. How can they leave a telephone number so "we can get back to you?" How can they apply for welfare without an address? It's a vicious cycle. Projects like the San Jose Family Shelter, sponsored by Concern for the Poor, are so important because they not only keep families off the streets, but provide that essential address and phone number.
There's a wilderness out there. Are you willing to go into the wilderness this Lent? Diane Stenton-Rich has written a song called, "I Wish That I Could Close My Eyes."
Sometimes I wish that I could close my eyes.Sometimes I wish that I could shut my ears,And make it so that I no longer feel the pain of the world.
If you don't feel the pain of the world, are you already dead? Moses took the burden of his people with him into the wilderness. Jesus took the pain of the world and the sins of everyone on his shoulders. Do you feel the pain? Or, have you pushed consciousness of the pain of the world so far down inside you, you are no longer a feeling, caring person? Have you become indifferent, callous, an unthinking, unfeeling robot going about your life trying to convince yourself you and the world are okay? On the other hand, how do we feel the pain of the world without it destroying us? That's a subject of a later sermon this Lent.
Will you go into the wilderness this Lent? Ready to meet God, or struggle with the devil?
There's a wilderness out there, and there's a wilderness in here, a wilderness inside each of us. Many of us Americans, living in our fragmented society, are isolated, separated, alienated from our inner resources. We live life on a superficial level, filling our days with activities, canned laughter, and trivia, so when hard times hit us, we are unprepared.
Most of us really don't want to go deep inside ourselves. There's a wilderness inside us, a wilderness we would rather not face. There are fears in our wilderness: Will I make it? Am I loved? Will I succeed? Will I pass or will I fail? Will I get into the university of my choice? What if my business fails? Will I make wrong investments and lose too much? What if my marriage fails? Will I get sick? Am I going to die? There are fears inside most of us.
There are doubts in our inner wilderness. Is there really a God? If there is, does God really love me? Will God really help me? Ellie and I saw the Theaterworks production of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," a moving play about the struggle of black persons in 1927 America. At one point, Levy, in extreme agitation and anger, hollers, "Where was your God when my mother was raped by six white men? When my mother prayed, "God have mercy; Jesus, help me," why didn't God answer? Your God is a nothin'."
Those are very real questions, questions of the inner wilderness: Where was God during slavery? Where was God during the holocaust? Where is God when a family loses a paycheck and ends up homeless on the streets? Where is God when the East Bay children are kidnapped? Where was God when the maniac shot the Stockton children? Where is God when cancer strikes your body or your loved ones? Those are questions of the inner wilderness.
Do you go down inside you into the wilderness where the doubts, the questions, the fears reside, down where the devil tempts you and confuses you? Do you engage in the battle? The Christian life is a battle, a warfare, against destructive forces, inner and outer; a battle against forces that plague you, confuse you, and tempt you to be less than you are, and to do less than you are able. Is it too much to say that if there is no battle within you, you are either dead, or you have surrendered to the world.
Will you go into the wilderness this Lent, or would you rather run and hide? Do you escape into superficiality? Do you seek a religion of magic, simple formulas, and easy answers? Such a religion is of the devil because it keeps you from growing, prevents you from getting in touch with your inner resources, prevents you from establishing a deep relationship with God, and keeps you weak and unprepared to handle life when life gets tough.
Jesus went into the wilderness. He didn't run away from his problems. He didn't stay home, content with his daily routine. Jesus took the pain and suffering of the world upon himself. Jesus took his doubts, confusion, and questions into the wilderness. He faced them, confronted them, dealt with them. And, forty days later Jesus came out of the wilderness ready to do God's work. Jesus came out centered, confident, resolute, and empowered.
The author of I Peter wrote in 4:12-13:
Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ's sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy.
Going into the wilderness to pray and think things through, to examine your life and your relationship with God, means to take on the pain of the world, and to go inside yourself, and get in touch with your inner resources, get in touch with the Spirit who lives and moves in your inner being. The purpose of entering the wilderness is to prepare you for joy and ground you in hope.
I invite you this Lent to go into the wilderness to meet God or struggle with the devil. There is a deeper relationship with God waiting for you, a relationship of even greater joy and hope. Your church has prepared several opportunities to help you make your journey, beginning with a party on Tuesday evening. There are three services on Ash Wednesday for you to consider your mortality and your sinfulness. On March 4 there is an all-day retreat on the wilderness experience. There are Sunday School classes. The sermons in Lent will be dealing with the wilderness. The services of Holy Week will further help you prepare for Easter. The menu is here. Pick your courses. Plan your journey. I challenge you this Lent to go into the wilderness.
© 1989 Douglas I. Norris