Toorak Uniting Church

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Desert Time

Lent 1
Luke 4: 1 – 13
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
17 February 2013

 ‘Christ in the Wilderness - the Hen’ - Stanley Spencer
"Christ in the Wilderness - the Hen"
Stanley Spencer

I know that I have said it a number of times before, but there are many similarities between the land of Palestine and Australia. Of course there are also significant differences. But one of the most common features is the relationship we have with the desert and the wilderness and the relationship the people of Palestine have with their often barren land. The story Norrie read this morning picks up one aspect of the landscape of Palestine and that is that it can be a dangerous and hostile place. And yet, on the other hand, it is often in the scriptures seen as the place of reflection, contemplation and solitude.

Perhaps the desert, these deserted places, help us clarify what is of value in our lives. These desert places help us strip away the illusions of happiness and contentment and guide us toward the wealth of life; a richness that "rust cannot corrode nor moth consume". We probably have to be faced with an almost life or death situation before we are able to see what is of greatest importance. The story is told:

There were two jewel merchants arrived at a caravanserai in the desert at about the same time one night. Each was quite conscious of the other's presence, and while unloading his camel, one of them could not resist the temptation to let a large pearl fall to the ground as if by accident. It rolled in the direction of the other who, with affected graciousness, picked it up and returned it to its owner saying, "That is a fine pearl you have there, sir. As large and lustrous as they come."

"How gracious of you to say so," said the other. "As a matter of fact, that is one of the smaller gems in my collection."

A bedouin, who was sitting by the fire and had observed this drama, rose and invited the two of them to eat with him. When they began their meal, this is the story he told them:

"I, too, my friends, was once upon a time a jeweler like you. One day I was overtaken by a great storm in the desert. It buffeted me and my caravan this way and that till I was separated from my entourage and lost my way completely.

Days passed and I was panic-stricken to realize that I was really wandering about in circles with no sense of where I was or which direction to walk in. Then, almost dead with starvation, I unloaded every bag on my camel's back, anxiously searching through them for the hundredth time.

Imagine my excitement when I came upon a pouch that had escaped my notice before. With trembling fingers I ripped it open hoping to find something to eat. Imagine my disillusionment when I found that all it contained was priceless pearls!"

From Mountain top to Desert Plain
I mentioned last week that the chronology of the Biblical narrative is difficult to plot. We really don’t know the order in which things happened. Well, we have some sense of the order…. But it really is not of that much importance. Nevertheless, the sequence of events can at times point to the meaning of a particular passage. In the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, the one read this morning from Luke’s narrative, it follows directly after his baptism by John in the River Jordan. It shouldn’t be lost on us that after the "mountain top" experience, albeit in a river, Jesus had to come down to earth.

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.

Did you notice Stanley Spencer’s "Christ in the Wilderness - the Hen" above? I suspect that Spencer’s paintings aren’t to everyone’s liking, but if you consider it carefully it portrays what this experience of Jesus in the wilderness was all about. The rather rotund character of Jesus is contemplative, pensive, and reflecting on what he sees right in front on him. And I think that is precisely what this story of temptation is all about. It is our reflection on what is of value in our lives and what is of less value.

Luke’s story is shaped and framed around the one who comes as a tester - a tempter. The ancient symbol of the tempter was called Satan or in more recent translations, the devil. Unfortunately, contemporary culture has gotten hold of this symbol and literalized it into a person who represents evil.

But temptation is not really an evil thing. Interestingly, we are most often tempted by good things. Look at the temptations placed before Jesus in his desert time.

"If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread."

"To you I will give their glory and all this authority." Of course there is a sting in the tail of that one.

"Throw yourself down from here, for it is written, 'God will command his angels concerning you, to protect you'."

I recall a powerful scene in the French-Canadian film, Jesus of Montreal. After the Jesus character had been taken to court for unruly behaviour, the young well-dressed lawyer walks with him out of the courtroom with his arm over his shoulder. They stand in front of a window high above Montreal and the stylish, suave lawyer says to the man who has been playing the character of Jesus in a passion play, "If you stay with me, one day this could all be yours". I recall something I read somewhere that goes like this, Satan comes not in beggar’s rags but dressed in finery with rings of gold.

Jesus’ recent experience at his river baptism or, as we considered last week, the vision of glory that touched him on the Mount of Transfiguration, may have inflated his ego. These high experiences may have blinded him to his true self and his true mission and inflated a false self that was built on flattery and false promises. A good friend of mine was fond of saying, "Chris, flattery is a most wonderful thing, but never breathe it in too deeply." So these tests in the wilderness were important for Jesus to live fully into his life and calling.

Desert Time
That’s why we need, as Jesus did, what I call desert time. This may be more a desert time of the soul, rather than an experience of the desert. But I don’t think there is a substitute for spending time in the real desert, in the real outback. And also this time in the desert wasn’t a punishment for Jesus; he was led there by God’s spirit. It was a time for considered reflection. And I suspect, while I am trying to say this without a judgemental tone, few of us reflect very deeply on our faith; on our relationships; on our values; on our actions and their effect upon other people and our way of being in the world.

This is the season of Lent. It’s a strange old English word that means "spring". Oh dear, once again our traditions come from the northern hemisphere. Well, we can change it to the old English word for autumn, which is feallan. More important than the name is that this is a season in our lives when we have a good look at ourselves and know that we need a bit of time in the desert of the soul. That can be a painful place; I know, because I have been there. As I am sure others have also.

When we reflect on those aspects of our lives where we have been cruel toward other people, self-serving and self-righteous or even downright infantile, they don’t have to be places of self-flagellation or morbid reflection (popular in some streams of Christian faith). I see it more the way Mary Oliver does in her poem Wild Geese:

You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

The desert of the soul is the place that may be dangerous and it may call us to give up what we thought we treasured. But it is a place that yields the greatest rewards. As Mary Oliver suggests, it is all about our deepest love and that is what we already know within our bodies. Lent is a desert time, a place of reflection on my life and my relationship with the source of all life. It is a journey that will end on Easter Day. As W.H. Auden wrote:

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2013

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