FACING THE DESERT WITHIN
Homily for Lent 1 February 21, 2010
Blaise Pascal said: “All of humankind’s problems stem from our inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
“Retreat” is a term used in military engagement as well as in spiritual life. It refers to a voluntary, temporary withdrawal from one’s usual environment, not just to run away, but in order to regroup, re-focus, and rebuild, and to be able to re-engage more effectively. From ancient times people have withdrawn from the everyday world for spiritual reasons. Part of my own regular spiritual practice is times of meditation, but also occasional longer times of retreat – of three or four days.
Jesus is described by Luke as beginning his ministry with a trip to the desert, and spending 40 days in that empty wasteland with nobody but himself. In the wilderness, Jesus experiences a dramatic confrontation that reveals two possible ways forward: one, the evil approach, which is ego-centred; and another which is open to serving the purposes of God – an attitude of faith and service.
I do not picture an encounter in which a horned, stinking, cloven-hoofed beast arrives to be the villain. This clash between good and evil is, I believe, the result of a process that takes place within Jesus. It is described in terms of several propositions that Satan poses to Jesus, and it starts off with a taunting challenge: “IF you are the son of God, command this stone to become bread.”
It suggests to Jesus, you should be in control, you should exert power over things, force your will on things, have it all – why are you doing without? Jesus immediately points out a deeper truth: that the immediate is not always what we need or even desire; that our life consists of more than material things.
Then the evil one showed him all the kingdoms of the world and said, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”
So many people now want to be celebrities – to have their 15 minutes of fame. This temptation say that if Jesus will just divert his attention from the glory of God, and focus on his own ego, he’ll be happy: “Jesus – you’re special – you’re not ordinary. You’re divine – so don’t settle for what all these slobs do. You’re special – much more special than anyone else – you deserve much more.”
The satanic problem, as the Bible presents it, is of wanting to be too special – to stand apart from others because we equate ourselves with God. Some early Christians were tempted toward believing themselves to be superior. By focusing on a sense of divinely given entitlement, many Christians through history have lost the very basis of unity and reconciliation that the humanity of Jesus reveals.
Jesus’ response is: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only God.” What does it mean to worship something? It means to pour yourself toward it – glorify it – love it — desire it above everything. When the object of that passion and attention is God, we find worship becomes a vehicle which connects us to the universe and the life of the kingdom. When it’s not, we find ourselves trapped within ourselves and isolated and emptier than ever. Satan represents that arrogance which will not acknowledge the sovereignty of God in any aspect of life – worship for such a state of mind is an impossibility.
Jesus’ response says, “No the world is not a commodity. It doesn’t belong to me; it belongs to God and therefore it’s sacred.” Again Jesus points to a truth the ego doesn’t comprehend: It’s not OK for one person to desire more of this world than another; it’s not OK for one person to have great riches while others have nothing. “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only God.” The ego sees from a viewpoint of fear and competition. Unless we focus outside ourselves, we are not greater but much less than we are meant to be. Worship of the wrong things, desire of the wrong things, makes us slaves, not rich.
Finally, “the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” We just sang the words of this psalm; there is truth in these words. But any analogy only stretches so far, and Satan, pushing a literal meaning at Jesus as if to mock him, urges him to take scripture at face value. This confrontation has a lot to do with how scripture is interpreted – Satan knowing what it says, but interpreting from a static, self-centred point of view; Jesus knowing what it means, interpreting it in terms of faithful relationship with the living God.
In the movie Crazy Heart, there is a song that goes: “Funny how falling feels like flying.” When we indulge in actions that are self-destructive and harmful to others as well, it’s tempting to believe that, no matter what, God will bail me out – that we can live consequence-free. This encounter points in the direction of discovering our own sense of responsibility – rather than childishly believing that, no matter how recklessly we live, God will make it all better. There is a deep sense of respect for self and others that Jesus expresses in his response to this temptation.
Satan tempts Jesus to think: I am above everyone – I not only can have power, I can abuse it – I can do reckless, grandiose things. I am so special that there should be a special set of rules that just apply to me. The irony is that Jesus is already on the pinnacle – the world of religion and life in general are already given as gifts. By indulging himself, by following the way of the ego, Jesus will simply lose all that – his world will actually become smaller if he responds to the satanic dare. How many people do you know who have ended up being “owned” by their work, their possessions, their addictions? By not attaching, Jesus retains his spiritual freedom, his personal integrity, and his humanity.
It is tempting to believe that God is there just to catch us and cuddle us, and let us know how special we are. Satan tries to make us think that religious life is all about getting what we want from God, whereas Jesus points in the direction of serving God, worshipping God, and concern for others, not just yourself. Jesus responds to this temptation by saying, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Jesus is aware that our true downfall happens when we place the self above everything else in the scheme of things. When we are about to engage in some wrong action, something we know is inherently foolish or wrong, this moment teaches us that even the Son of God says, “Don’t push your luck!”
Today’s Gospel teaches that one way is all about entitlements and privileges, and abusing the power and the rights you are given. The other way is about recognizing we are not the centre of the universe, that it is our responsibility to seek how we are meant to serve, not to be served, and to ask what it is we are meant to contribute to the life on this planet, not how many toys and titles and perks we can accumulate. One way is all about taking: What can I get? The other way is about giving: How am I meant to serve?
“All of humankind’s problems stem from our inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Why is it we fear being alone? Why do we avoid our own company? When we take time to reflect, and face into our own life, we often find that there are conflicting possibilities, and painful, complex choices. Certain factors play on our inner emptiness, aloneness and fear, and urge us to attempt to satisfy it by giving in to addictive, neurotic and compulsive desires. But it’s an illusion, a false path. Jesus, by facing into those fears – the fear of emptiness and meaninglessness – showed us there is a way through, with the insight that even in the midst of the desert, faced with that emptiness and isolation, we are not actually alone, we are not helpless, we are not empty.
The example of Jesus teaches us that such times of retreat are necessary to discover or recover our true identity. There have to be times in our lives when the lures and the demands of the world need to be seen in proper perspective and put in their proper place. Lent asks us to face that inner emptiness – that void which we prefer to run away from and attempt to fill with noise and busy-ness and other addictions. To be able release our grasp on things – our usual trivial pursuits – is a step in the direction of a great freedom.
Lent could be seen as an opportunity for retreat – a time to withdraw and re-focus. When I first started going on retreats, I brought along a briefcase full of books, devotional stuff, theology, my Bible, and only gradually did I learn the wisdom of bringing nothing – an empty hand, an open heart – and be able to just sit with myself, by myself, to listen and pay attention. Lent is that kind of time – that kind of opportunity for the individual and for the Church. As such it is a time of renewal, of returning to the depths, and of re-orientation – finding our way – which we know already, if we will just be still long enough to get in touch with our deeper self.
The path ahead of Jesus was complex, difficult and dangerous. How did he know how to proceed? Today’s Gospel reveals the process by which he determined his true identity and the right direction for his mission.
As individuals, as a parish, how do we have any idea where we are meant to go? In which direction? With what purpose?
Today’s Gospel suggests that we need to take time to be still, to look within, to spend time discerning, devoting time and attention to hearing the voice of the Spirit amidst all the competing and conflicting voices we allow into our lives, whether from TV, iPods, manic and shallow chatter, the internet, or the chaos of traffic and crowds.
As individuals, and as a parish, today’s Gospel has a lot of spiritual wisdom to impart, if only we will choose to pay attention, and hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers