February 21, 2010
First Sunday of Lent
“Not a Little Lost”
If you’ve hung out much with any preschool-age children, you are probably familiar with Dora the Explorer. In every book or TV episode, Dora has to go someplace—the library, the doctor’s office, the North Pole. And early on in each adventure, Dora looks at her audience and says, “Who do we ask for help when we don’t know which way to go?”. And all the kids yell: “Map!”
Then the little map jumps out singing his little song and rolls himself out to reveal the route to wherever Dora needs to go.
I fantasize about a map like Dora’s. Some of you know from unfortunate first-hand experience how bad I am with directions. I baffled the others in my youth group by managing to get lost on a nature trail once.
The thing is, the trail was really hard to see and there were also deer paths and it was the middle of a Kansas prairie. If you’ve ever been in the middle of a prairie you know the problem. Everything all around looks the same. Bluestem and foxtail and brome as far as the eye can see. Milkweed and coneflower and thistle. All around you in every direction. If the sun is hidden in the clouds, there is no way to know which way is which—no clear landmarks to guide you.
Sailors know this scenario all too well. In the middle of the ocean, beyond sight of land, wave upon wave as far as the eye can see. I’ve heard of sailors loosing all perspective out there—watching the water turn to solid land before their eyes and stepping right off the side of the ship to their death.
I wonder if the vast stretch of sand that surrounded Jesus in all directions ever shifted and shimmered in his mind until he was walking across the cresting waves of the sea.
Forty days. . . . Forty days of sand and stone and the blistering sun and cold night air. Forty days with no landmarks to guide him. Forty days in the wilderness.
One commentator I read pointed out that “wilderness” and “bewildered” have the same root.
We often think of “the wilderness” as a dry place. A hot place. For Jesus, and for his Israelite ancestors, the wilderness is a place of hunger and thirst. Jesus, we are told, is famished.
But beyond being dry and hot; beyond inflicting hunger and thirst; the wilderness is, above all, a place of bewilderment. It is the place where we are disoriented. The place where all of our familiar landmarks are gone and our maps do us no good.
The place where your marriage disintegrates before your eyes.
The place where you must look on helplessly as your child makes disastrous decision after disastrous decision.
The place where your job—along with the money you need to pay the bills—disappears.
The place where the beliefs you have stood upon throughout your life begin to crumble and shift beneath your feet.
The place where your body, your own body, becomes the enemy.
You are in the wilderness. And in the wilderness, whatever else you are—hungry, thirsty, hot, tired—you are most definitely lost.
Not a little lost. Not the kind of lost where you can try one road and trace back and try another if the first doesn’t turn out to be the right one.
Not the kind of lost where you have to pull over to the side of the road and examine the map.
Not even the kind of lost where you finally pull into a gas station and ask the clerk for directions.
In the wilderness you are the kind of lost where you don’t even see a road—any road—that leads anywhere.
You are the kind of lost where you might wander for forty years and end up just a few miles from where you started.
And we know that the bewilderment Jesus experiences in the desert is not simply due to the sparse landscape. The temptations of the devil also disorient him.
This story is pretty familiar to those who have been involved with church for very long. We generally read it every year around this time. Listen to the very beginning of the story again: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.”
I generally imagine the story as Jesus in the wilderness for, say, thirty-nine days or so and then the devil pops in on the last day to throw out the temptations. But actually, we are told, Jesus was tempted—tested–by the devil for the entire forty days. Exhausting. Bewildering.
To realize just how bewildering, we need to throw out our images of a little red man with pointy ears and a pitchfork. For first century listeners, the devil was the tempter, the tester, the stumbling block. Theologian N.T. Wright suggests that the story “does not envisage Jesus engaged in conversation with a visible figure to whom he could talk as one to another: the devil’s voice appears as a string of natural ideas in his own head. They are plausible, attractive, and make, as we would say, a lot of sense.”
Of course if a demonic creature is leading you around the desert telling you to do things, it isn’t going to take a lot of spiritual savvy to figure out that whatever he suggests is a bad idea.
But what if, as Wright suggests, the tempter, the tester, is your own internal conscious? Your own doubts and ego and fatigue chattering and chattering away in your mind. And what if that voice you hear—whoever it belongs to—makes a lot of sense?
That is why the temptations are truly tempting. That is why we become disoriented, bewildered. Because the voices come to us from trusted sources. And what they say has merit.
Maybe your wilderness is not a barren wasteland of loss. Maybe, instead, your wilderness is cluttered with good ideas, exciting possibilities, gentle nudges in so many directions that you never get more than a few steps down any one path before you decide you really should go back and try the other, equally appealing, road.
Maybe what disorients you isn’t necessarily the lack of physical landmarks, but the chaos of the lists of pros and cons that stream through your mind every time you try to make a decision.
Should I turn the stones into bread? I am hungry. But it’s not time yet for miracles. But I am hungry. And no one will see me. And what’s one less stone in this wilderness. But . . .
Should I grab for the power? Pretty egotistical, don’t you think? Yea, but look what Rome is doing with the power. I would do better than that. I could lighten the tax burdens and lessen the violence. But power corrupts. But . . .
Should I let the angels catch me? Forty days without food—oh so easy to just close my eyes and sway out into the open air. But I can’t. That’s not the way it’s done. But I’m so tired . . . and they would catch me, wouldn’t they?
The wilderness of good intentions, of well-reasoned arguments, can be deadly to our spirits. As deadly to our spirits as the scorching heat can be to our bodies.
Sometimes the wilderness means there is not enough. Sometimes, the wilderness means there is just too much.
In both cases, we want to run around. To run around looking for some sort of landmark; to run around and examine closely each option.
Whatever the exact nature of our wilderness, it is a place where we are lost—body and soul lost.
And who do we ask for help when we don’t know which way to go?
In my fantasy life I say, “Jesus!” and my Bible flips open of it’s own accord and there is a text glowing with Diving light. Or I type the question into google, say a prayer, and click the “feeling lucky” button. (It doesn’t work, by the way.)
You know and I know that there are no magic maps. There is rarely a voice from heaven. There is just wave after wave of sand and rock. Test after test from all of the voices within and without.
In the wilderness, you are most definitely lost. And not a little lost. Not the kind of lost where you can pull over and call Anne Bailey on the cell phone and say, “Now what street do I turn on to get to your house?”.
You are the kind of lost where, exhausted, you may finally collapse in the shade of large rock and just lie still. Because you figure you have as much chance of finding your way by laying there on the sand as you do by running around in circles.
And maybe that’s the point of the wilderness. And maybe that’s why we might be there for forty days . . . or forty years; however long it takes for us to admit we are lost and for us to stop and be still.
You may have seen the bumper sticker: “Not all who wander are lost.” Which is a good point. And an equally valid point is that not all who are lost wander. Sometimes the best thing to do when you are lost is to simply be still.
When we look at how Jesus handles his wilderness experience, I think there is a way in which he does sit still. He does stop wandering.
In their accounts of this episode in Jesus’ life, the writers of both Matthew and Luke make a point of showing how Jesus uses scripture to overcome Satan’s temptations. I had always considered Jesus’ biblical responses to be quite well-conceived rhetorical maneuvers.
I like Rebecca Lyman’s reading better. “When Jesus quotes scripture in reply [to the devil],” she suggests, “perhaps he is not the clever rabbi, but rather the lost child who clings to the only presence of God in this dreadful place.”
Maybe Jesus is able to resist the temptations not because he is thinking fast on his feet. Not because he does the research and writes up a strategic plan. Maybe he is able to resist the temptations because he rests in what he knows already. In what he has known since he was a young child.
Maybe Jesus is able to resist the temptations not because he creates for himself a super-tough identity, but because he is able to rest in his identity as a child of God–to let go of the need to prove himself.
Maybe Jesus is able to resist the temptations not because he forges ahead on a better course, but because he stops in the center of the empty chaos and rests in the reality that he is deeply beloved of God. As are you.
Thanks be to God.