Angels in the Wilderness
First Sunday of Lent
february 14, 2016
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Jesus began his journey toward Jerusalem and the cross immediately after he was baptized. The first sentence of our gospel starts this way: “After his baptism, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness…”
Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit after his baptism. What does that mean?
To me it means that Jesus was full of this rush of energy and power. Inspired, driven, enveloped in love and compassion and practically tingling all over with it. That’s what I’ve seen in people full of the Spirit. So isn’t it rather funny what happened next?
Jesus, with this energy and love coursing through every bit of his being, was slowed down by this same divine Engine. He was taken into the wilderness where for 40 days he was tested by the forces that would seek to undermine his ministry. This shady character “the devil” is a figure who holds for us—either literally or certainly figuratively—the power to get in God’s way and subvert God’s intentions. The power to bring rot to something perfectly healthy.
It’s counterintuitive, and even ironic, isn’t it? Someone so full of goodness and energy and drive—being forced to cool his heels out in the middle of nowhere. What might have been the purpose of this cooling-off time?
I wouldn’t doubt that Jesus asked his Father and himself, just what he was being called to do in this life—what his purpose was. I wouldn’t doubt he struggled with this question a lot as he came to realize who he was and why he was there. You know the kinds of questions I mean—like why am I here? And who am I, anyway? What’s the meaning of my life?
And Jesus emerged stronger and more focused as a result of his time of testing. We’re told by Matthew and Mark, and it’s only implied in Luke, that all along, in the background, angels waited on him. He didn’t need to work an overt test to make sure they were there. He knew it already—and surely this gave him strength to hold on and to keep asking questions and to grow. He was filled up enough in the wilderness to be able to go the entire journey to the cross.
Now, like Jesus we sometimes enter into wilderness times. Let me quote a preaching giant in the Episcopal Church, the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, on wilderness times that the rest of us might endure. Listen to how she puts it:
“I have an idea that every one of us [already knows what it means to be in the wilderness]. Maybe it just looked like a hospital waiting room to you, or the sheets on a cheap motel bed after you got kicked out of your house, or maybe it looked like the parking lot where you couldn’t find your car on the day you lost your job. It may even have been a kind of desert in the middle of your own chest, where you begged for a word from God and heard nothing but the wheezing bellows of your own breath.
“Wildernesses come in so many shapes and sizes that the only way you can really tell you are in one is to look around for what you normally count on to save your life and come up empty. No food. No earthly power. No special protection—just a Bible-quoting devil and a whole bunch of sand.”
[Barbara Brown Taylor, http://www.day1.org, quoted in Synthesis for 1 Lent 2016, p. 2]
And like Jesus’ wilderness, our own deserts are places for being alone—or feeling alone—and for being tested. [John Moses in The Desert: An Anthology for Lent (Harrisburg: Morehouse Pub.), p. 28, quoted in Synthesis, ibid.] They are places for us to come to ourselves as we wrestle with questions of our own identity and purpose. Like Jesus may have wondered, we may ask ourselves: what does this life mean, after all, and will I even make a difference for anyone else?
So the question I’d like to end with today is relevant for everybody here. What do we DO when someone we know and love is suffering through a desert time, asking questions and not finding answers? What do we DO when we know someone who just cannot find God anymore—or someone whose life has gone south in any number of ways? And--What do we DO when it happens to us? We always want to DO something, don’t we?
I think that keeping company with people who are going through their own deserts is one of the hardest things we’re asked to do as human beings. It’s so hard because it makes us realize just how powerless we really are to bring about change in another human being.
But we almost never can fix someone else’s problems, can we?
The same is true when it’s US going through a desert time of testing. We may desperately want to FIND some self-help program and follow it and thereby be fixed instantaneously and forever. But we almost never can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, can we?
In truth, our best course is just to be there for people, much like the angels were for Jesus. What did they do for him? Mark and Matthew tell us that they “waited on him.” In other words they waited for him to finish the hard work of wilderness wrestling. They stayed with him and kept him company. They brought him comfort and reassurance. They didn’t fix him, because they couldn’t fix him.
And isn’t that about the best we can do for those we love who are going through hard times? Stay with them—literally or figuratively. Just be a quiet presence, someone who is OK with silence and the long journey out. Keep them comfortable the best we can. Remind them that they’re loved—even as they struggle in their crisis of faith, or whatever other crisis they find themselves dealing with.
Be their angels. And when it’s US in the wilderness, we can be our own angels to some extent by giving ourselves permission not to know the answers, by reminding ourselves of all the people who love us and by staying in touch with God in prayer—even if we don’t have any feeling or any faith at all behind it. We can trust time and God’s quiet help.
We are called to walk with Jesus and to learn from his angels. So--May God give us the help we need to stand with someone in the wilderness. May God give us the help we need and the time we need to get through our own times of testing.
And may we journey quite intentionally with Jesus these next 6 weeks and be open to God and our angels. Amen.