"Reframing Wilderness"
Tim Carson
Broadway Christian Church · Columbia, Missouri
The Worship of God · February 22, 2015
The First Sunday of Lent
 
Psalm Litany
Based on Psalm 25
 
We lift up our hearts to you.
Do not let us be put to shame by those, who work evil against us.
Make us to know your ways and teach us your paths.
Lead us in truth, as we wait for you all day long.
 
Act of Confession
 
As we turn around and reframe our lives before the presence of God, we offer the truth about ourselves, the ways in which we have broken relationship with God and our neighbor:
 
You have loved us with a passionate, steadfast love, but we have turned away. You have called us to relationships of love and justice with our neighbor, but we have harmed and left the good undone. Forgive us, graceful Presence, and liberate us from all those things that keep us separated from you and alienated from our neighbor. Amen.
 
Lord, have mercy upon us.
Christ, have mercy upon us.
Lord, have mercy upon us.
 
Pastoral Prayer
Nick Larson
 
Faithful and holy are you, Creator of all, and blessed is Jesus Christ, Steadfast Love and Hope. When he could have stayed at your side during the days of our rebellion and pride, he came to be our friend and guide. When he could have feasted on your power, in those days of glory with you, he came to prepare a table for us, where our hardened hearts might be softened, and our broken lives might be made whole. When he could have the angels waiting on him, he came to serve us your forgiveness and grace, enduring death on the cross, so we could have life forever.
 
How you love us, O Holy Parent! Like a mother, who teaches her son the steps for his first dance; like the father, who goes out with his daughter after work, so she can learn how to drive, you love us that much and more.
 
How you offer yourself to us, Beloved Christ! You gather us up in your arms, simply to hear our deepest hopes. You reach out your scarred hands gently to wipe our fears away. You are willing to drink a cup you do not want, so we might be washed clean in the tears pouring down God’s face.
 
How you share yourself with us, journey’s Spirit! You bathe our wearied souls in the cooling waters of baptism. You wipe the dust of the wilderness out of our eyes, so we can see the kingdom. You teach us those ancient ways, which offer new life for each of us.
 
Be with us, as we begin again this Lenten journey, as we seek to follow faithfully, remembering the life, the death, the resurrection of Jesus, through whom we pray the everlasting words...
 
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. They will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
 
The Scripture
Mark 1:9-13
 
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
 
This is the Word of the Lord for us today.
Thanks be to God.
 
The Message
Wilderness Reframed
Tim Carson
 
Wilderness is such a common geographic reality and symbol in the whole biblical story. The wilderness is often pictured as a dangerous, foreboding place, the locale of wild untamed things. It is a place of great threat. It is a place you don’t know if you will get out of. You pass through the wilderness at your own risk.
 
The children of Israel wandered in the wilderness for 40 years during their sojourn from Egypt to the Promised Land. From that time forward, the wilderness represented a place of transition, threat, and danger. It was a place in between the places. You hoped that streams would come in the desert and the crocus would bloom. It was somewhere to leave as soon as possible.
 
If the reality of wilderness carried a negative sense in the Bible, that perception changed with the exploration and colonization of the Americas by Europeans. The idea of wilderness and “the west” came to take on mythic proportions. However dangerous it might be, wilderness meant room, freedom, newness, opportunity, and for many, hope. Many were crushed by wilderness as evidenced by the graves beside the trails, right here in Missouri and going west.  But many sought a dream there.
 
So, you can see how an idea can change, be reframed. What was to many a source of dread became for others a well of opportunity. The concept of wilderness turned into something else.
 
When it comes to the temptation of Jesus, wilderness is reframed, redefined. It still was a place of danger and threat, but it also became the locale of transformation. Jesus spent his own time of purification in the wilderness for 40 days – fasting, praying, and enduring the universal temptations that plague us all. And that passage by our Lord reframed what it could be for all of us.
 
In biblical symbolism, both wilderness and the number 40 are fraught with meaning. To combine those – wilderness and 40 – is the most powerful statement of passage and transition in Scripture.
 
Just think of Noah, passing through the watery chaos for 40 days, suspended between the old world and the new one. In the same way, we have our spirit-changing passages. We, too, pass into the threat of wilderness, and are tempted and tested to our core, even re-made. Hopefully we will exit that in-between time and space like Jesus did, transformed and ready for our new purpose.
 
It’s fairly clear to see that we all enter wilderness passages, each one in his or her own way. There is the wilderness of widowhood, of losing a job, of ending a relationship, of going to war, of becoming a new parent or an empty nester, or losing health, or enduring a disaster. There is the wilderness of the soul, that dry time when the old ways of living stop working or working well but the new path has yet to appear.
 
Families pass through wilderness patches, just as do churches. The grit of the sand sticks in your teeth and eyes, and the coyotes howl in the distance. Will we ever pass through this in one piece? What will change? What could happen to us? This feels dangerous.
 
What we do not talk about so often is what wilderness has to offer us. Every so often, all the balls are in the air at the same time, but that’s not always bad. Transformation and resurrection come out of these broken experiences.
 
Leonard Cohen has a wonderful song entitled “Anthem” in which he describes the many ways that we enter into broken times, and in it he says, “There is a crack, a crack in everything … that’s how the light gets in.”
 
I’ve scarcely met a person of real spiritual depth and character, who has not passed through some significant wilderness of the spirit, some breaking, or wounding. And as in Cohen’s song, it is precisely in those broken places, the crack in everything, that new light amazingly, miraculously breaks forth.
 
One of the paradoxes of faith is that the degree to which we attempt to keep everything intact is the same degree in which the new light does not come.
What if Jesus had not gone to the wilderness to be tempted and tested? What if he played it safe, turned aside, and avoided facing the hard things for fear of falling apart or losing what he had? Sometimes we have to take great risks without knowing all the outcomes. We can only move into an unknown future by faith. That is the difference between cowardly and courageous living. And we know what path Jesus walked.
 
Sometimes, the wilderness is thrust upon us against our will, as an accident of history. We have little choice but to respond to events and circumstances left on our doorstep. But other times, we choose to enter the wilderness of our own accord, voluntarily, enduring suffering that may come on account of it. In both cases, we may be transformed against the hardened anvil of experience and even suffering. Our understanding and conviction will be tested. And the cracks that emerge as a result will become portals of light that we would have never known without it.
 
Let me tell you about a wilderness experience. Somewhere in the 1960s, Broadway Christian Church made a courageous and faithful decision. It was a decision that created some dissention among the ranks. In fact, several families left the church as a result. Broadway decided that we would be a congregation that did not discriminate in any way on account of race. They took a board action, went on record, and declared themselves as such – specifically mentioning race as a category. Some families left.
 
You and I can look back from this safe vantage point and say, “Well, of course; for the times, they did the right thing.” But we forget just how turbulent those times were.
 
They loved their church and were concerned about the impact of dealing with such a controversial issue that could be devisive. But the press of that historical moment called for courage and a decision. Now we know that they did the right thing, and that they were on the right side of history.
 
I have such respect and admiration for people who voluntarily enter the wilderness to do the right thing even if it means taking the heat for it.
 
As we make the spiritual pilgrimage of Lent, we dare not only to enter a wilderness but also to be transformed there. For me, that is the hardest part. It is one thing to survive and another to be consoled. But to strip yourself of all that armor, the protective layers of false security and certainty, that radical orientation to the self, that is hard work, the hardest work, because it is so very difficult to let go, surrender and place your life in God’s hands.
 
Some of you have entered a kind of wilderness of the spirit, one you have never experienced before. It is as Dante wrote in the Divine Comedy: at one point in life’s journey, he entered a dark wood. You have entered your dark wood, and it is unlike any place you have been before. As you enter this chapter in your life, you have never been here before. As you encounter this challenge, you have never encountered that challenge before. All that suffering right now, you have never been there before. This is the first time. It is your wilderness. It is right now. All of your instrument lights go out. The coordinates are lacking. You’ve lost the path, and even if you had one, you wouldn’t know who is walking it. Strange as it seems, now is the moment, the time, the opportunity for God to do a great work. It is the opportunity for the new being to be born.
 
At our Men’s Retreat this weekend, we worked with reframing the meaning of strength. We contrasted different models of strength found in our culture and reinterpreted biblical stories. And we heard testimony about the power of defining strength according to love.
 
Being present and tender to another is one of the strongest things that can ever be offered. Recognizing our need, our weakness, and our broken edges is one of the strongest foundations for compassion. Mentoring and helping to draw the best strength out of another is one of the most complete things we can do.
 
All of this reframing requires a wilderness sojourn, pausing to expose yourself to the spiritual elements, waiting for the old definitions of the self to fall down to the ground. What replaces it is a new relationship of trust and love. We are ready to walk with a new heart into a world we now see very differently.
 
Thanks be to God for the wilderness. Amen.
 
The Benediction
Tim Carson
 
“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus. It shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing… And they shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.” *
 
Amen and Amen.
 
*Isaiah 35:1-2

 

Last Published: February 24, 2015 11:02 PM