January 28, 2018
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
Winter in western NY can be harsh. Even in a fairly mild winter, there will be days when the wind scours your skin and the cold burrows into your bones, when you walk with creaks and clackings, a brittle skeleton of living icicles. When my oldest son John was looking at colleges, he decided to go to Nazareth College in Rochester partly because its system of underground tunnels allows students to walk from their warm bedrooms to their classrooms without having to take off their slippers let alone put on boots, mittens, and hats. After so many winters waiting for the school bus on the top of the windswept Belmont hill, John was ready to burrow underground like a groundhog until spring.
The cold of a winter in western NY can not only chill our bodies; it can erase civilization’s hold on the land. There are times in January when I can get temporarily unsure of my way around my own property because the paths that I carefully maintain all summer disappear in banks of snow and ice. The nature writer John Burroughs said, “The country is more of a wilderness, more of a wild solitude in the winter than in the summer. The wild comes out. The urban, the cultivated, is hidden …. You shall hardly know a good field from a poor, a meadow from a pasture, a park from a forest. Lines and boundaries are disregarded; gates and bar-ways are unclosed; man lets go his hold upon the earth; title-deeds are deep buried beneath the snow; the best-kept grounds relapse to a state of nature; under the pressure of the cold, all the wild creatures become outlaws, and roam abroad beyond their usual haunts. The partridge comes to the orchard for buds; the rabbit comes to the garden and lawn; the crows and jays come to the ash-heap and the corn-crib,… the pine grosbeak comes down from the north and shears your maples of their buds; the fox prowls your premises at night; and the red squirrels find your grain in the barn or steal the butternuts from your attic. In fact, winter,” he says, “like some great calamity, changes the status of most creatures and sets them adrift.”1
Winter turns our civilized western NY into a wilderness of body and soul.
The image of wilderness is a powerful one and it runs like a thread throughout our Biblical stories. Abraham and Sarah were nomads in the wilderness of Canaan moving with the seasons and dependent on a too often sporadic rainfall to bring needed vegetation to bud. Their descendants escaped slavery in Egypt only to wander in the wilderness of the Sinai peninsula for 40 years. The prophets used wilderness metaphors to describe the grace of God who causes flowers to bloom in desert places, and for Christians, the wilderness will always be associated with Jesus’ temptation. In a deliberate allusion to the Israelites’ 40 years in Sinai, Jesus is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness of Jericho for forty days where he fasts, prays, and is tested to prepare him for his ministry.
When we read these stories of wilderness wanderings, we too often impose an American idea of wilderness on these passages; we in America think of wilderness as a place empty of people, or worse, as a dangerous place where predators roam. But that’s not actually the biblical understanding of wilderness; it is an understanding bequeathed to us by the Puritans. When the Puritans settled in America, they believed so strongly that the wilderness was the dwelling place of demons that they cleared the forests as fast as they could and built strong forts around their villages and assumed that any people who lived beyond the edges of their walls must be little more than beasts and demons themselves. You can see why this attitude caused problems between the settlers and the American Indians living here at the time and why American Indians were referred to as “savages.” In the Puritan worldview, if you didn’t live in a settled home and hold a marketable job, but moved about the forests and fields with the whims of nature, you were little more than a beast susceptible to the satanic powers of darkness. Even though we have for the most part come to understand the demeaning results of such bigotry against the native people here before us, out Puritan ancestry has left us still today uneasy about wilderness, and we see that uneasiness both in our national debate about the value of preserving wilderness but also, for the point of today’s sermon, in our ability to understand our spiritual wilderness experiences. If we view wilderness only as a place where demons and danger dwell then how will we cope when we find ourselves in a wilderness of spirit? How will we bear up to the testing we will encounter in those times when the familiar landmarks are erased, when the path we were walking disappears, when we are set emotionally and spiritually adrift? If we believe like the Puritans that the only one living out there in the spiritual wilderness is the devil, how can we possibly endure our wilderness times, and be saved?
It is crucial then for us to understand that in the Bible, wilderness was not a place to be avoided, but was in fact, at times, a place where great gifts could be received. When Elijah feared for his life at the hands of the angry Queen Jezebel, he escaped into the wilderness where his weary body and spirit was tended by angels. John the Baptist lived in the wilderness of the Jordan, eating honey and locusts and presumably communing with God. And of course, in the gospels Jesus is deliberately driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit, and since we are assured that the Holy Spirit is one of the good guys, we can trust that the Spirit believes that something good and necessary will happen for Jesus out there far from civilization. While the Bible agrees that the wilderness is not a comfortable place, it assures us on the other hand, that neither is the wilderness a place to be feared. It is in the wilderness that our biblical heroes are stripped down to their essence and when all of the certainties of civilization are gone, they discover that God alone remains.
When the bible uses the word wilderness, it is talking then not about a demonic land but simply about a place where human beings are not in control. The ancient people of the bible moved in and out of a literal wilderness and to survive their times there, the people had to learn to give up their sense of control, to live with the land and move from place to place as the seasons changed and the land’s offerings changed with them. Put there, people had to come to terms with an always fragile existence where boundaries were uncertain and life was filled with constant movement and change. The biblical writers turned to their experiences in the literal wilderness as a metaphor to describe any place or time when our identity is challenged, or we are thrown into circumstances beyond our control.
Wilderness experiences happen to us all of the time. In fact, as we get older, I think we spend more time in the wilderness than in the comforts of a familiar place. Think about the things that have made up your identity and how often life has challenged that sense of self. We have define ourselves by our jobs, our families, our residence, our heritage because those parameters gave us a sense of order about who we are but throughout our lives, events have challenged those identities: we have lost or changed jobs, we became ill, we were not able to have the children we imagined, or if we did, those children grew up and left home, loved ones who were a part of our very selves died leaving us adrift. These events caused our identity to unravel and we felt we were wandering in an unfamiliar landscape. Even events that we normally think of as good can make us unsure of who we are — retirement can be just as disconcerting for some people as losing a job because a person confronts the question, “If I’m not my job, who am I?” The birth of a child can be a very stressful event as parents are now consumed full-time with the needs of their son or daughter. Young parents even lose the use of the first person pronoun “I” and begin speaking of themselves in the third person: “Mommy’s on the phone right now.” ‘What happened to the me I used to know so well?’ we wonder. And of course, as we get older, our bodies begin to break down and we face losing our cherished independence. We are in the wilderness where nothing is familiar any longer.
In the passage from Luke, Jesus enters the wilderness where Satan confronts him with three tests. Those tests are the same tests we face every time we find ourselves in a spiritual wilderness. Satan says to Jesus, “Change this stone into bread. Take control of the situation, Jesus,” Satan taunts. “Stock your larder and secure your retirement funds so that you don’t have to be afraid of the future.” When Jesus refuses, Satan continues, “Look at all the kingdoms of the world below your feet: establish your legacy. Take control of the situation, Jesus, and make yourself a man of importance who will never be forgotten.” And when Jesus refused a second time, Satan tested him a last time saying, “Throw yourself off this cliff and tell God to send angels to protect you. Take control of the situation and demand God’s favor. Show yourself to be a man of such great faith that God will have to do your bidding and protect you from all harm.” We sympathize with the temptations of Jesus, because these are the things we want too — security, predictability, guarantees. We want to believe that we are somehow in control of our lives and we spend our lives trying to carve out an order and certainty in our world.
In the 1800s, a young man named William Ernst Henley contracted tubercular arthritis necessitating the amputation of one leg and extensive surgery on the other. As he recovered in the infirmary, he began to write poems, one of which titled “Invictus” proclaimed his stoic insistence on overcoming the challenges he faced. It begins,
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
Those last two lines have resonated for many and have been quoted as a declaration of stoic persistence in the face of tribulation and struggle, but ultimately their declaration is as false as Satan’s promises to Jesus because the fact is, we are not always the master of our fate and the captains of our souls. If we were masters of our own fate, would we ever get cancer? Would our loved one’s ever get sick? But we know we can’t prevent disease through sheer will power or throw up a force field around our homes or prevent the wear and tear of the years on our bodies. Nor are we always in control of our spiritual selves — no matter how hard we try to believe, doubts will creep in. Darkness will fall upon us. We will have days when we want to have nothing to do with God or faith or this whole Christian enterprise and want nothing more than to shutter the windows and lock the doors from the whole world. And there will be days, usually the days after those days of doubt and frustration, when we will sink into guilt over the weakness of our souls. No matter how loudly we shout it, the fact is that we are not masters of our fate, and rarely are we captains of our own soul, because more days than not, we are just wandering in the wilderness not even sure of where we are or where we are going. I am convinced that by the end of our days, we will look back and realize that we spent more of our lives in the wilderness than out of it. It is apparently the nature of the human condition to be wanderers in a landscape not of our own making or choice.
It is truly good news then, that the gospel declares there is nothing to fear in the wilderness. It may be uncomfortable and unsettling but if we open our eyes and our hearts, we will discover that God is there in the wilderness with us tending to our hurts and drying our tears.
Jesus went into the wilderness and came out filled with the Spirit and ready to serve. Elijah went into the wilderness and discovered there the tender care of angels. And the Israelites went into the wilderness, met God in the heart of it, and came out a new people.
In the early part of the 20th Century, Dorothy Day wrote a rebuttal of sorts to William Hearst Henley’s poem “Invictus.” She called her poem, “Conquered.” She wrote:
Out of the light that dazzles me,
Bright as the sun from pole to pole,
I thank the God I know to be,
For Christ – the Conqueror of my soul.
Since His the sway of circumstance,
I would not wince nor cry aloud.
Under the rule which men call chance,
My head, with joy, is humbly bowed.
Beyond this place of sin and tears,
That Life with Him and His the Aid,
That, spite the menace of the years,
Keeps, and will keep me unafraid.
I have no fear though straight the gate:
He cleared from punishment the scroll.
Christ is the Master of my fate!
Christ is the Captain of my soul!
May you who wander in the wilderness grow comfortable with your wanderings, accepting your doubts and wounds as part of the natural landscape in which all of us will find ourselves at one time or another, but trusting that God is there with you ready to care for you, sit with you, nourish you, and guide you, the master of your fate, the captain of your soul.
1. John Burroughs, “Year in the Fields” (as cited in The Last Season: A Winter Treasury p.18)