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Date Posted: February 22, 2021

Praying in the Wilderness

This homily is #2 in our Lenten sermon series, Essentials of Prayer.

There is a line from the film The English Patient that rings true for our conversation today, as we gather for prayers on this, the First Sunday in Lent.  Today as well, we continue our reflection on prayer as seen through the lens of Lent.  The quote is this:

A man in a desert can hold absence in his cupped hands knowing it is something that feeds him more than water.”It’s a powerful image.

This Sunday’s Gospel reading from St. Mark’s account is striking.  We begin with a brief description of Jesus’ baptism by John, then the text says “And the Spirit immediately drove Jesus into the wilderness” where he remained for forty days.  Remember that the phrase “for forty days” is basically a literary device that means “as long as it took.”  So, Noah and his family in the Genesis reading were in the ark for forty days.  As long as it took. The Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years.  As long as it took. When growth is called for in a particular story in the Bible, it takes time–as long as it takes.

The text says that Jesus was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, so we can understand that to mean that Jesus’ own awareness of his identity with God and as God (yes that sounds far too simplified), filled him with an impulse or desire to enter into an intentional time of discernment.  He didn’t bask there on the bank of the river, glistening in the glory of his baptism; there was deep, spiritual work to do, and the wilderness is the holy environment where the deep work of the soul takes place.  And it takes as long as it takes.

The wilderness, as a location, seems designed to support this work of the soul because it is a space that strips away distraction.  Things are laid bare in the wilderness.  Things are uncovered, and it challenges us to face the reality of a situation.  Things can be truly examined–and not only external things, of course.

The wilderness is a space where one’s soul is truly seen, where motivations are laid bare, fears and anxieties faced.  Hopes and the deep yearnings of the heart are sparked.  Visions are given in that crucible of the wilderness, and the soul is stretched.  This, of course, is the deep work of prayer: to cultivate an awareness of God’s presence in our lives and to be aware, as well, of our desire and resistance in participating with that vision.  

In so many ways, this past year has been a wilderness for us all in this regard.  We were driven into a space and time by the circumstances of this global pandemic, and we were challenged to examine the motivations of our personal hearts–and the collective dynamics of our culture.  Jesus himself faced the consolations of the Spirit as well as the temptations of the devil in his wilderness adventure.  It turns out that following Jesus means we share in this as well.

In so many ways, this past year, we saw such deep compassion as so many reached out to those in need.  We also saw folks engage in holy conversations around race, entitlement, social equity, the environment, family life, and economic justice.  In other ways, we saw the shadow of pride and arrogance hiding behind a warped understanding of “rights” within our nation and around the world.  We saw fear and anxiety manipulated and a brazen lust for power laid bare.  

To be sure, such wilderness encounters take place outside and inside of ourselves.  How many times this past year have I been challenged to look into the mirror of my own soul and see how anxiety and fear cripple me, feeding on old family narratives?  How many times have I–have you–encountered your own demons that want to thwart spiritual growth?  

St. Mark doesn’t go into detail around what happened to Jesus in the wilderness.  His point is only that he was driven there to face the devil, the demons of his own circumstance.  But we do hear from other Gospels about what Satan told Jesus, just what he lured him with: turn these rocks into bread–which is to say preserve your security; throw yourself down and watch the angels catch you–which is to say do something sensational and be affirmed for it; bow down and worship me–which is to say claim power.  

Fr. Thomas Keating helps us see that these three temptations are actually the inner dynamics of our own soul work and our own tendency to fixate on what he calls our Emotional Programs for Happiness: the way we overcompensate by grasping onto security and survival, affection and esteem, and power and control.  

Whereas Jesus may have entered into the physical wilderness to face these temptations, what the story actually teaches us on a deeper level is the reality of this wilderness struggle within each one of our hearts.  This is the deep spiritual work we are called to do (which, we are reminded, is actually nurtured by the Spirit praying in us).

How many times this past year alone have I wrestled with these demons?  How many times have I gotten so caught up, that, before I realized what was happening, I had fallen into the grasp of the demon of security and survival, or the demon of affection and esteem (always a tricky one for me), or the demon of power and control?  

Perhaps this Lent, instead of focusing all our attention on the news and listening to whatever political commentator of the moment try to convince us about the depravity of whatever political figure we loathe, we could look into the mirror of our own souls and be curious about our own inner work.  Because, my friends, until enough of us do enough substantial inner work, things won’t change.  

As Martin Luther King once wrote, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”  When it comes to the dynamic of darkness and light, we should first look to the wilderness within; otherwise, the darkness within will continue to warp any sincere effort we may have to change life for the better around us.  I think this is true. 

What we are speaking of here is the rich potential of the wilderness, because, like we said, the wilderness has a way of removing enough distraction for us to become aware of the spiritual work at hand.  

While physical locations of wilderness may seem mostly empty, they are not absent of immeasurable wealth and potential.  This is the truth that we see in the quote from The English Patient:

A man in a desert can hold absence in his cupped hands knowing it is something that feeds him more than water.”

It is the potential and reality of spiritual growth that feeds us, the encounter we have with that reality that is bigger than we can ever imagine–yet lives within us.  Yes, the work we encounter in these spaces is uncomfortable.  Yes, many things–like old habits or assumptions or rigid belief systems or prejudices–are challenged or even shattered.  Many comforting and predictable patterns of our lives may be shown to be illusions.  We may feel less safe in some regard, we may not get the esteem we feel we deserve, and we may feel like we are losing control.  

As the wilderness lays bare our souls, we lose many distractions, and in these moments, our practice of prayer takes on a heightened intensity as we face the reality of God’s burning presence–and which we cannot control but are called to trust.  

In these wilderness spaces and times, so much is stripped away, but what we are left with–

The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
First Sunday in Lent 
February 21, 2021