1 Lent, Year B--The Wildness of God in a World That's All Too Tame
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15
The Reverend Canon Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
The Wildness of God in a World That's All Too Tame.
It’s a little startling, looking at the readings for this first Sunday in Lent to see such an emphasis on baptism as a starting point for our Lenten Journey into in the wilderness, into the wildness of God’s love for all creation. We’ve got the archetypal baptism image of the flood, and Noah and his sons floating in the ark, the cradle of God’s new people, as the rainbow breaks across the sky. “I will never let you go,” God says to Noah, “and everything I do will be to draw you to myself, to bring you true and lasting happiness that comes from living from the inexhaustible, steadfast, and unshakeableness of my love.” Then we have that passage from the First Letter of Peter that makes the connection to Noah and baptism explicit. Peter speaks of baptism not as the mere washing off dirt, but as the discovery a new way of being in the world—the way of non-possessive, vulnerable love—that comes from living from the spirit of the resurrected Jesus who dwells in our hearts. And finally, we have Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan by John—the tearing open of the heavens that issues forth the startling proclamation of Jesus’ identity as the beloved of God, and our identity in and through Him, as God’s very children, partakers of the divine nature, dancers in the dance of love that is the very life of God.
So what’s going on? Why are covenant, baptism, and the proclamation of Jesus to be the Beloved of God the necessary precursors to entering into the wilderness? The wilderness and desert have a long history in the Christian tradition. Deserts and wilderness places have a nasty habit of not submitting to our control or our preferences. Christians down the ages have retreat to wilderness spaces and deserts as a means of getting clear on who and whose they are and bringing to light all the various distractions that tug and pull away from relying on God alone. Deserts are compromising mirrors that show us where attached and where we need to let go, surrender more deeply, and become more simple. Arsenius, one of the early desert fathers is a notable example of someone who renounced his life of privilege as a Roman senator, fled to the desert, and spent his days plaiting reed baskets, fasting, and praying in a tattered robe with a community of humble peasant-monks. The interesting thing about Arsenius is that we can see in his life how difficult it was to give up the honor, prestige, and comfort of his life as a Roman senator. All those various way of securing his identity—his sense of who he was, his self-worth—blew away like sand in a sandstorm in the desert. The desert doesn’t care if you know the emperor, and by extension, neither does God. Who we are isn’t dependent on our station in life, our birth line, our bank account, our education, our good looks, or how many people we can boss around before lunch.
Going into the desert has a funny effect of stripping away all of our false identities and revealing to us who we really are. The desert—in its desolate barrenness—has the effect of becoming a place of springs, a place of re-immersion in the waters of our baptism. All that imagery from the Israelites’ trek into the wilderness of God like water bursting forth from the rock at Manasseh and from the psalmist—“He changed the deserts into pools of water and dry land into water-springs” (Ps 107: 35)—starts to make sense. In the surrender of all the various ways we’ve tried to define ourselves over and against God, in becoming simple, humble, like a little child in Jesus’ arms, we discover the freedom that we are created for—the freedom of being a beloved child of God. The wilderness and the desert teach us that most un-American of Christian virtues without which there can be no transformation—reliance upon God, dependence on the goodness of the Lord, humility. All the various ascetic feats of the deserts fathers and mothers, when properly understood, served this sole aim—to make us humble enough to realize, stiff-necked complainers that we are, that we depend on God for our very life, and in Him and Him alone is our wholeness, happiness, and salvation.
Another famous desert-dweller St. Anthony exemplifies this well. He is the one who upon walking into a church one day heard Jesus’ admonition in Matthew to sell everything at give it to the poor and took it literally. He made provisions for his sister through the sale of his farm and then retreated first to the outskirts of the city and then to an abandoned fortress in the desert where he lived—combatting demons like Jesus in his temptations—for twenty years. You can read all the gory details in Athanasius’ Life of Anthony, but what I want to draw your attention to is this description of Anthony when he emerges from his time of solitude. Athanasius writes,
Anthony came forth as though from some shrine, having been led into divine mysteries and inspired by God…. And when [those who came to him] beheld him, they were amazed to see that his body had maintained its former condition, neither fat from lack of exercise nor emaciated from fasting and combat with demons, but was just as they had known him prior to his withdrawal. The state of his soul was one of purity, for it was not constricted by grief, nor relaxed by pleasure, not affected by either laughter or dejection. He maintained utter equilibrium, like one guided by reason and steadfast in that which accords with nature.
Anthony is a picture of the new creation, the new humanity transfigured in the light of Christ. But it was through becoming little, poor, dependent, and humble, that he was transfigured into the saint Athanasius describes walking out from the abandoned fortress. In imitation of the humility of Christ who becomes human and empties himself and becomes obedient even to the point of death on the cross for our sake, Anthony shows us that the way down is the way up. It is in having everything stripped away—in the descent—that we rise to new life. This is why, in the sometimes startling language of the burial office—we find those lines “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grace we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia” (BCP 499). We don’t have to wait until our deaths for our life to be one long alleluia. We just have become poor enough for the riches of God glory to shine through our lives.
So we might look into the empty expanse of the next forty days of Lent, not as a time of grim-faced forbearance full of harlequin hair shirts, but as a gift that promises to show us who and whose we are, and the fertile soil from which we might live our lives. Lent is that time when we see the flimsiness of the various grounds we lived from in the past and how life-draining they are. The promise of Lent is really no different than the promise of the resurrection. It is in giving up, surrender, relying on something other than ourselves and becoming like a little child, that we find what was true all along—the Kingdom of God has come near: near than our breath, nearer even than consciousness itself. The call is to turn around, to change the direction in which we have mistakenly been looking for happiness, and live from the abode of unshakeable peace, that interior castle, which no outward circumstance can topple.
It’s interesting what happens to people, like Arsenius, like Anthony, like you and me, when they spend some time in the wilderness of God. We become a little wild ourselves. The old distinctions stop making much sense to us and, like Jesus, we start loving all the wrong people, forgiving the unforgiveable, and touching the untouchables. The wilderness opens in us a divine wildness that crosses all boundaries and, like the flood in Genesis washes over everything with the whisper of consecration and blessing—you are my beloved.
You see, it’s not just Jesus upon whom the holy spirit descends. It descends upon each of us. And not just at our baptism like the ball dropping on New Years’ Eve in Time Square. The Spirit descends upon us always and everywhere with same covenantal steadfast love that God speaks to Moses about. “I won’t let you Go,” God says. We are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever with an indissoluble bond that nothing can break: "neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."
Lent is that time of year where we are offered a precious opportunity. To make the reality of our baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus an experiential knowledge that we know in our bones to be true. It’s a time when all those other ways the world wants to define us—how smart, skinny, wealthy, healthy we are—fall away and learn to return and rest in the quiet confidence of God’s love for us. When we don’t let others define us but know that we are dwellers at the banquet of the lamb and beloved children of a God who will stop at nothing to open our eyes to the gift of our existence, we end up a little more like Jesus. He walks out of the desert, rooted, grounded, transparent to the will of God, a child cooing Abba to his beloved father and sets about turning the world upside down—healing the sick, proclaiming good news to the poor, breaking bread with outcasts and sinners. That’s the promise of observing a holy Lent. That we might step out the doors of this place, a little more available to love and a little more ready to be that love in the world. Enter the wilderness. Go into the desert. Let it show you who you are really are. Not who your parents, teachers, nation, Facebook, Twitter, or the 24-hour news cycle tell you who you are, but who that convention- ripping dove tells you are in a wild whisper that calls you to be the wildness of God’s love in a world that’s all too tame.