Third Sunday in Lent: Gifts in the Wilderness
Sermon Texts: Isaiah 55:1-19; Psalm 63:1-8; Luke 13:1-9
We are now, already, at the half-way point of Lent, believe it or not. It has been a somewhat unusual Lenten season this year, as we have immersed ourselves not in penitence and self-denial but in the promises of God:
Through all of Lent we are keeping in mind God’s comforting words spoken by Isaiah: “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” We have listened to the flowing water in our fountain, and we have allowed ourselves, perhaps, to be drawn into the wilderness time, at the least to remember the occasions when we have been in the wilderness places of life—and to remember the gifts that God provides even where all seems desolate, lonely, and lost. “A way in the wilderness; and rivers in the desert.”
On Ash Wednesday a number of us gathered around the fountain and saturated ourselves with God’s promise that “You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.” The first Sunday in Lent we lavished ourselves in apples and honey as we remembered God’s promise to the Israelites to lead them to a land flowing with milk and honey. Last week we feasted at the banquet table of communion as we renewed our confidence, along with Abraham, that we will see the goodness of God in the land of the living.
Our hunger comes in many different forms.
Elliot was about three years old when I found myself suddenly overwhelmed one morning by all that I needed to do in order to properly equip him for this world. I must have made the mistake of venturing “up the hill” from our humble, seminary housing apartment in the Mt Airy section of Philadelphia to the prestigious, wealthy enclave Chestnut Hill only a mile or so away—though light years in terms of income and class--along Germantown Ave. Occasionally Elliot and I would ride the bus up the cobblestone street and debark at the neighborhood-built, all-wooden playground. After a hearty playtime, sometimes we would walk on up to the shopping district, gazing in the windows of the boutiques, and occasionally stopping for a coffee and apple juice at Starbucks.
I must have picked up the Parents Express newspaper on our latest excursion on a beautiful spring day—and I found myself on this particular morning before work paging through the dozens of pages of advertisements for children’s day camps being offered around the Greater Philadelphia region that summer. The choices were endless, but the cumulative effect, at least on this particular Mom, was that I would hopelessly fail my son if I didn’t sign him up for one of these Summer day camps immediately.
There was the Settlement School, where he could begin his life as a musical prodigy; or maybe he needed to develop his physical prowess in this dog-eat-dog world and I ought to sign him up for Soccer or Baseball camp (or both!). Maybe he needed to get a headstart (hardly a headstart already at age three, the newspaper seemed to imply) in computers—and I should send him to the camp to teach him programming. Or, given that there was hardly a day that Elliot went without wearing a cape, maybe I should send him to Drama Camp. Weren’t acting lessons long past due for this three-year old?
The longer I sat considering these options, none of which we could afford in the first place, the more discouraged and depressed I grew. And the more Elliot’s future seemed to loom before me in grey colors of misspent potential. It was clear to me on this particular morning that his could hardly be a childhood future full of lazy summer days, reading by the open window, playing hide and seek until dark with the neighborhood kids, shaping mudpies, playing street hockey, or seeing who could make the longest skid marks in the streets with their bikes (as my childhood was)! No, it was clear to me on that morning that if I didn’t send Elliot to camp that very summer to develop and hone some important life skill—and not only that summer but every summer after that, no matter what the tuition might drain out of us—well, then I would fail him as a parent.
It was all too much, but somehow we were going to have to figure out a way to pull it off—if we wanted our kid to have a rosy future, not a grey one, some competitive chance at making it in this society.
I’d no sooner resolved myself to this thoroughly depressing acceptance of reality, when I glanced up and saw my kid, still only three years old, hungrily gazing up at me—all packed up and ready for daycare. Doug’s hand was on the door as they were hurrying off for the day. Elliot looked at me a bit confused and asked me glumly: “No breakfast today, Mom?”
I hope I never forget that day—when I got so overwhelmed by the pressure to provide the best future possible for my child that I completely forgot to take care of him in the moment he needed me. I sent my kid off to daycare that day without his breakfast. I knew his teacher kept oatmeal on the ready for the families that mismanaged their time on any given morning. He would be okay. But for me, the lesson was stark. I was so concerned with the future, I forgot to be present to the moment.
I tossed that Parents Newspaper into the recycling immediately after Elliot and Doug left. Elliot would be all right with lazy summer days, I decided, just as I had been when I was growing up. What he needed was a family that cared about him here and now. And in every here and now to come. That would be abundance enough.
This morning we have the offer of great abundance from the hands of God in Isaiah 55:8 “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!” Here is a true invitation to fullness of life, and all of it gift!
Just as God’s promise of a land flowing with milk and honey came to the Israelites while they were wandering in the wilderness, after their exodus from Egypt and their liberation from slavery, so this promise recorded in Isaiah comes to God’s people just as they are preparing, once again, to embark on a long journey—this time heading back to the Promised Land after generations of being in exile. Truth is, many of the exiled Israelites weren’t too sure this was good news. They’d gotten comfortable in their new land, and many of them felt settled there. Though they were in exile, they only knew of the so-called promised land from the stories of their grandparents. Going home wasn’t really going home for them. It was going to a place they’d never seen; a place that had been ransacked and destroyed years before; a place they would need to rebuild from the ground up: from city walls to the walls of the temple, everything lay in ruins back there.
God’s promise, in this case, is only good news for those who were indeed thirsting: for those who had no money to buy what they needed to eat. But many of the Israelites at this time seemed to have enough money to waste. Abundant enough money that God is compelled to ask them, through Isaiah: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread and labor for that which does not satisfy?”
The question continues to have resonance today. At least it does for me. That morning, when I imagined Elliot’s future, all looked bleak. Because suddenly I’d gotten completely swept up in the belief that in order for Elliot to succeed in life, there were certain things we had to do, ways we would be compelled to spend our money in order to invest in our child’s future. My hunger for his success in the world obscured my ability to perceive his actual hunger in the moment for the nourishment he needed to grow that very day.
Thomas Merton called such desires social compulsions which are manifested in the continuing need for success and approval caused by the lurking fear of failure. As a result there is a steady urge, a compulsion, to prevent failure by gathering more and more things to oneself: whether more work, more money, or more friends. All of this acquisitiveness is done in an effort to bulwark ourselves; in an effort to keep ourselves from truly facing the hunger within.
Henri Nouwen points out that one of the main enemies of the spiritual life is greed. When our sense of self depends on what we can acquire, then greed flares up when our desires are frustrated. The more work, the more money, the more possessions, the more people we can pull into ourselves, then the more we are able to make a case for our success in life. Unfortunately, these are exactly that which does not nourish us and what does not satisfy.
Far from it, in fact. Because in our consumerist society we are kept in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction and desire. It is to our economy’s benefit that we are always dissatisfied with what we have. The lure of new and supposedly improved draws us irresistibly to the mall on Saturday, or to i-tunes, or Amazon from the comfort of our own couch. A consumerist economy, such as the one in which we live, thrives when people spend their money on that which does not satisfy. Because if we were to realize that we had enough already, and abundantly so at that, then what would become of the Gross National Product?
This past Wednesday evening, a group of about twelve of us gathered in the sanctuary to experience contemplative prayer together. We started our time out by reflecting on the wisdom of the Desert Mothers and Fathers. These were women and men who lived in the desert of Egypt beginning in the third century. They modeled their spiritual lives after Jesus’ time in the wilderness (from which we have the temptation narrative that opened us into our Lenten journey this year) and Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist—about whom we read in the gospel of Luke this past Advent.
Not a lot survives from these Desert Mothers and Fathers, but we do have collections of their sayings which, when taken together, form what is called a Desert Spirituality.
A man named Arsenius is one of the most highly revered of the Desert Fathers. He lived from the mid-third to early fourth century, for fifty five years in solitude, in the desert of Egypt. Once a Roman educator who had considerable wealth and status, Arsenius gave all of that up in order to descend into his own sense of hunger for God’s presence in his life. When one morning he prayed, “Lord, lead me into the way of salvation,” he heard a voice saying to him in response: “Be silent.”
To descend into silence, as some of us experienced this past Wednesday, is not really the easiest or most comforting thing to do. In fact, it can be deeply unsettling. Because when we descend into silence, when we seek to clear out the constant noise, the clutter, the never-ending wordiness of our lives—we are often forced to confront precisely the things we’ve been keeping ourselves so busy to avoid! Our own sense of emptiness, our own profound hunger for God’s healing presence, our own unquenched thirst for God’s living, loving waters.
Our psalmist this morning surely had descended into that silence before: “My soul thirsts for you,” the psalmist writes: “My flesh faints for you. As in a barren and dry land where there is no water.” To know our need for God as a deep and aching thirst, to know our desire for God as a terrible, longing ache—these are not comfortable places to be. And very often, when we begin to practice a form of prayer that does not fill up the space between God and us with an endless stream of words, requests, and petitions—then we are forced to confront that terrible longing, that yawning ache for God.
Years later, when Arsenius asked a second time: “Lord, lead me to the way of salvation,” the voice that spoke to him not only said: “Be silent,” but also “Pray always.” Henri Nouwen writes that:
To pray always—this is the real purpose of the desert life. Solitude and silence can never be separated from the call to unceasing prayer. If solitude were primarily an escape from a busy job, and silence primarily an escape from a noisy [world], they could easily become very self-centered forms of asceticism. But solitude and silence are for prayer. The Desert Fathers [and Mothers] did not think of solitude as being alone, but as being alone with God. They did not think of silence as not speaking, but as listening to God. Solitude and silence are the context within which prayer is practiced.
The command that Arsenius hears is the very same invitation that God extends in our Isaiah text: “Incline your ear, and come to me, listen, so that you may live.”
This is the marvelous wonder of God’s love for us: it is in the experience of our hunger that we are fed; it is in the realization of our thirst, that we know it quenched. So much so, that the Isaiah text equates listening to God with eating well: in verse 2 God says: “Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.”
In fact, it is the same for the psalmist who writes: “My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the night watches.”
In our hunger for God, we are fed. In our listening for God, we eat well. In the silence of our prayers, our souls are satisfied with the richest of feasts.
Listen and Eat. Taste and See. Be silent. Pray always. The Desert Mothers and Fathers literally walked into the desert and remained there for year after year. Carlo Carretto, who became a desert monk in 1954 at the age of 44, acknowledges that not everyone is called to a desert life. “But if you cannot go into the desert,” he writes, “you must nonetheless ‘make some desert’ in your life. Every now and then leaving others and looking for solitude to restore, in prolonged silence and prayer, the stuff of your soul. This is the meaning of ‘desert’ in your spiritual life.”
A final image: a fig tree that has yet to produce fruit. An impatient land owner. And a compassionate gardener. The landowner, frustrated by the fig trees aberrant behavior, demands that the tree be cut down. The landowner, like John the Baptist in Luke 3, has no patience for trees which do not bear fruit. And like John the Baptist, he urges the use of the axe, which even now lies at the roots of the tree. But the gardener, like the Compassionate Christ, has other plans: “Another year,” he pleads.
And in that year, we get the sense, this gardener will lavish that tree with more tender loving care than that fig tree has ever known before. He will nourish it, dig around it, love it, and urge it to fulfill its potential. I like to think of that year ahead as the tree’s wilderness year: the making of the desert, the abundant enough in the life that fig tree.
We don’t know the end of this fig tree’s story. But that’s because the ending is not the important part here: it is the tending, the listening, the tasting, the hunger and the thirst, it is the abundant enough of God’s lovingkindness that is the real story here.
Be silent. Pray Always. Be hungry. Eat richly. Taste and See that God is good.