Deut 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13
I believe it was in 1969, after I had moved to Iran, that my family and I took a car trip from Teheran to the southern coast of Iran. In those days the trip took several days, and we stopped and stayed with family in cities along the way.
I had never seen such wilderness before. Coming from New York and New England, I was used to rolling hills and valleys and riverbeds, but they were always covered with lush vegetation and even forests. As we left the crowded streets of Teheran, we passed almost immediately into wilderness.
The landscape was almost completely barren, revealing the rough contours of the rocks and hills and valleys. The only vegetation was a few scrawny trees and scruffy bushes. Between each town and village, there were no gas stations, no convenience stores, no McDonalds.
The farther south we drove, there were fewer and fewer villages and fewer and fewer other cars on the road. It became a major event when we passed a car or truck going the other way. There was even a period of time when we were not sure whether we were actually on a road or not.
Most of the time on that trip, we were a small community of 5 people, quite cozy and quite alone in the little bubble of our car. We were truly in the wilderness.
One day we drew near to a village just around midday. The houses in this village seemed to be made from the same material as the earth all around. The roofs of the houses were dome shaped and small, and looked as though they had pushed up from the ground. The whole town seemed to be a natural feature of the landscape.
We drove into the village, and stopped in front of a little one-room house. There was an opening to enter, but no door. There were rugs on the floor inside. The woman of the house spread a rug in front of the door, and brought us tea. Someone went to buy a large flat bread and cheese and fruit.
In the emptiness of the wilderness, there was hospitality and welcome from strangers. There was simple but delicious food. This is the code of the desert.
The family of Abraham and the people of Israel came from a “wandering Aramean” ancestor, who ventured into the wilderness to find a new hope, new future, new calling from God. Abraham’s father was called to start this journey, but he fell short, and stopped half way. It was Abraham who completed the journey to the Holy Land, and who received the assurance from God that his offspring would be numerous like the stars of the sky.
Jesus, also, was led by the Spirit into the wilderness for his own journey of self-reflection and temptations, before he was to begin his public ministry. His time in the wilderness included the temptation to turn stones into bread, which I imagine might be rather tough and dry tasting, even if Jesus did it. This would have cut short his experience of the wilderness, before he even had time to address the real reasons for being there.
He was tempted to rule the world, through the worship of Satan, the adversary of God. This temptation was not only to abandon the love and worship of God, but also a temptation to power that was recognizable and esteemed. It was a temptation to the easy way of being known and respected. It would have been an easy road, but it would have meant a complete denial and rejection of his true identity and purpose.
The third temptation was to a public display of his divine authority. Satan challenged him: “Throw yourself down from the temple!” The successful completion of this stunt would have brought people running, and created an instant and vast following, but for all the wrong reasons. Even on the cross, the bystanders taunted Jesus to call upon the angels of God to bring him down and save him from death. And he did not do it.
During his earthly life, Jesus did perform many miracles, but out of spontaneous compassion, as gifts of healing to others, and not to his own glory.
There are temptations for all of us in everyday life, as well as during wilderness times. I expect that here at All Saints the coming months may sometimes feel a bit like a wilderness journey. I don’t mean that the priests who will serve you here will leave you spiritually barren – far from it!
What I mean is that the journey may be complicated; it may sometimes seem as though there are fewer gas stations than usual along the way. There may be a temptation to “settle” for the first possible priest who comes along, yet this may turn out to be something like turning stones into bread. It may be settling for less than is possible; it may be cutting the in-between time too short. It may mean settling for stale bread, when there could be a divine banquet.
It may be tempting to try to be a big church, and try to do too much. There are rich blessings of being small, of working together, being patient, of doing one thing well, and then celebrating what has been achieved.
It may be tempting to jump to conclusions about what is God’s will for All Saints. It may be that God’s “will” is not for a specific blueprint to be followed, if we could only just figure out what it is. It may be that God’s deepest desire is simply to be loved and adored and served in each other and those who are given to us to serve. It may be that God’s will includes a rich array of choices.
The wilderness time may also be an opportunity for fallow time, for self-reflection, for new initiative, for new ideas, for an openness of Spirit to new possibilities. Wilderness time requires that we love one another, that we be patient with one another, that we be always kind to one another.
Wilderness time requires that we become more aware than ever of our reliance on the loving care of God, who is ever present, ever close, ever faithful. Even when it seems like wilderness, “the word [of God] is near you, on your lips and in your heart”. God is with you in this place, and all will be well.