Why the Wilderness?
A sermon by Pastor David Gatton,
Delivered 2-18-18, the First Sunday of Lent
at the Universalist National Memorial Church, Washington, D.C.
In our opening words this morning from Psalm 25 the Psalmist sings:
“Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old.”
“Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O LORD!”
The fourteen students who were killed this last week in Parkland, Florida, would have loved to live long enough to utter the words “do not remember the sins of my youth.” They will not be given a life long enough to look back upon their youthful indiscretions, and their repentance from them, to sing to God, “Remember me, Remember me.”
They will not have the soul’s pleasure of acquiring the wisdom that years bring; and they will be denied the deep journey of the soul to complete the meaning of “for goodness’ sake.”
This denial of life and both the struggles and wonderful joys it stole, will be part of the memories that loved ones—parents and young friends—will carry with them their entire lives. Every birthday, every dreamed of graduation day, wedding day, the day of becoming a parent, the day of serving community and society, the day of having lived a full life, are now only memories that tempt the soul with “what could have been.” These now are lost dreams. They are no more.
To shock further the soul, no warning came, at least not to the parents and the students. (Although it appears the students in fact knew how dangerous the shooter might be, along with others). No long illness that prepared the soul and loved ones for eventual death was part of this story; no, this came unannounced, like a bolt of lightening from the sky with no dark clouds around it.
The day begins with “all is well.” The day ends in total travesty. One parent says, “I can’t remember if I told her I loved her when she ran out the house to go to school. I don’t know what to do?” No preparation, no time to contemplate the losing of a child, no time, no time.
Students who experienced the horror of hearing the gun go on and on with a baritone quality huddled under their desks, crammed into closets like sardines, and waited to see if they would live.
Eerily, they had planned for this possibility, for this is the post-Columbine generation of kids who participate in Code Red drills because school mass shootings are now routine enough to require the training of our children for them.
This is what we have come to.
And if any of us feel or believe we are immune from it, then we should heed the words of those who have been through it. In response to the Las Vegas killings, Mayor Carolyn Goodman told her colleagues when they gathered down the street in the Capital Hilton this last January, “It is not a matter of if, but when.”
Mass shootings have become so routine; they have become part of our culture.
Why do we go into the wilderness?
We go there because we know we are not immune from bad things happening to us, to our loved ones and to our fellow humanity. We go there, as did Jesus, to live with the wild beasts and to be tempted by all that is wrong with the world. We go there to make sure we confront someone who will tell us “evil is routine and has no solution, no hope.” We go there to know “what we are up against” and how to avoid a pollyannish life where we become unprepared for what life will throw our way.
What drives us to the wilderness? It is amazing, and we must always remember: the same Spirit that descended upon Jesus as he rose from the baptismal water also drove him into the wilderness.
According to the Gospel of Mark, “just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven; You are my Son, the Beloved with you I am well pleased. And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”
Why? Why does the spirit not immediately lead Jesus to the task of the good news, of the preaching that the kingdom is near? Why does the Spirit not lead Jesus immediately into the ministry of souls and the journey of repentance? Aren’t these more important than roaming forty days in the wilderness with that which is opposite these good things.
Why? because we need reminded that these forty days take us back to the forty days of the great flood, where Noah saved all flesh by putting it in a safe place, the ark, and once the flood receded, God made his covenant never to destroy life again, never to visit such travesty upon the human race that humanity could not endure.
God is serious and steadfast enough in this covenant that he says in the Genesis story he will put a bow in the sky as a sign that the covenant stands, that it will not go away; that it will remain regardless of the dark clouds that may arise.
The text reads: “ When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”
God’s covenant is universal; it leaves no one out.
But it is more than that. The wilderness will tempt Jesus that the covenant does not exist; that God’s goodness does not rule, but instead evil, and that such evil must be accepted. The temptation is that evil has standing, just like the covenant, and that there is such a thing as evil for evil’s sake. Here the temptation is that evil is foundational and that we are owned by it and can rationalize things because of its existence.
If Jesus had accepted this view, succumbed to this temptation, he would have stayed in the wilderness, or worse yet emerged from it to teach a fatalism that humanity could not overcome its sin, could not leave it behind, could not find repentance, could not be washed clean by a baptism that in the words of First Peter would give us “an appeal for a good conscience.”
“And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you–not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience…”
When we are cleansed by the Spirit, we feel anew enough to ask that a good conscience be given to us. That’s a difficult ask if we do not feel we have been set aright, begun a new path, and put our lives of sin behind us.
Why does Jesus go into the wilderness? Because that is where humanity is thrust in times of tragedy, great danger and unimaginable loss. It is times like these, such as when the parent utters “I don’t know what to do,” that deep inside we know that floods and the wilderness do happen. We need to know we are not entirely alone when they occur, but that others are there with us also. We need to know that the man who would be given the title of the Messiah, had gone through his own wilderness experience as well.
But there is danger here, not just comfort. When we are thrust into the wilderness, we are, in those times, most vulnerable to believing that evil has won and that the covenant is gone. Instead we are tempted to conclude that goodness is no longer foundational, but evil rules the world. Temptation encourages us to give up and to accept what has happened to us as inevitable and there is no response to it. After all, didn’t evil win last Wednesday?
It is for days like these that God put the bow in the sky to remind him and to remind humanity that the covenant stands; it will not go away. And it is times like these that we know the Messiah experienced the wilderness as well, because the Spirit of God sent him there that he could also be fully human and understand the temptation to believe that the world is ordered by evil.
Just as the bow appeared in the sky as a reminder, Jesus emerged from the wilderness to begin his ministry.
“After John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’”
Jesus ministry of repentance and good news is a statement that it is “goodness” that is foundational, not evil and that the kingdom is near. Here Jesus is not passive; he does not wait for God to do the work, but he sets about his ministry to change the world.
In Elizabeth’ Bruenig’s op-ed article last Friday, entitled “we have been defeated” she begins her column with these words: “Nothing symbolizes the foreclosure of the future like the slaughter of a nation’s young. And it’s so routine now that attention will quickly fade, as it does with subjects one doesn’t intend to do anything about.” She goes on to say, “Faith in freedom, faith in the Constitution, and lastly faith in God—that, too, is compromised by these bloody rituals. There is perhaps no other social or political occasion in which the pat response to one’s offer of prayers is instant righteous fury and open, bitter disbelief. It’s a subgenre of public discussion of religion that is unique to mass shootings, and one can see why. Every time this happens, the same politicians offer their thoughts and prayers; every time it happens again, they offer more of the same, and never anything more. One conclusion is that they must not be praying very ardently; another is that their prayers simply aren’t heard. For this shooting, the cycle has already begun. Either way, prayer itself winds up looking like a sham, and such promises sound cheaper over time.”
Ms. Bruenig hit the nail on the head. She got it right.
Jesus did not come out of the wilderness and into a prayer room. He did not say “my thoughts and prayers are with you.” Instead, he went out to encourage repentance from a life of sin and a life where “love for the other” was more important than one’s own life.
I believe those who say only that they are offering their thoughts and prayers need a long stint in the wilderness to get their lives straight. For the wilderness will teach them that the greatest temptation is to believe that evil is a justification for the acceptance of the status quo and that there is no good news to respond to it. That is the temptation. But if countered, if their stint in the wilderness is a true one, if they also meet there the parents of the children who have been slaughtered, they will emerge not defeated, not fatalistic, but wanting to act.
I listened to one of the early press conference’s after the shooting where one of the leaders, who happens to be against gun regulation, said, “what happened today was just evil,” as though that was an appropriate justification for what had happened.
Another Florida leader in an ensuing interview claimed that a pistol and a shotgun were every bit as dangerous as an AR 15 semi-automatic rifle. He knew that wasn’t true, or he had been brainwashed beyond recognition. But I know this, he had not and will not likely spend 40 days in the wilderness with the wild beasts and with the parents of the children who lost their lives.
Because if he had, he would have come out of the wilderness saying “We must do something.” We may not have all the answers, but we must do something that does not allow an 18 year-old who has been expelled from school to buy an AR 15.
Of course he can say, “we must do other things.” We must have better mental health screening for our young and we must have better security in our schools. But the truth is we are awash in guns used in mass shootings of schools and innocent gatherings, and we are awash in weapons of mass destruction that anyone can walk into a store and buy. This is ludicrous and it is killing the innocent young of our land.
Saying , justifying, that it is “just evil at work” is at it’s core a concession by the soul that evil is foundational. Saying so and offering thoughts and prayers giving evil that kind of standing is yet another manifestation of the real Satan, if you want to personify it. It is evil infiltrating the soul and incapacitating it.
Religion, through all this, as with Ms Bruenig’s observations, suffers, because the cynicism that pious inaction yields also encourages people to reject the spiritual as bereft of values, courage and love.
As liberal Christians, we must give witness to the reality that there are times when thoughts and prayers are not enough. We must go into the wilderness with the loved ones of lost ones, with all the victims of gun violence, and say to the devil, “we will not let you manipulate our religion and trick us into thinking we can do nothing to counteract evil.”
I hope you will join me as your pastor in committing to a life of action, in this instance of getting in the face of our leaders who believe we should have a society awash in guns, awash in military guns of mass destruction, and as one voice make a difference.
The psalmist sang, Remember me, Oh Lord, for your goodness’ sake. Goodness, not evil. God put a bow in the sky as a sign that he would never again abandon all flesh, but instead establish a covenant. This universal covenant would not yield to evil. Jesus, when he emerged from the water, did so that the Spirit would help him appeal go God for a good conscience, not an evil one. The same spirit would immediately send him into the wilderness that he may know what it would be like for those who make the same journey to reject the temptation of evil, reject its acceptance, and instead emerge actively preaching goodness and repentance in the world.
Why the wilderness? Because the spirit of a good conscience, cleansed from sin, sends us straight into it. Sends us straight into an active denial that we can just accept things as they are because the world is an evil thing, and well, bad things just happen.
Why does evil tempt us? Because it needs our agency. Without us, it is not permanent. It may win a battle here or there. There may be clouds, but if we actively deny it, we will take action to make sure goodness prevails. And goodness in this instance, in the instance of last Ash Wednesday, is protecting our young. It is protecting the young on the streets of this city and in every school. It is speaking truth to power when that power places other values above the value of life.
It is up to us to bear witness that enough is enough, that goodness is the foundation, so that our children will have a future, and those around us will not grow cynical of our thoughts and prayers.
“Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people; but Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”
The Spirit of God will send us into the wilderness for many reasons, but when we emerge he expects us to protect those who belong to the kingdom of heaven. For goodness’ sake and with the Spirit, let us protect our children.
The Readings that were read in this service:
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him,
9:9 “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you,
9:10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.
9:11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”
9:12 God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations:
9:13 I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.
9:14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds,
9:15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.
9:16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”
9:17 God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
1:9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
1:10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.
1:11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
1:12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.
1:13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
1:14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,
1:15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.
25:2 O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me.
25:3 Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.
25:4 Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths.
25:5 Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.
25:6 Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old.
25:7 Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O LORD!
25:8 Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
25:9 He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.
25:10 All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.