The wilderness of our hearts

Lent 1 – 2013

Luke 4:1-13

Marian Free


In the name of God who longs for us to see ourselves more clearly and having done so to submit ourselves to the transforming power of God. Amen.

‘Sugar and spice and all things nice, that’s what little girls are made of. Slugs and snails and puppy dog tails, that’s what little boys are made of.’ To think that many of us used to recite this silly, sexist rhyme! But what are we made of? Beyond the obvious skin and bones, do many of us really know what lies beneath? Do we really know our strengths and recognise our weaknesses? Do we know what triggers or events might lead us to act nobly and selflessly? Alternately, can we begin to imagine forces or situations which would lead us to behave basely or cruelly?

I suspect that it is impossible to know ahead of time how we will react in situations that demand courage, resilience or moral fortitude. Fear, timidity and an unwillingness to stand out from the crowd can prevent people from acting as they should or worse, they can cause people to behave in ways that are cowardly, cruel and self-serving. History is littered with instances of good people failing to act in the face of evil. The past is crowded with examples of a mob mentality leading otherwise reasonable people to behave in violent or rash ways. The world stood silent in the face of the Nazi gas chambers and still seems unable to act against oppressive or unjust regimes.  The insanity of the mob leads to disregard for law and order and the destruction of property as was witnessed in Brixton, in Cronulla and elsewhere.

After the event, those who were silent might say: “I was too afraid to speak out.” Those who were caught up with the crowd might respond: “I thought they would kill me if I didn’t join in.” There is always a reason or justification for such behaviour. No one likes to believe that they deliberately acted in a way that led to or contributed to another’s injury or harm or which saw another abased or killed because of their failure to act. No one likes to think that they could have a propensity for cruelty or indifference, that they would join in with the crowd or that they would stand silent in the face of grave injustice.

On the other hand, the past is equally populated with ordinary people who, in the face of danger, have exhibited extraordinary courage and who have risked their own safety to save the life of another – the by-stander who pulls a person from a burning car, the surfer who without thought rushes to the aid of someone attacked by a shark, the solider who exposes him or herself to enemy fire, to save another who is injured or dying. Every day, in a variety of different circumstances, people like you and I show what they are really made of. When asked about their heroic acts, such people often reply: “I didn’t think – I just did what needed to be done.” They don’t think of themselves as heroes because their action was so spontaneous. Until confronted with the situation they may not have known that they had such courage in them.

Some among us may have faced such challenges and may have confidence to know how they will respond in the face of danger or when someone is needed to speak out. Others of us can only imagine and hope that we would meet every difficulty and danger with grace, that even at the cost of our own lives we would challenge oppression, cruelty and injustice and that we would seek to heal and be healed, to understand and forgive (even if at first sight, healing, understanding and forgiveness is impossible to imagine).

The sad reality is that apathy, cruelty and lust for power exist side by side with integrity, compassion and selflessness in every human being and until we are tested we cannot be 100% sure how we will respond. Fortunately, it is not often that we are put to the test.

For Jesus it was different. Jesus had a very particular task. Jesus was called by God to serve God in the world and to bring about the salvation of humankind. This was a task that could only be achieved if Jesus was prepared to submit his life completely to God. Anything less would jeopardise the whole endeavour. His was a weighty responsibility. Jesus (and perhaps God) had to be sure that he was up to the task. He (and God) had to know that when it came to the crunch, he would not bow down to earthly authority, he would not waver in the face of opposition and he would not give up before the job was complete.

There was no opportunity for a dress rehearsal. Jesus only had one chance. When the moment came to be strong, to speak out or to suffer, Jesus had to know that he would not back down but would continue on the path that was set before him. So the spirit led him to the wilderness – to the emptiness and silence, to a place where there were no distractions, nothing to take his mind off himself, no social structures to ensure that his baser instincts were suppressed. In the desert then, Jesus came up against the darker side of himself. Deprivation and isolation brought to the surface ideas that may, until then, have been suppressed. He could do so much with the power that was his! Given who he was and the power that was at his disposal, it would have been easy for him to be self-serving (to use his gifts to enrich himself). Given God’s love and care for him, it would have been easy for him to take risks with his own safety, to force God to always be on the look out for him, protecting him and keeping him out of harm’s way. Then again, he could use his power for his own aggrandisement, he could force the world to bow to him and not to God.

Jesus heard the voice of his “other self”, the voice of temptation whispering in his ear – what he could do if he wanted to! He knew though, that this was not the self that he wanted to be – a self separated from and in competition with God. Using the words of scripture he pushed the other voice out of the picture and demonstrated that he could withstand every test and that he was ready to answer the call of God.

Finding out who we are and of what we are capable is one of the goals of Lent. Through fasting or prayer or giving up something that we thought we could do not without we create space in our lives. We make our own small internal wilderness and we can be surprised by what longings, what emotions, what insecurities rise to the surface.

In the stillness of this wilderness it is harder to escape from who we are. In the silence of this desert it is harder to quell thoughts we would rather ignore. In this place, without our usual distractions, we can come face-to-face with who we really are.

We can spend a lifetime running away from ourselves, avoiding our deeper issues, burying parts of ourselves that we wish were not there at all or we can take time out, have the courage to see who and what we really are and with the help of God dispel the demons that drive us and build up the character that we want to define us


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