Waiting Crazy in the Desert

(The following is the text of the sermon I preached a week ago at Church of the Holy Trinity. I thought about splitting it into two blog entries, but decided against it. The sermon works as a whole and so it's best left that way. As preached, it times in at 22 minutes, Anglican Standard Homily Time. If you wish rather to hear it, you can download the audio from the HT website. I've included pictures along the way to break up the text.)

The Text: Luke 3:1-6

Opening Comments
Thank you for having me. It’s good to be with you. I’m praying for you and with you.

Today we find ourselves in Advent, the season of the little Lent, with little penitences and little deserts along for the ride.

My question to you is this: Do you find yourself in a desert today?

Deserts, as you well know, come in many shapes and sizes but often consist simply of having more of what you don’t want—burdens, responsibilities, problems—or less of what you do—joy, fruitfulness, meaningful relationships. You look around you, you look inside you, and your desert stretches out for endless mile after endless mile, like the landscape out in West Texas. And you ask yourself: Can anything good come out of this desert I’m in?

You ask, Don’t people go crazy stuck in the desert?

And the answer is yes they do, why yes, people do go crazy if they’re not careful.

Crazy stuff happens to you in the desert.

For instance, in the desert you start seeing things funny.

It’s what scientists call the mirage effect. A mirage is a naturally-occurring optical phenomenon, in which light rays are bent to produce a displaced image of distant objects. What’s important to keep in mind, though, is that a mirage is not strictly speaking an optical illusion. There really is something objective out there: sand, sun, cacti, camels, hyenas, heat waves. It’s what you interpret the image to mean, however, that is up to the fantasy of your mind.

It’s not what’s there, it’s what you want to see there: a lake of water or a castle hovering in the air, or perhaps more closer to home, an image of your perfect husband floating in the air just beyond reach or a vision of your ideal job where you are right all the time and you never make mistakes and everything goes the way you want it to go and everyone is always happy with you.

To put it more directly: the desert we experience the temptation to satisfy our needs by fantasizing. We fantasize about perfect sex. We fantasize about perfect family life. We fantasize about all the money we want and what we’ll do with it. We fantasize about happy endings to our lives written by me!

In the desert we fantasize about the perfect loaves of bread. They’re called the make-me-happy bread: if only X or Y or Z happens in my life, then I’ll be happy, and seeing as how God is not providing the perfect bread I think I’m going to make it myself—with just a little bit of yeast that I borrowed from that Devil fellow. In the desert we start thinking that life back in Egypt really was great. Why? Because there was lots of great food and retail stores and stock options and opportunities for recreation and worship services that met all my spiritual needs—never mind that we were in a state of complete slavery.
In the desert you start seeing things funny.

In the desert you also find yourself forgetting things that you knew as obvious as a doorknob when you weren’t in the desert.

For example, in C. S. Lewis’ story The Silver Chair, which is book number six in the chronology of Narnia, at the climax of the story a witch, the Queen of the Underworld, has trapped the four heroes in her underground kingdom and tries to convince them that there is no other world. One of them, a chap named Puddleglum, argues that he has seen the sun and another, a certain Prince Rilian, explains to her that the sun is like a lamp hanging in the sky, but they cannot explain it to her except through metaphors. She craftily replies that since they cannot tell her what the sun is, ‘Your sun is a dream, and there is nothing in the dream that was not copied from the lamp’.

And a third character, a girl named Jill Pole, says, “There’s Aslan,” to which the witch replies:

“I see that we should do no better with your lion, as you call it, than we did with your sun. You have seen lamps, and so you imagined a bigger and better lamp and called it the sun. You’ve seen cats, and now you want a bigger and better cat, and it’s to be called a lion. Well, ‘tis a pretty make-believe . . . look how you can put nothing into your make-believe without copying it from the real world, this world of mine, which is the only world.”

Eventually Puddleglum, feeling the lulling, dulling, downward tugging effects of the music would overtake them entirely, breaks the enchantment by stamping bare-footed on a fire, which brings them back to reality. (Cf. David Mills, "Enchanting Children," Touchstone, Dec. '06, Vol. 19, issue 10.)

In Lewis’ contemporary academic setting, he was combating the theory popular amongst psychologists and philosophers that all that Christianity was, was simply a projection of our highest human desires and calling it Jesus. When we are in the desert, and there is no Jesus anywhere within eyesight, we are sorely tempted to let ourselves sink fully into the witch’s enchantment: to begin forgetting the true nature of God.

In the desert we begin forgetting that His promises are true—even if it takes seven hundred years for them to find the light of day, as it did from the time of Isaiah to the time of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary. In the desert we start forgetting that God’s will—that same will that brings and keeps us in our various deserts—is good, is perfect, and is pleasant. In the desert we start wanting to forget that God is faithful, wise, loving, merciful, and deeply concerned about the state of our hearts.

In the desert you find yourself forgetting things that seemed to you as obvious as a doorknob when you weren’t in the desert.

Finally, in the desert it doesn’t look like anything good is happening.

In the desert you’re constantly thirsty and there’s never enough water. The climate is inhospitable: too hot during the day, too cold at night. There’s little you can do to change the desert’s ecology and without a map, you’ve no idea how to get out. It’s all bad. Strange messengers come and go, unannounced—nudges from the Holy Spirit, a random word of encouragement from a friend, at times angels—and they don’t tell you when they’re coming back, and worse, the messages are always slightly cryptic. I’m supposed to do what? But how? And how long? And with what? And I don’t know if I can make it that long. You do? Great. But you’re not me.

And the messengers keep saying two particular things over and over and over till you think you’re stupid for having to hear it that many times. They keep saying, “Do not be afraid.” “Do not be afraid.”

“Do not be afraid.”

“Do not be afraid.” “Do not be afraid.” “Do not be afraid.”

“Do not be afraid!”

“Do not be afraid.” And then they say, more cryptically, “Even though you don’t completely understand His ways, you will know them because they will ring true.”

“So keep at it, be of good cheer, and we’ll see you later,” and off they fly into some crevasse of supernatural ether.

I think Corrie ten Boom, that Dutch Christian woman many of you are familiar with, comprehended this idea well. When the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, she along with her family became very active in the Dutch underground, hiding Jewish refugees. Ten Boom was able to rescue many, many Jews from certain death at the hands of the Nazi SS.

The Germans eventually arrested the entire ten Boom family on February 28, 1944 with the help of a Dutch informant; and they were sent first to a prison and a political concentration camp in the Netherlands, and finally to the notorious Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany in September 1944 (where Corrie's sister Betsie died), until her release in December of that year.

In the movie about her life, The Hiding Place, Corrie narrates the section on her release from camp by saying that she later learned that her release had been a clerical error: it so happened that the women prisoners her age in the camp were killed in the week following her release.

So what good could ever come from her desert experience in the concentration camp? Oh my friends, there was much good that happened unseen to the Nazi guards: little acts of grace, small moments of sustaining joy, a deep and warm sense of being loved by a God who could understand from the inside out what it felt like to be a victim of such awfulness.

And yet many of us in our own little deserts, we still feel that nothing good is really happening.

Back in the land of Advent
So here we are in this season of Advent, the Winter Lent, in which we are to be practicing the disciplines of waiting and penitence. What do we do? How ought we to be living these days? What hope will sustain us in our respective deserts? How do we keep from going crazy and doing stupid things like eating sand or jumping off cliffs?

From our passage today in Luke 3 the way forward becomes radiantly clear. Our hope, my friends, lies in remembering who our God truly is. Our hope lies in the God of our Lord Jesus Christ and the constancy of his character. And so I leave you with these three reminders of who your God is.

First, our God patient.

Our God is patient, not harried or sloppy or forgetful. In Luke’s Gospel we have this rush of activity surrounding the births of John and Jesus. But what about before, what about after their births? Before and after we have long, long periods of waiting. The last verse in Luke chapter 2 tells us that Jesus grew in wisdom and stature. The first verse in chapter 3 opens up eighteen years later. In between? A vast silence. As one Christian writer has put it:

“This is the way of God: long waiting, intense action, followed by long waiting. Decades may come and go before anything seemingly significant takes place. The Gospels testify to a patient God who sometimes takes centuries to set up his move, and who then thinks nothing of sitting on it for another thirty years until everything is just right.

“Is this not also true of God's work in our lives? At times, God's activity will seem intense and glorious. At other times, it may seem as if he is taking a nap.” Waiting is, by God's design, a primary way by which He makes us everything that we were intended to be.

Our God is patient and his timing is impeccable, and you can trust Him. I urge today to trust Him anew. Ask Him to show you how to practice that same kind of exciting, thrilling, anticipating, deeply satisfying patience that He is so good at—even in the desert.

Second, our God is specific.

Look at how the first two verses of chapter 3 open up.

1Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene, 2Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests—

the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness.

Incredible specificity. Our God does not traffic in generics. He is specific, and He is very specific in His love for you. You have this kind of body, that kind of personality, these specific strengths and weaknesses and abilities and potentials. You have had these specific experiences and you’re faced with those exact challenges in this season of your life.
And in the sixth year of George W. Bush’s presidency, Rick Perry being the governor of Texas, Will Wynn the mayor of Austin, on the week that Robert Gates was confirmed as the new Secretary of Defense, two days after Mel Gibson’s new movie “Apocalypto” came out in theaters, during the rectorate of Clifton David Sims Warner--

—the word of God comes to you in the desert.

And that’s exactly and fabulously what God does so well.

Into the midbar (desert) comes the dabar (word). Into your exact, specific desert comes God’s exactly crafted, specifically attuned word to you.

So I urge you to today to trust God with all the specifics of your life. Trust Him with all the specific desires of your heart. Trust that just as He cares about the specific shape of an African violet flower or the specific sourness of a pink lemon, so he cares about all the specifics of your life and calling.

Third, our God is comforting.

The text that is quoted in v. 4 goes back to Isaiah and it is a statement of comfort to people who’d been living in exile, in the desert, for a very, very long time.

1"Comfort, O comfort My people," says your God. 2" Speak kindly to Jerusalem; And call out to her, that her warfare has ended, That her iniquity has been removed, That she has received of the LORD'S hand Double for all her sins." 3A voice is calling, "Clear the way for the LORD in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God. 4"Let every valley be lifted up, And every mountain and hill be made low; And let the rough ground become a plain, And the rugged terrain a broad valley; 5Then the glory of the LORD will be revealed, And all flesh will see it together; For the mouth of the LORD has spoken."

And so to you, dear friends, in whatever desert you may find yourself—in your marriage, with your children, with your job, with lost opportunities or desires that feel never to be fulfilled, with physical illnesses or relational tensions—in whatever desert it may be, I say receive the comfort of your God. Receive His comfort today. For He knows that you are but flesh. He knows that you are mortal and weak. He knows that you are in pain.

Our God is neither aloof nor task-driven. He is tender and patient and attentive to each of His sheep, to you and to me. So trust Him. Trust anew His ability to comfort you.

In the end
In the end, as we travel through week 2 of Advent, through our Little Lenten deserts, let us remember to keep asking God to help us see things accurately, as they truly are from His perspective. Let us ask God to keep in our hearts the strong remembrance of the things that are true about Him, about ourselves, and about one another. And let us trust that in the midst of our deserts much good is happening, hidden perhaps, often elusively, but happening as sure as there is oxygen in this room.

G. K. Chesterton once said, “We’re all in this boat together and we owe each other a terrible loyalty.”

You here may feel that Holy Trinity is like a little boat sitting in a desert waiting for waters and rowers and good sailing. That may be.
But I bless you today with the grace to love one another even more deeply from the heart and to hold each other up with a buoyant hope that God sees you, in all the specificness of your little Episcopal fellowship.
I bless you with the knowledge that He guides you with a patient, impeccable timing.
I bless you with the certainty that He offers you His comfort in all the aches and groanings that accompany your waiting upon Him.

God bless you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


ceciliabrie said…
In the aftermath of the foot-in-the-fire, Lewis writes one of my favorite Narnia statements: "...the pain itself made Puddleglum's head for a moment perfectly clear and he knew exactly what he really thought. There is nothing like a good shock of pain for dissolving certain kinds of magic."

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