by Fr. John A. Peck
A sermon from 2009. Often the wilderness is a dangerous place, frought with danger, anxiety, vulnerability. Out there, we are usually the prey or the victim, but it is also the place where we encounter God.
Why are we meeting God in the wilderness (where else?)
We are, generally speaking, city dwellers. We live in cities, towns and villages, but for the most part we stay out of the wilderness unless there is something there for us.
But in the Bible, a lot of important things happen in the wilderness, in the wild.
In today’s Gospel lesson, from the Gospel according to St. Luke (5:1-11), Jesus uses Peter’s boat as a platform for some natural sound enhancement. Jesus tells them to cast out the nets, and they take in ’a great shoal of fish.’ Now, I don’t know what a shoal is, but it must be a lot of fish, ’cause you don’t hear that word used in any other context (at least, I don’t). When this has taken place, Peter falls before the Lord and says,
“Depart from me.”
All this takes place on the water. As you know, I spent some time in Alaska, and I can assure you that being on the water is being in the wilderness. It doesn’t matter how large a ship you are on, when the waves are over 30 feet high, you feel like you are on a toothpick in the sea. It’s wild. It’s the wilderness.
St. Peter’s reaction is a stark contrast with the woman Jesus met at Jacob’s Well — St. Photini.
Remember, when they first meet, she says,
“What are you, Jew, talking to me?”
It was not only Samaritan territory, it was outside the City. The edge of the wilderness. They have their conversation, and the woman’s perception changes. First, she calls Jesus as “Jew.” Then, she calls him “Sir.” Then “Sir, I perceive you are a prophet.” Then she says that most special of words, “Messiah.” When she returns from the city, the inhabitants, who have come out to see what she has been talking about, proclaim,
“Now we know that this is the Christ, the Savior of the World.”
They met him outside the city. The edge of the wilderness.
If you ask most people where Adam was created, they will say “The Garden of Eden,” but Adam was not created in the Garden. God created Adam in the wilderness, and then created the Garden and placed him there.
If you ever wonder why little boys seem intent on getting into the blackest dirt they can find, you’re right! They are heading home. They are getting into the Wilderness.
The Israelites, we often say, wandered in the Sinai desert for 40 years, wandering in the wilderness. They encountered God there and utterly failed! We’re hungry! God sent them bread from heaven — manna, the bread of angels.
We’re thirsty! God gave them water from the Rock.
We want meat. God even sent them quail, so that they had meat. It didn’t stop their whining though.
Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Every group has a ’back to Egypt’ committee, and this was the original. They remembered the pleasures of Egypt, while forgetting that they had God in the wilderness.
Also, they weren’t wandering — they were following. They were following the pillar of fire. When the pillar stopped, they set up camp. When the pillar moved, they packed up and followed, and during that entire time, the Scriptures say that their shoes did not rot off of their feet, nor the clothes off of their back — for 40 years! They were encountering God in the wilderness.
Nehemiah — return from Babylonian Exile, called for the people to return to Jerusalem which had become a wilderness. Imagine! You’ve been in Babylon for generations. You and your friends own businesses, have neighbors, homes, and a way of life. Can you imagine what they asked about Jerusalem at that time? What would we ask about?
How are the schools? No schools. We’ll have to start them.
How are the property values? It’s a ground floor opportunity!
What are the neighborhoods like? Well, there are lions.
Lions! Lions? in Jerusalem?
Consider for a moment the life of our Lord Jesus Christ, and how much of it took place not in the city, but in the Wilderness.
- Christ was born in a cave, in the wilderness, surrounded by animals.\
- After His baptism, Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days to prepare Himself for ministry
- Jesus was transfigured on Mt. Tabor, in the wilderness.
- Jesus was crucified outside the city
- Jesus was buried outside the city
- Jesus rose from the dead outside the city
And on the very day of His Resurrection, on the road to Emmaus (today’s Gospel reading for matins!), Jesus meets the two disciples, Luke and Cleopas. And it says He opened the Scriptures to them, and they said,
“Didn’t our hearts burn within us!”
You see, often the wilderness is a dangerous place, frought with danger, anxiety, vulnerability. Out there, we are usually the prey or the victim, but it is also the place where we encounter God, where we meet Him face to face, and significant changes occur as a result.
We are always dancing around worries and anxiety — about the world today, our nation, this state, our city and even our parish. Life feels like a desert. How much of it is the wilderness.
There is one other place where the wilderness is mentioned, and with great significance.
One more place.
That is in the Book of Revelation, Chapter 12, v. 6.
This book which says
“Blessed are those who read aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what it written herein, for the time is near.”
A blessing – just for reading, hearing, and keeping what we hear!
This verse I consider to be significant for a very special reason: I believe that this is the Incarnation from heaven’s perspective.
The woman, great with child, clothed in the Sun, with the Moon at her feet, crowned with stars prepares to give birth to a Son, and a great dragon awaits the birth to devour them both.
Wow. Now THAT would make a great Christmas card! I actually preached about this several years ago, and last year one of my parishioners made me a Christmas card with this on it. I absolutely love it.
I don’t think Hallmark would appreciate the meaning of that verse. Imagine that. You see a picture of a pregnant woman and a dragon, with the verse inside saying,
“And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, to devour her child as soon as it was born.”
What do you think?
Here’s the thing. The Scriptures say that the woman fled into the wilderness…
…where she has a place prepared by God.
The Church, you and I, all of us have a place prepared by God, and it is in the wilderness.
The wilderness is where we encounter the living God.
The wilderness is where we prepare for our ministry.
The wilderness is where we are transfigured by our encounter with the living God.
If life seems like a desert at times, like a wilderness — take heart. God has prepared a place — for you.