Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days, we are told, getting clear about who he was and Whose he was, and these 40 days of Lent are meant to help us do the same thing. We’ve explored different kinds of wildernesses–the geographic ones, like desert, mountains, ocean, forest, not intentionally leaving out the wilderness of the Great Lakes, as one of you pointed out to me the fierceness of those waters; and we’ve also explored wildernesses of the heart and head–the wilderness of fear, of sudden loss, of losing ourselves. As Barbara Brown Taylor reminded us, “Wildernesses come in so many shapes and sizes, that the only way you can really tell you are in one is to look around for what you normally count on to save your life and come up empty.” [“Wilderness Exam”]
Being in the wilderness is disorienting, sometimes life-threatening. If we only “look around for” something outside of ourselves to save our lives, we may very well come up empty. It is what we bring with us into the wilderness–as Jesus did–that we are likely to survive that experience and even grow from it.
So we’ve talked about practices and disciplines , practices of faith and resilience, that we can engage in right now, incorporate into our daily living, before we find ourselves in the wilderness, things that we can take with us, things that can become part of us–practices like prayer and mindful meditation, the practice of gratitude, the practice of allowing the negative to stand alongside of, but not overshadowing, the positive, the practice of perseverance, the practice of knowing and leading from our strengths, the practice of discerning what to let go of and what is abiding, lasting; the practice of community, of finding our “choir.”
Sometimes the fact that we are in the wilderness surprises us. It doesn’t look like the wilderness–we’re going about our business, in our usual environment, doing what we do, but somehow, at some point, we realize that what we had assumed to be true isn’t; what we had thought was just a harmless joke has turned into a hateful, destructive act; the story we had always been told or told ourselves about the way things are, or who we are, just doesn’t seem to fit reality. We “look around for what we normally count on to save our life and come up empty.” That’s when we’re in the wilderness of what I call “old think.”
If we’re lucky enough or wise enough to recognize this wilderness for what it is, it can be what sociologist Brene Brown calls “the reckoning.” [Rising Strong ]–recognizing our feelings of, perhaps, lostness or anger or resentment and being curious enough about them to explore what’s going on. And then, Brown says, if we’re brave enough, comes the “rumble,” when we get honest about the stories we’re telling ourselves and challenge them, if we dare. (P. 37)
Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann talks about the prophets of Israel as “new, imaginative, poetic voices” that arose from the bottom of the loss and guilt Israel was experien-cing, first in their turning away from God toward the false security of other powers, and then the destruction of Jerusalem and the carrying off of their leaders and elite into exile. Prophets like Isaiah– and it’s probably the writer we call “Second Isaiah” whom we read this morning–Isaiah took the loss of identity and the guilt “with deep seriousness,” as Brueggemann writes, “but… shrewdly interpreted old faith traditions to turn exilic Israel in hope for the future.” (Cited by Matthews in sermonseeds, 3/13/16)
Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.
The old faith tradition had looked to God’s deliverance of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt as a sign of their chosenness by God, a sign of their “manifest destiny” to be a light to the nations, a sign of their right to the “promised land” over all the other peoples who may have already lived there. They had seen their choseness as a guarantee that God would protect them, from dangers without and within, and so they became lax with their adherence to the covenant, the law; they were careless about the original intent God had had for them.
“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.,” Isaiah tells them, if past glory is all you can think about, if all you can do is wallow in your guilt and regret. “I,” God says,
“I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.”
“Israel will have no joy or justice or genuine repentance,” Brueggemann says, “until it receives a newness it cannot generate for itself.”
We in the church may feel a little like ancient Israel at times–experiencing the loss of our former glory, maybe feeling guilty for having declining numbers, a loss of influence and prestige.
To some extent, we too find ourselves in the wilderness of old think, thinking perhaps if only we had a new curriculum for the Sunday School we’d attract more families, or maybe a new, younger pastor will bring the energy and technological savvy we need to really grow. But Isaiah reminds us that our renewal is not all about us, about new programs or plans, new marketing schemes or a sensational webpage. We must be open to a newness we cannot generate for ourselves, the newness that God is creating.
And then there’s the “old think” that is no longer life-giving–if it ever was–about ourselves. Were you always the responsible one in the family? Maybe you were the trouble-maker. Maybe you were the one who was always a disappointment, the one who would never amount to anything. Maybe you were the one on whom everyone counted. What were the stories you grew up with or maybe told yourself to make sense of things–that people who got involved with drugs were weak-willed and immoral? That all black people are poor? [that story caught up with Bernie Sanders and got him in trouble this week] Maybe it was the story that if somebody makes fun of you or hits you, you hit them back, punch them in the face? That we don’t talk about the abuse or the violence? Maybe it was a story that said your body is dirty and ugly? That you’re stupid? As Dr. Phil might say, “How’s that working for you?” And Brene Brown might ask, “Are those stories true? Maybe it’s time to ‘rumble’ with them.” Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. Stay open to grace. Remember what you’re grateful for. Learn from your mistakes and failures. Figure out what your strengths or gifts are, use them as God intended them to be used. Find your choir with whom to test out some “new think” about yourself . It’s never too late to build new neural pathways in our brains–our brains stay “plastic”–changeable– well into old age, so “new think” is not only possible but often necessary, even life-giving.
The sense of smell, it is said, is directly linked to our memory. [That’s what some of those neural pathways are doing.] A whiff of perfume or cologne can remind us of someone. The smell of turkey conjures up memories of Thanksgivings and family gatherings. Some people say the smell of hot, mulled cider reminds them of Christmas Eve here.
But what of the smell of that expensive perfume made of pure nard that was released at that strange dinner party at the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus that we read about a little while ago? Did it remind them of the burial that had taken place, just days ago, the burial of Lazarus whom Jesus raised and was now “one of those at table with him”? (One can only imagine what his presence did to the dinner conversation.) After all, nard was used to anoint the dead, and here was Mary, anointing Jesus’ feet and wiping them with her hair. While smell can bring up memories, here was a fragrance that overwhelmed a present moment of intimacy, this letting down of a woman’s hair, this anointing of feet that was usually done by men, this extravagance–this “wasteful extravagance,” according to Judas–of love, poured out not only on feet but penetrating the very air they breathed. “There’s only so much to go around,” Judas spoke the old think they were most likely all thinking. “We can’t help the poor unless we scrimp and save, not only our money but also our joy and love.”
“Leave her alone,” Jesus said. “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you–and you can and should always give to the poor–but you do not always have me.” This is a time for new think. This fragrance was not only the fragrance of death and burial, but through that death would come new life. Behold I am doing a new thing. Do you not perceive it?
This radical newness that we do not generate ourselves is loose in the world–the perfume is out of the bottle. The old boundaries between peoples and nations, the walls between colors and bone structures of the one race of humanity, the old notions of greatness and power are all unraveling, and not without a fight, not without resistance and protest. The old false stories we’ve told ourselves, or been told about ourselves, are even now being transformed into new stories of truth and promise.
This is not merely re-arranging the furniture or a new coat of paint. This is not resuscitation at the hands of a hard-working team of EMT’s or folks trained in CPR. There is no other way to describe this radical newness that we don’t generate ourselves than resurrection. This new life, this resurrection, is both now and not yet–but how desperately we need it, in our nation, in our world, in our community, in the church, in our own lives. It will not happen until we go through the death of the old, not until we wander in the wilderness as long as it takes us to be ready for the new and promised land.
New life–lush, green, its fragrance penetrating death and diffusing itself until it fills the whole house–God is doing this new thing, creating this new life, even now. Do you not perceive it?
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark