A sermon preached on the First Sunday in Lent by Kenneth Padley.
5th March 2017, Matthew 4: 1-11
Back in 2007 a true-life story was released as a film called Into the Wild. In this film, Emilie Hirsch played Chris McCandless, a top student and athlete who abandoned suburban American life, gave away his savings, and hitchhiked to Alaska. He chose a life of adventure in search of his true identity. Chris McCandless entered the wilderness.
Into the Wild is a movie about the excitement of wildernesses we choose to enter – the beauty of nature and the freedom to roam. However – in the film as in real life – Chris McCandless’ adventure comes to a sticky end. McCandless dies – poisoned by wild berries and worn down by the Artic weather.
Into the Wild is therefore more than a eulogy for Chris McCandless. It is a commentary on man’s relationship with harsh and remote environments. And it poses a conundrum about whether wildernesses are good or bad.
Surely McCandless’ death shows that wildernesses are bad! Wildernesses are either boiling hot or freezing cold; parched dry, or flooded with ice. Wildernesses are beyond the bounds of society and the rule of law. In wildernesses we see isolation, hardship and fragility. Wildernesses are places where it is hard to be alive. Wildernesses are places where it is hard to be fully ourselves.
And we don’t have to go to Alaska or the Sahara to be in a place where it’s hard to be fully alive. For each one of us knows an inner wilderness: the isolation of harsh places on earth, is also found in what it means to be human. There is a wilderness in our own interior.
A powerful commentator on this inner wilderness was a priest called Harry Williams who died in 2006. For many years Williams lived in obscurity in a monastery called Mirfield, but before Mirfield Williams had been a controversial figure in post-war Cambridge. Williams’ described his mental turmoil as like an inner wilderness. He wrote,
I feel isolated from Betty whom I love desperately and who is just the sort of woman who could never love me. And so to feel love… must be at the same time to feel rejection. Or I feel isolated from the social people, who if noise is an index of happiness, must be very happy indeed on Saturday nights. Or I feel isolated from the competent people, the success- boys who manage to get themselves into print without getting themselves into court.
Harry Williams knew that ‘the wilderness belongs to us’.
So… when Jesus entered the wilderness, he was not just going to a physical place. He was identifying with mental and spiritual pain in each of us. And because the wilderness is in all humans, we see parallels to Jesus’ experience in his Old Testament forebears.
But here the parallel ends. The critical difference between Jesus’ temptations and those of the Israelites, was that Jesus didn’t give in. He was ‘tempted as we are, yet without sin’ as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it. While the wandering Israelites failed; Jesus did not.
The Israelites in the wilderness failed to appreciate their identity and so failed to realise the fullness of their calling. They exacerbated their stay in the physical wilds by their repeated spiritual rejection of God. By failing to meet God’s standards they entered a downward spiral of temptation and weakness. Occasionally they received reports about the Promised Land or caught glimpses of it. And yet they never entered it. A bit of them rather liked being less than what they were truly called to be. Their bad habits clouded their yearning to reach their destiny.
Jesus on the other hand was different. He was in the internal wilderness only to the extent that he was tempted to be less than he fully was. For he never conceded. He never let the wilderness take over. He never cut himself off from God. He never followed earthly distractions that made him less than fully human. In this sense, Jesus was never in the wilderness at all. He was always fully alive. And this is where I start to question Harry Williams’ glum outlook. Yes, there is a wilderness in each of us. But it is a wilderness that Jesus defeats. Through Jesus, in the end, the isolation felt by Harry Williams will be swept away by the power of God in the perfect community of heaven. When we are fully reconciled to God and to each other, we will no longer be isolated at all.
And if Jesus has defeated the wilderness of isolation, we are brought back to my question about whether a wilderness is good or bad. In particular, if isolation from God is what causes our internal wilderness, then withdrawing from the world to spend time with God is actually a really good thing to do. It is this positive wilderness that lies at the heart of a holy Lent – those things we give up or take up in this season. If they help us focus more on God, we have entered a wilderness that builds us up. By escaping worldly distractions, we glimpse better our final destiny. And we emerge from wildernesses like that more focussed and more inspired than we were before.
This was certainly Jesus’ experience:
So, Jesus has set a more positive example of what a wilderness might be. Lent is not about the wilderness of wild places. Lent is not about the wilderness of existential isolation. Lent is about the wilderness that brings us closer to God. The True Wilderness of Lent is the exact opposite of Harry Williams’ internal dislocation. When we spend more time with Jesus, we see his resurrected power defeating our stumbling loneliness. For the Lent where we spend more time with Jesus, is just Easter in disguise.