This is about the geography of the soul. Imagine, if you will, a map of the Mediterranean Sea and on the right hand side, Israel. Then imagine drawing a line from Turkey in the north, through Israel, straight south to east Africa, to Mozambique. This is the Rift Valley, a fault line that broke open three weeks ago, and the great loss of life – almost fifty thousand souls. I would like to speak of this great loss but hardly know how. What I can do is proceed from where we are on a search for the kingdom of heaven.
Back to the Rift Valley: the lowest point on the planet is there, the Dead Sea, 700’ below sea level. Overlooking the Dead Sea is Masada, ruins of a Roman fortress. The landscape is sand and dirt and rock, heat and cold, the desert of the bottom third of Israel. This is wilderness and a dead zone.
Now imagine going one hundred miles to the north, to find a land lush and green by the Sea of Galilee, with coastal towns Capernaum, and Nazareth not far off. Mountains peak out about 1200 feet, mountains that Jesus climbs to escape, to breathe, for silence, and where he prays and thinks and teaches and is transfigured.
This is the district of Galilee, home base for Jesus for three years, but we don’t know exactly where he has been. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus has disappeared from sight for about twenty-five years. Where has he been? Does he appear like John, out of the southern desert? Has he lived with the Essenes, a monastic Jewish group living in the desert and in urban areas? Is that where he has studied and learned?
You could imagine that Jesus spends these years like a carpenter. Or you could imagine him studying the Torah in a yeshiva. Or you could imagine that he walks over the top of one of the mountains and keeps going, north to Tripoli, or east into Syria, or west to the Mediterranean shore. I like to imagine that Jesus as a twenty-year-old catches a ride on a ship to Cyprus or Crete or Cairo, taking stock in cities that were crucibles of culture and history. Maybe in fact he lives as far away as Tibet and Nepal, as some scholars believe.
But suddenly his cousin John appears out of the desert. Jesus leaves Galilee to join John who baptizes him, and the Spirit leads him into the wilderness where he fasts for forty days. Then he confronts the devil, the tempter, satan, and we see the main theme of Matthew: kingdom of God vs. kingdom of evil. This Gospel from Matthew gets our attention because it’s both shocking and familiar: it’s about having power, about having protection from harm, about having all the bread one might want.
How do you imagine wilderness? Maybe you think of wilderness as beauty, like a meadow on Mt. Rainier. For me, wilderness is Goody’s Point on the Colorado Trail outside Durango, where I can see the Animus River Valley. Maybe wilderness is frightening: watching a house disappear in an earthquake, or an illness: cancer, or schizophrenia. Maybe wilderness is hunger, or no place to live. It might be debt, or the memory of assault or rape, or having people you love in Ukraine or Syria or Turkey, or strife in your family, or loneliness or abandonment. There may be as many kinds of wilderness as there are people. For Jesus, was the wilderness the physical desert? Was it trying to make sense of his interior voice? Was it wrestling with destiny?
What about temptation? Is it feeding an addiction to food or alcohol or OxyContin, or something insidious, like avoidance or denial? There’s often the temptation to give up, or give up hope. Days and nights of temptation in any sort of wilderness: who among us has not been there?
This is how the ministry of Jesus begins, as he walks away from power, from authority, from riches. It begins in a wilderness, and he makes his way north, up the Rift Valley, away from the Dead Sea, to a land of olives and dates, the promised land of milk and honey, where he begins to turn water into wine, and restore sight to the blind, and feed a few thousand people on five loaves and two fishes.
Here we are again in Lent. What about the conventional discipline of giving up something for forty days? What about giving up the thought that the wilderness will eat you alive, that temptation will get the best of you? What about giving up the idea that you might simply disappear without a trace, and that no one even cares? What about giving up the fear that you have been forgotten?
This week Bishop Melissa spoke of wilderness, and I quote, “God is in the silence of our wilderness where we can listen closely to the inner life, to God’s word that may come in silence. God is in the turning away from the noise of life. God is inviting us into wilderness.” End of quote.
Take hold of the spaciousness. Embrace silence. Make space for angels to come, and hold on to the truth that God knows where you are. Then: whatever wilderness lies at your doorstep in this vast geography called life, you have been invited to make your way north, up the Rift Valley, away from the dead zone, to follow the footsteps of Jesus up into Galilee, a land of promise, where vineyards crisscross the land, where fields of barley and wheat are abundant, to eat the bread, food for your soul, and drink the wine of new life, to restore you and sustain you and put you on the road to redemption.