Wilderness as Teacher

The authentic church will always appear on the edge and to be on the edge or at the edge is to be in or close to the wilderness. The authentic church exists at the edge of the wilderness because in the Old Testament and also in the New Testament, the wilderness is the place of revelation but it is also the place in which people experience the absence of God. It is when we step into or a forced into the wilderness that we experience God.

In the Bible the wilderness is an ambiguous place in which there is isolation and revelation, there is presence and there is a sense of absence, God appears when everything else disappears. It is a place of wondering and wandering.

This two edged, double meaning of the term, wilderness is extremely helpful to us here.

For us in this particular place and situation, this time, the wilderness is a particularly powerful, frightening and helpful image. If we look at Jesus’ wilderness experience then we can see there a reflection of what is happening here in this faith community. If you think back to the video clip of Richard Rohr speaking about reading the Bible, then you will recall his observation that we see things not as they are but very much as we are. We will inevitably see in Jesus’ wilderness experience a lot which is a reflection of where and who we are.

I am making specific reference to this community of faith, this church, but what is true here is applicable elsewhere when the circumstances and attitude are similar.

When challenge and disappointment keep on coming that can become very demoralising and dispiriting. The waves of darkness and disappointment can leave you wondering if you will ever see the shore again. And the temptation is to swim frantically with no thought of direction and to grab hold of anything which will keep us afloat for even a very short time. This I suspect is where most churches are.

It is when you look at what the wilderness did to Jesus of Nazareth that we begin to be able to interpret what we are seeing here in our own situation.

Rohr is correct. If we don’t watch out we read the Bible and we do not see things as they are but as we are. What we now need to do is to to read the Bible and to learn to see what is there clearly in order to learn to go back with a new way of seeing in order to see ourselves as we really are. We need to be able to interpret what is happening here in order to see what is really happening here and not only what we think is happening. We need to interpret what is happening here in the light of the kingdom of God not according to some short-term church agenda. And herein lies the solution and also the problem. This is the solution. The problem is that neither we nor almost any church does this. It is going to be tough and it is not going to be pleasant. However this is really what these workshops are all about. And this is why we need to encourage the whole church into this and also people from outside because in the wilderness is our healing and our transformation, our enlightenment and our salvation.

We have to be prepared to let the Bible speak and that means letting go of what we take for granted or may always have taken as truth simply because someone or some church told us or because it suits our agenda. The most difficult character for us in the story of jesus in the wilderness is Satan. What we see in the wilderness story is Jesus’ story but it is our story. We are being called to participate. It is a journey. In many ways this is a glimpse of the whole of the spiritual life and its goal in one relatively short episode. The devil appears as a negative character but he has an important function and we have to be able to look at this and see what lies behind the image here and ask not only what is happening but what this is asking of us.

As individuals we are committed to a road of discipleship, a journey of personal transformation. When we look very briefly at what happened to Jesus in his wilderness experience we see the twin narrative unfolding. We know that Jesus is fully divine because we have the advantage of hindsight. We know what this means and at the same time we have no idea what this means but this does not matter. We accept it. We also know that who Jesus is and what Jesus is is a reflection of a universal truth. In this revelation of and awakening to the divine we see a mirror of ourselves and this is difficult to grasp intellectually which is why we have to approach it in a different way. This is the purpose of silence and contemplative spiritual work. We also grasp it and understand it though the practise of Jesus’ teaching. What we see is this man who does not yet know who he is opening up to what he is. And we can apply that to ourselves and our own situations and also to the community aspect which is integral to our spiritual lives here.

When we read this properly, we see what is happening to Jesus, what is happening to us as individuals, what is happening to us as a community.

At the centre of this you have some very powerful images.

You have the wilderness and all that that symbolises.

You have the devil, Satan, all that that symbolises.

You have Jesus at the centre and all that he is and all of his experience. This is the model. What he does we do. What happens to him happens to us.

Basically what we have going on is the universe throwing everything it has at Jesus. This often is what it feels like to us too. This is often what we feel is going on. What we see happening in the wilderness is the ego being dealt with.

You have two options in any situation in which the universe seems to be bombarding you. You can make it all about you. Why dies all of this happen to me? In that case you will most likely protect yourself and try to avoid it all. You may end up learning very little and you may come out of it all with more protective barriers and defence mechanisms, less open to the community, to God, than before.

Or you can – and this is much easier to say than to do – you can open up to it and let it all do its work. Remember what happens in the process of spiritual transformation is that the things of which you do not wish to let go are forced out of your hands. For instance, the person who goes through that experience of living through cancer finds himself speaking to and sharing with and becoming friends with people he thought he’d never even have given the time of day to in his whole life because he has discovered common ground with that person. He is discovering what it is to be human. The person who has a near death experience or loses someone finds that the things she held onto before are no longer what is most important to her and so on.

For most of us it takes this terrible experience of the wilderness to effect the necessary change. In Jesus’ case we are told this went on for forty days. Actually if you re-read the gospels you can see the work being done all the way through.

Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel faced three crises. He was invited to turn stones into bread.

The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

This is the temptation to be successful. This is our temptation. It is the difference between what we want and what we need, between the church agenda and the kingdom agenda. Our temptation is to turn the church into a success. The kingdom tells us to turn it into a community which reflects the mind of Christ.

This encounter with the Devil takes Jesus from the position of what he wants to what he needs. He has moved beyond selfish desire and attachment to the need to succeed and he is now committed to an agenda beyond that. This is what is meant by letting go of the false self. It is all about agendas.

This is difficult in a church because we all want to be successful.

The next moment in the unfolding story has the devil invite Jesus to play a kind of game with God. In order to enter into this, Jesus has to think of himself as superior, integral to God’s agenda.

You also have the devil quote scripture in a way which goes against God, which is destructive.

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

In the church we often play righteousness games with God. We have done this, are this, say this and have put up with this. Now save us. In fact the bottom line is that we are not at, one or in fact the pinnacle of anything. If you are the Son of God does not lead to being rescued. Recognition of one’s own divinity will take one into humility and obedience, foot-washing and crucifixion, not to the pinnacle of the church or the temple.

And then there is the final temptation.

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

Here we have the crux of the whole thing and it is the last thing to go. It is the need for control and power and importance and adulation and reward.

It is only when Jesus lets go of this that the devil leaves him.

I have no doubt whatsoever that this community is in the wilderness. The wilderness will teach us nothing if we do not allow it to do its work.

It is very tempting to give up and to turn stones into bread. But we are invited to go deeper. It is really tempting to imagine that we are the ones who are correct, that we are at the pinnacle of the temple. We are not. We are being stripped of all of that nonsense. And it is tempting almost beyond anything to compromise, to give up on the things which make others suspicious of us and turn away from us. But we are not called to please little kingdoms. We are called to awaken to the kingdom of God within us.

The wilderness is a death experience and it is a vital part of the process which takes us to awakening, realisation of who we are, and resurrection.

The difficulty for us with the wilderness experience as it is described in the gospels is that for us the devil is an entirely negative figure. In fact the devil is a symbol which appears in all kinds of literature.

For instance in the book of Job in the Old Testament the character is very different to what we have in the New Testament. Only those who do not know how to read it think that the character is precisely the same.

There the Satan – and it is ‘the Satan’, not Satan – is very much the servant of God. He is doing God’s will. He is helping to effect God’s will and purpose.

To read and to understand what is happening in Matthew and also in our own personal and church circumstances and experience we have to accept, to understand and to learn from this.

What we have in this devil symbol or archetype is in fact what appears elsewhere often as the Trickster. Joseph Campbell puts this into context very helpfully for us.

Joseph Campbell, Mythology of the Trickster.

Alan Watts is also helpful.

Alan Watts, The Role of the Trickster.

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