©Joanne Bouknight, 2016

Meeting God in the Wilderness

Sermon by the Rev. Marek Zabriskie on Sunday, March 1, 2020.

In case you have been attending church for many years and have never noticed it, we always read the same Bible lesson on the First Sunday of Lent. It’s the story of Jesus being tempted by the devil in the wilderness. It’s a famous story, an important story.


Have you noticed how many stories take place in the wilderness? Abraham banished Hagar and her son and sent them into the wilderness, where an angel met them and gave them hope. Moses worked as a shepherd for forty years in the wilderness before he had his epiphany with the burning bush. The Jews wandered for forty years in the wilderness before entering the Promise Land. The Bible is full of stories about people in a dry, barren place, because the wilderness is where people are made strong and resilient as they reach out and rely on God.


A wilderness is any place where our life unravels and pain and chaos take over. We feel isolated and alone and anxiety and fear consume us. We wonder, “Will my marriage get back on track?” “Will I find another job?” “Will I survive this illness?” “Will I ever be happy again?” I’ve been there. Perhaps, you have as well. Maybe there’s someone here this morning who is in the wilderness. If so, I want you to know that there is hope.


The Desert Fathers believed that God’s voice is heard most clearly in the wilderness. Dionysius the Areopagite, a judge in Athens in the first century, says that all spiritual journeys move from purgation to illumination to union. The wilderness is where we experience purgation. The layers of our lives are peeled away, and we are stripped down. Like Job we feel as if everything precious have been taken away from us. We feel abandoned suspect that even God is not with us or for us or available to us. But God is always at work in the wilderness.


In his book The Second Mountain, David Brooks notes how his ancestors fled the terror of thundering Cossacks and mob violence in Europe. They journeyed in a modern Exodus the wilderness until they reached America as struggling immigrants whom no one wanted. He notes that God transforms people in the wilderness. “People in the valley have been broken open,” he says, adding that they “have been made larger by suffering are brave enough to let parts of their old self die. Down in the valley, their motivations changed. They’ve gone from self-centered to other-centered.”


Before Jesus performed his first miracle, preached or healed anyone he spent a long time in the wilderness. The wilderness prepared him for ministry. No one is called to serve God until they have passed through a wilderness. God can transform our most painful wounds. That’s why the best counselors for alcoholics are recovering alcoholics and why people who have lost a child can compassionately care for parents who have recently lost a son or daughter. Our wilderness experience equips us to be wounded healers.


Last week, I heard a CEO of a three billion dollar company named Bob Chapman give a great talk in Louisville, Kentucky. He wrote a book called Everybody Matters. I know Bob. He’s a visionary. He noted that many Americans experience a wilderness at work. He said, “Over 130 million people or 88% of the work force returns home each day feeling like they work for an organization that doesn’t care about them and that their lives don’t matter.”


“Stress is the biggest cause of health problems in our nation, and work is the number one cause of stress,” he said. “Every Monday, there’s a twenty-one percent increase of heart attacks. The Mayo Clinic reports that the person you work for is more important than your physician. Sixty-five percent of the work force would rather see their boss get fired than receive a raise. Fifty-eight of workers would trust a stranger more than their boss. Universities are experiencing the highest level of depression that they’ve ever experienced.”


“We’re suffering,” said Bob, “from a crisis of leadership malpractice.” “If we could see and treat everybody around us as someone’s precious child,” he said, “we could transform our nation. As it is, we send people home from work feeling unappreciated and not listened to, and they take that hurt and sense of not mattering home to their families.”


If you are in the wilderness right now, I want you to know that God will care for you in that desolate place and will show you a better life. But you have to trust that God will be there for you. if we’re not careful, our God can get tiny. We imagine God as some impotent being out of touch with our lives. But Meister Eckhart says, “God is greater than God.” God is so much greater than we can possibly imagine. Our greatest problem pales in comparison to God.


So, if you are feeling broken and lost, trust that God cares and is watching over you. You may not see it or feel it, but I guarantee that God is at work right now in your life. God has a plan to rebuild your life. In every Bible story set in the wilderness people discover hope, character, resiliency, folks who stand by them and above all God.


If you are going through a difficult challenge right now, I want you to know that you have come to a safe place. We received a call recently from someone in distress. We get a lot of calls like this. I returned this call late at night. Cheryl followed up the next day and told this person in dire need, “We will surround you with people who can support you.” “Really,” said this caller in disbelief. “Your church does that?” “Yes,” replied Cheryl. “That’s our mission. We’re here to care for people going through the wilderness.”


The best way to survive the wilderness is to do what Jesus did. Spend time each day in prayer and moderate fasting because they clarify our vision and equip us to hear and to follow God. Pray several times each day. Your prayer can be as simple as saying, “Thank you” to God five times a day. In doing so, you will put on the armor of God.


When we fast moderately, we say to God, “I want to make sacrifices for you.” Fasting hollows us out so that the Spirit can fill us and help us gain mastery over appetites which often pull us like wild horses. Fasting, prayer and daily Bible reading equip us for spiritual warfare. Notice how each time the devil tempted Jesus, our Lord countered by quoting Scripture. Jesus used Scripture like a sword to battle the devil. He would not let the devil defeat him.


Three times the devil said to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God….” Greek has two words to convey “if.” One expresses a probability. “If the world ended tomorrow….” This is hypothetical. The other expresses certainty. “If you are seated in church today…” When the devil says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God….” the devil know that Jesus was God’s Son. God is never more present than when we are most in need. God is in the wilderness. So, do not despair.


Lastly, sometimes friends and family let us down when we’re going through difficult times. But God sends angels to help us. They take us by surprise. They are not the people we might have counted on. After Jesus faced the devil in the wilderness, we read, “then the angels came and ministered to him.” When our health breaks, our marriage fails, our career implodes, we battle an addiction or are bullied at school, God sends angels, not with fluffy wings, but real people, to care for us. Look for the angels to help you.


Remember this as you leave this morning. The wilderness is where God makes us stronger and teaches us to be resilient. It’s the place where our wounds are transformed us so that we can become wounded healers and help others. It’s the place where God sends the angels to help us.


So, if your life is crumbling, trust that God will catch you. And God won’t just catch you, but God will hold onto you. And God won’t just hold onto you, but God will rebuild you, and God will not just rebuild you, but God will make you stronger, more grateful, resilient, compassionate and loving than ever. Count on that. Jesus did. I wish you a holy Lent. Amen.