3/9/2014, The Value of Wilderness Time

 Genesis 2:7-9, 3:1-7, Romans 5:12-19, Matthew 4:1-11


Remember back to the first Sunday in Ordinary Time.  The reading that day marked the occasion of Jesus baptism in the Jordan when Spirit called him to leave behind his old identity and way of life.  Likewise, our baptisms call us to a path of faith and action. In Jesus’ case, the very next stop on his journey was a 40 day period of time in the desert.  He went to the wilderness to consider the things that might hold him back from giving himself completely to God’s call on his life.


Perhaps some of us feel that we are wandering in a kind of spiritual wilderness right now. Our ancestors in the faith give witness to this common experience of darkness and doubt even as they continued to follow the way of Jesus.  St. John of the Cross called this the Dark Night of the Soul.  In the long dryness of her faith, Mother Teresa of Calcutta stopped praying to Jesus and instead addressed him as “the Absent One.”


Most people go through times when they feel disoriented and alone. If despite their questions and fears they persevere, they often discover a deeper and more clear identity of self and purpose than they knew before. Scripture tells us about this experience through stories like the Israelites who wandered for 40 years in the desert or like Noah and his family floating around in a boat for 40 days of rain. Moses went to the mountaintop to meet God for 40 days. More recently, we think of Nelson Mandela who spent long years in prison before accomplishing his mission in South Africa, or Gandhi the liberator of India, who undertook solitude and long fasts as means of both self-purification and social protest.


As Matthew tells today’s story, after Jesus had been in the wilderness for 40 days, he had a faceoff with the devil.  The Greek word used here is diabolos, which means the slanderer. A slanderer is one who makes false statements about a person’s character.


Experience tells me that when I am in a spiritual wilderness, the voice of slander I hear mostly comes from within myself. I don’t have enough love, knowledge or compassion.  I’m such a fake. God must be so disappointed.  These are self-centered demons of concern every human faces. Many of them are the lies we tell ourselves because we have believed the lies told to us by others.  Some of them are even religious lies.   The devil that Jesus had to encounter in the wilderness was probably his own set of self-doubts.  Who would provide for him if he had no income through a steady job?  Who would keep him safe if he criticized the religious status quo? Could he really trust God’s power to hold him instead of seeking political power through human systems of control?  Questions of provision, preservation, power: aren’t these demons of the ego with which each of us has to struggle in our own way? 


With the wilderness story before us, we step into Lent. The word Lent comes from the Anglo-Saxon word lenctentid, which literally means "Springtide." It also was the word for "March," the month in which the majority of Lent falls.  In the month of March we mark the coming of the season of spring, the time of the year when the dormancy of winter gives way to new life of all kinds. 


Many of us feel that the Christian Church has been in a prolonged period of dormancy, lying under the cold and heavy cover of old theologies and moral interpretations.   We long for a springtime of faith where relevant ways of living forth the Creator’s intention in the 21st century come to birth and give new life to generations yet to come.


Lent rightly acknowledges the value of time in the desert. The season of wilderness is a time to notice the falsehoods that have shaped us, let them go, and trust God to continue the formation of us as persons and the Church. We are all still evolving. Even in such times of confusion and change, hope is kept alive by anticipating the coming of spring’s newness.


Consider our 2014 Lenten journey less a time of penance and a time of noticing and encouraging the signs of spring in our midst. With other Catholic renewal movements, Lumen Christi seeks new ways of articulating and practicing the Christian faith.  During the six Lenten Sundays of this year we will look at some of the ways we are trying to encourage springtime in our sacramental liturgical practice. Here’s the first.


As a contemporary Christian community, we are sensitive to how language shapes belief systems. Our belief systems then shape our actions.  And so, one of the things we have grappled with is the language of our liturgy.


In today’s gospel, notice how often Scripture is mentioned as Jesus encounters The Devil. The Slanderer presents a claim from scripture to Jesus, and Jesus refutes it with another scripture. This conversation between Jesus and his inner self (the Devil) is an example of how this “Word of God” can be interpreted differently to prove different arguments.  A verse from The Word of God can be presented out of context to support a particular theological position. Jesus struggled to separate a diabolic interpretation that could direct his life  wrongly from the overall truth of how to be in right relationship with God.  


Through many centuries of time, many Christians have come to think that the writings which shape our tradition are literally God speaking.  This belief is reinforced when we say rotely “The Word of God” in response to readings.  Therefore, in Lumen Christi liturgies we choose to speak our affirmations of the readings in a way that conveys more fully HOW we receive the Bible as a guide for our faith life.  To the Old Testament we reply, “The Spirit has spoken through our ancestors.”  To the writings to faith communities, we say, “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.”  We hold up the Gospel as good news offered to all people, not just Catholics, not just Christians. So we say, “We honor the stories of Jesus.”  In the 21st century, the Scriptures are for us metaphorical treasures through which the Spirit speaks to impart contemporary wisdom.   


A short homily doesn’t do justice to this topic.  Therefore, I have edited a chapter on the topic of scriptural authority from Marcus Borg’s book “Speaking Christian.” It’s in the form of a reading that you might include in your Lenten disciplines. It is attached as an appendix to this homily.


May we wander together faithfully through this Lenten wilderness as we celebrate the signs of spring coming our way.  Thanks be to God!


Borg, Marcus J. Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power—And How They Can Be Restored Harper Collins, Inc (Extracted from Chapter 5- The Bible).

For many Christians today, the Bible is the inerrant and infallible revelation of God, and it is to be interpreted literally and absolutely. The reading of a biblical text in worship services is often followed by the congregational response, “The Word of the Lord.” These words convey the notion that the Bible is the direct revelation of God.

But millions of Christians have serious problems with this understanding of the word Bible.   The alternative understanding of the Bible’s origin is grounded in the historical and theological scholarship of the last few centuries. That scholarship has made it clear that the Bible is a human product, not a divine one. The Old Testament is the product of ancient Israel, and the New Testament is the product of early Christian communities.

To affirm this does not mean denying the reality of God or of God’s inspiring presence in the lives of people in these ancient communities. But it does mean that the Bible tells Christians how our spiritual ancestors (the people of ancient Israel and early Christianity) saw things—and not how God sees things. The Bible includes their experiences of God, their stories about God, their understandings of life with God, and how we should live. But it is their story—not God’s infallible, inerrant, and absolute story. It includes their wisdom, insight, and convictions. It also includes their limitations, blind spots, and misapprehensions.

 The important point is that the Bible is sacred scripture not because of its origin, but because our ancestors in the faith declared these particular books to be sacred, that is, authoritative.

The Bible has authority for Christians for the same reason that the Constitution has authority for Americans. To be Christian means to live within a community that accepts the Bible as its authoritative scripture. To be Christian involves a continuing conversation with the Bible as the foundation of Christianity. If that dialogue were to cease, we would cease to be Christians. The Bible is constitutive of Christian life and identity.

We best understand the Bible when we set its texts in their ancient contexts and when we are attentive to their metaphorical meanings as well—that is, their more-than-literal, more-than-factual, more-than-historical meanings.

What does it mean to say “The Word of God” or “The Word of the Lord?”

To speak of the Bible as the “Word of God” means that it is a vehicle, a means, of communing with God. It is sacramental—divine not in its origin or authority, but in its purpose and function in the Christian life. It is a means whereby the Spirit of God continues to speak to us. Confirmation and illumination of this way of understanding the “Word of God” is provided by another familiar Christian use of the phrase, namely, Jesus as the “Word of God.” In John’s Gospel, he is the “Word” become flesh, the “Word” embodied in a human life, the “Word” incarnate. Obviously, Jesus was not literally a word, a sound, letters on a page, or a collection of words. He was a person. A book can be the “Word of God.”

A person can be the “Word of God.” For Christians, the “Word of God” as known, revealed, disclosed, and embodied in Jesus is the decisive “Word of God.” It outranks the Bible. Jesus is the norm of the Bible. When the Bible and what we see in Jesus conflict, as they sometimes do, Jesus trumps the Bible. This is what it means to say that Jesus is the Word become flesh. In him, Christians see more clearly than anywhere else the character and passion of God. So, is the Bible the “Word of God,” a means of revelation? Yes. Does it matter? Yes. Does it matter as much as the “Word” become flesh, the “Word” we see embodied in Jesus? No. Of course, we wouldn’t know about Jesus without the Bible. To echo language from Paul, we have this treasure in earthen vessels. The Bible is an earthen vessel that contains our treasure. To echo language from Martin Luther, the Bible is the manger in which we find Christ. 

Borg, Marcus J. Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power—And How They Can Be Restored Harper Collins, Inc (Extracted from Chapter 5- The Bible). 

By Sandi DeMaster