Embracing the Barren Place

05
Mar

A sermon preached on March 1, 2009 based upon Mark 1:9 – 15, entitled “Embracing the Barren Place.”

Mark’s Gospel moves very rapidly. In the short passage we heard this morning we move from quickly from Jesus‘ baptism by John during which he heard the voice of God call him “the beloved son”, to Jesus’ time alone in the wilderness being tempted by Satan, to the beginning of his preaching ministry, announcing the kingdom of God is at hand.

Life inevitably involves a rhythm of mountaintops and valleys. We would prefer only mountaintops, but we are told that it was the Spirit that drove Jesus out into the barren wilderness for this time of testing. There is something that needs to happen in the hard times.

If the larger purpose of our lives is for God to grow our souls, to make us, in a word, “Christ-like” than mountaintops alone won’t do. We need both parts of this rhythm.

And the passage also reminds us that as wonderful and important as human companionship can be, there are certain experiences that we must undergo alone.

The old Gospel song has it right:

“You must walk that lonesome valley, you got to walk it by yourself. Nobody else can walk it for you. You’ve got to walk it by yourself.”

The occurrence of what is called “synchronicity” — strange coincidences in space and time of events that have no direct causal relationship — are times when we are called to pay attention. God is trying to say something to us.

At Christmas a member of our congregation gave me a gift of Barnes and Noble gift certificate. I went online like a kid in a candy store to see what I books that I might purchase with my gift. Although I read a great deal, I rarely read novels. I am a rather slow reader, and I don’t generally have the patience required to get into and then stick with a novel.

I was struck by the title of a novel, “The Hour I First Believed”, which I recognized from the hymn I love, Amazing Grace. I wasn’t really familiar with the author Wally Lamb, but on a whim I purchased the book, and was a bit intimidated when the book that arrived contained well over 700 pages. The book quickly captured my attention, however and it became my bedtime reading for the next two months. (At one point my wife borrowed the book from me and read it in two nights.) The narrator of the story is a man about my age, a school teacher married to a school nurse named Maureen. A great deal of ground is covered in the course of the story, including a lot of heart wrenching stuff that would test the faith of anybody. They endure the horror of Columbine high school, with Maureen particularly traumatized by the violence she witnesses close at hand.

Years later Maureen gets behind the wheel of a car high from the anti-anxiety medication to which she has become addicted, and accidentally takes the life of a young man. She ends up sentenced to five years in prison — the very prison that her husband’s ancestors had been instrumental in starting a century earlier. The women’s prison, you see, plays major role in the novel, and this is where synchronicity comes into play.

I had never been inside a women’s prison, but after I was well into the book, an invitation was extended to me to visit the women’s prison in Clinton, New Jersey, which I did, attending something like a graduation ceremony for fifteen women inmates who had completed a four month life skills course offered by a professor from Rutgers. The course was clearly far more than an ordinary class — functioning as something of a spiritual support group for the women, affecting all of them deeply in a very life affirming way. I was very moved by their testimonials at the ceremony, and by the opportunity I had to speak with each of them individually afterwards.

I met a lovely woman who told me that she was finishing a five year sentence that resulted from having gotten behind the wheel of a car when she was intoxicated. She said that in prison she had come to terms with her alcoholism, and spoke passionately to me of how important her faith had been to her in prison.

The week after my visit to the prison, I was finally coming down the homestretch of the novel. Maureen had gotten involved in the prison hospice program, visiting with inmates as they make their final passage from this life to the next. She begins attending Catholic mass, in which she finds great comfort. In prison, of all places, she finds a peace and a sense of meaning to her life, undergoing something of a conversion.

An unusual family mass is held, in which the loved ones of inmates are invited inside the walls of the prison. Maureen’s husband attends. He describes how during the mass Maureen read a story from the book of Acts about how the apostle Peter is visited by an angel in prison. At first Peter doesn’t know whether the angel is real or merely a vision, but the angel leads him safely past two prison guards and out through a locked gate.

The priest proceeds to give his homily, of which I’d like to read the conclusion.

“We all have the power to free ourselves have the power to free ourselves from prisons of our own or others’ making, but doing so depends on our willingness to take that crucial leap of faith and realize that angels are real, not merely the products of wishful thinking, and that they are all around us. We are, my friends, or can be, angels for one another. But this is real life, not La-La Land. And as we heard in the passage that Maureen read to us, the angels can lead us to freedom. But then they will leave us to chart our own path toward righteousness. And that, my friends, is a solitary journey . Each of us passed individually through the birth canal when we came into this world, and each of us will be alone once again at the hour of our death. ‘From dust we came to dust we will return.” What matters is how, in the interim, we treat each other.” (p. 701)

When I finished reading this passage, having just recently visited a women’s prison myself where I witnessed much amazing grace, I felt like God was handing me a highlighter.

******

Mark’s version of the temptation of Jesus is remarkably succinct:

“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

Jesus is driven out into the wilderness, this seemingly barren place. He could have rebelled against this harsh setting into which God has placed him, but instead he embraces it, and in doing so, the wilderness becomes a place of blessing where he is “with the wild beasts, with the angels waiting on him.”I was reminded by the words written by Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman living in Holland when the Nazi soldiers invaded. Eventually Etty ends up in a prison camp where she lost her life, but along the way she kept a journal full of extraordinary insights that could have only come in such adversity. Her world is falling around her, but he soul becomes radiant. Our Gospel reading reminded me of one passage in particular:

“I now realize, God, how much You have given me. So much that was beautiful and so much that was hard to bear. Yet whenever I showed myself ready to bear it, the hard was directly transformed into the beautiful.” (

My wife Sarah, at the lowest point in her life, when her first husband walked out on her and five year old Kate, was visited by two beams of light when she was sitting awake on her bed. “Try again.” They said to her. And then they left.

She walked around the house crying out, “Try what again?!

“The angels waited on him.”

I want to finish with a passage I came across in an essay entitled “Born Toward Dying”, by Richard John Neuhaus, a Roman Catholic priest, and something of a hard nosed intellectual. (The essay can be found in “The Best Christian Writing of 2001.” Neuhaus died in early 2009.)

Neuhaus is not somebody given to sentimentality; he’s not the least bit “touchy feely.” He describes a remarkable visitation he experienced following surgery for cancer that had brought him close to death.

“It was a couple of days after leaving intensive care, and it was night. I could hear patients in adjoining rooms moaning and mumbling and occasionally calling out; the surrounding medical machines were pumping and sucking and bleeping as usual. Then, all of a sudden, I was jerked into an utterly lucid state of awareness. I was sitting up in the bed staring intently into the darkness, although in fact I knew my body was lying flat. What I was staring at was a color like blue and purple, and vaguely in the form of hanging drapery. By the drapery were two ‘presences.’ I saw them and yet did not see them, and I cannot explain that. But they were there, and I knew that I was not tied to the bed. I was able and prepared to get up and go somewhere. And then the presences–one or both of them, I do not know–spoke. This I heard clearly. Not in an ordinary way, for I cannot remember anything about the voice. But the message was beyond mistaking: ‘Everything is ready now.’

“That was it. They waited for a while, maybe for a minute. Whether they were waiting for a response or just waiting to see whether I had received the message, I don’t know. ‘Everything is ready now.’ It was not in the form of a command, nor was it an invitation to do anything. They were just letting me know. Then they were gone, and I was again flat on my back with my mind racing wildly. I had an iron resolve to determine right then and there what had happened. Had I been dreaming? In no way. I was then and was now as lucid and wide awake as I had ever been in my life.

“Tell me that I was dreaming and you might as well tell me that I was dreaming that I wrote the sentence before this one. Testing my awareness, I pinched myself hard, ran through the multiplication tables, and recalled the birth dates of my seven brothers and sisters, and my wits were vibrantly about me. The whole thing had lasted three or four minutes, maybe less. I resolved at that moment that I would never, never let anything dissuade me from the reality of what had happened. Knowing myself, I expected I would later be inclined to doubt it. It was an experience as real, as powerfully confirmed by the senses, as anything I have ever known.”

****

“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Stan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. (Mark 1:12 – 15)

“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’”

Etty Hillesum, “An Interrupted Life”)

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