Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Into the Wilderness (Matt 4:1-11)

(Homily for the University of Sheffield Chaplaincy's Ecumenical Communion on Feb 25, 2015)


We are now in Lent. A season when we encounter and acknowledge our limits and our weaknesses, our shortcomings and our inadequacies, our utter dependence on factors outside our control. A season when we journey through the wilderness. Commonly we reflect on this time in the wilderness and consider it to be a time of purification, sanctification, spiritual epiphany, as a time of absence that will make even more brilliant the triumphant presence of God. It’s easy to get ahead of ourselves, to “know” in advance that all will be well. It’s easy to take shortcuts through the wilderness, to short-circuit the journey. And in this sense, it’s easy to shortchange ourselves. Because the wilderness journey isn’t an obstacle or test that we eventually pass, a challenge that we ultimately overcome, an experience we leave behind when Lent ends. The wilderness journey isn’t a point on the map of life. It is the point of life. Indeed, if today’s gospel story is any indication, Jesus does not promise to lead us out of the wilderness. If anything, he promises to lead us deeper into it. 

When I hear the story of Jesus in the wilderness, I can’t help hearing echoes of the “Grand Inquisitor”—a short story written by Fyodor Dostoevsky. In the “Grand Inquisitor,” Jesus visits Sevilla, Spain, at the height of the Inquisition. The cardinal—the Grand Inquisitor himself—recognizes Jesus and has him seized and imprisoned. He chastises Jesus for returning, for threatening the power of the Church. The cardinal explains to Jesus that the Church has seized God’s power—the power of love, the powerless power of the heart—and made it their own, a power of the hand, a concrete power by which they rule, by which they promise security and salvation for all their followers. And in a fascinating interpretation of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, the Grand Inquisitor declares that in the desert Jesus had the opportunity to claim and establish divine authority. By saying “yes” to the “temptations,” Jesus could have made things infinitely easier for humanity. What else does humanity want but a sure thing—security, certainty, an authority that answers all its questions. But Jesus says “no.” “No” to the bread-into-stone kind of power that would instantly satisfy our needs, “no” to miracles that would instantly dispel our anxieties, “no” to an authority that we would be powerless to resist. And by saying “no,” the Grand Inquisitor charges, Jesus leaves us with a terrifying freedom. Jesus leads us, essentially, into the wilderness with him. With questions about how we’ll make it through this day, let alone the next. With uncertainties about what’s right. With anxieties about everything that lies outside our control.

And Jesus’ response to the Grand Inquisitor’s charge? As Dostoevsky writes: “The [Grand Inquistor] longed for him to say something, however bitter and terrible. But He [Jesus] suddenly approached the old man in silence and softly kissed him on his bloodless aged lips. That was all his answer. The old man shuddered. His lips moved. He went to the door, opened it, and said to Him: 'Go, and come no more... come not at all, never, never!' And he let Him out into the dark alleys of the town. The Prisoner went away.”

In its own way, I think that the story of the “Grand Inquisitor” restages the story of Jesus in the wilderness and makes clear that, for Jesus, the wilderness is not a stage in life to be completed, but rather the stage of life itself. For just as in the biblical telling, Jesus does not offer any answers or solutions to the wilderness—to the difficulties, uncertainties, and anxieties of life. Rather he responds with love. With a kiss, a kiss that—as Dostoevsky puts it—“glows in the [Grand Inquisitor’s] heart.”

In the end, the Grand Inquisitor, Dostoevsky says, “adheres to his idea.” He does not trust in God, in the freedom of God’s love, in the power of the heart rather than the power of the hand. He cannot accept that life is a wilderness. Indeed, where’s the gospel in that? How can the wilderness be good news?

Perhaps it’s because it is only in the wilderness that we really encounter God’s love. A love that draws us out of ourselves, a love that believes all things, inviting us, enticing us into the newness of life. Only in the wilderness, only where we must admit that we don’t have it all quite figured only, only where we are not enslaved by the comforts and familiarities of our own world, only where we must let go of any power we have claimed and instead allow our hearts to be claimed by a powerless power—only here do we really encounter God’s Love—whether in the small things like a stranger’s smile or a neighbor’s cry for help, or in the big things like a risky commitment or a family’s forgiveness. Far from endangering life, the wilderness is what enables life. It is the space of transformation and growth. It is the space where we cannot depend simply on what we know or what we like or what we control but must instead entrust ourselves to God’s love.

This Lent, Jesus will not lead us out of the wilderness. If anything, he will lead us further into it. But we should not despair, for it is here in the wilderness that God’s love glows within our hearts, aglow like a pillar of fire, leading us ever onward into the promise of new life.

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