Walking in a Wilderness with God
Tony E Dillon-Hansen
21 February 2018
A Sermon based upon Isaiah 9:2: 12-20; Genesis 17:1-2; Psalm 22:23-24; Mark 1: 9-15
“The people who have walked in darkness, have seen a great light.” (Isaiah 9:2)
Will you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our Rock, Our Redeemer. Amen!
As we begin annual Lenten season, we are reminded of “wildernesses.” Jesus spends some time in a wilderness and comes out of this experience with a stronger unification with God. Other religious leaders have sought such transformation in wildernesses (e.g Buddha, Moses, other prophets, and early Christian monks like St Anthony.)
For some, the wilderness is a place of solitude “to live deliberately” (as Thoreau points out) without distractions. Wildernesses can be places to find balance and awakenings, as Pastor Dave eluded to on Sunday. Such images can be quite alluring.
Those may be deliberate exercises, but I also submit that many wildernesses (as in suffering) happen regardless of intention. Think about that for a moment. Like the faith leaders mentioned before, there is something about struggles in life that causes one to reflect. Again, our good man, Thoreau says, “not until we are lost, do we begin to understand ourselves.”
This begs the question, what does the suffering part of wilderness mean to you. A wilderness is not just remote forest or desert where people are stranded or tasked to survive for a period of days (such as ancient Greek used to do). These are moments throughout our lives, and may even be our lives. Consider Numbers, the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years which is near equal to my life span. Imagine what that sounds like to our youth.
I have walked a few wildernesses in my life. I ask when you find yourself in a wilderness (e.g. job stress, child in the hospital, strained relationship, facing an surgery ourselves, or life itself), how do we find hope? How do we see Isaiah’s light? How do we walk with God?
Suffering is ominous and real to us. We know it, feel it and can sense it. We respond to suffering in many ways like laughing or singing possibly; most often met with crying, fear, anger, and still some with hope.
One writer describes paradigms of suffering. 1) moral, 2) redemptive, 3) lament and protest and 4) ambiguous suffering.
Perhaps you recognize these.
Moral and redemptive paradigms involve a reason for the suffering. Are we holding onto guilt that we need to let go? Are we waiting for future redemption of today’s suffering. Ultimately, these want to find fault and blame. Yet, if suffering is penalty- “flag-on-the-play” for infractions, the problem of suffering is removed with ease. How does that explain my torn ligaments? The line of “cause and effect” becomes fuzzy at best.
Perhaps you may need amends for something, then take the steps needed. Yet, if we are focused upon what we don’t have, or upon today’s suffering, we may miss opportunities and God right around us. When you are focused upon the weeds, you may not see beyond. How can you find God from where you are?
Another paradigm tries to explain how we feel when sudden obstacle happens This may feel like unwarranted punishment and we ask, “why me and now?” with no satisfactory answers.
We may become angry at God. The good thing about that is that God is big enough to take the anger. Again, why are we so focused upon the problem? Easier said than done (I know), but the focus may determine your outcomes. As a child and I hurt myself, mother would talk to us and get us to think about something else. Maybe God is mothering us too.
Then we consider the ambiguous suffering paradigm. This is a progressive idea about God that suggests God has much bigger things to do than manipulate my life to teach a lesson or exact punishment. In this view, suffering may actually be opportunities to learn more about ourselves, our relationship to the world and to God. This is one Way to build a meaningful life with God, family and the world – with suffering included. Maybe that is because there is less focus upon the blame or the suffering itself –because suffering happens.
This paradigm is amazingly similar to Buddhist core ideas. 1) Life is suffering. 2) Our clinging to suffering causes suffering. 3) Cessation of the clinging can relieve the suffering. 4) There is a Way to cessation of that suffering.
This is remarkably simple, but complex. When I read, “life is suffering,” I said of course it is, but what is important is how we react to suffering. We could let suffering consume us in the wilderness and question motives. We would be focusing upon ( clinging ) that suffering rather than learning about our internal emotions that drive our reactions. We could miss so much.
When we learn to quiet our mind, our wants, our expectations, let things be, look beyond the weeds, we might discover God working with us instead of against us. God has put much beauty in this world, and we only need to smell the roses. Those who have walked in darkness can look up and see Isaiah’s light.
We can learn to trust and have faith in a future with God. We can also have faith that now is exactly as it was meant to be. We are going to learn so much here, now -in God’s great Creation. We know the pathway to trust and rest may not be smooth, but there is a Way. Yes, Ways where wildernesses can produce endurance, character and hope because we learn to let the suffering be of itself rather than consuming our lives with it or being shamed by it.
The wilderness may represent the depths of our soul and life (like Thoreau says), but it also is a chance for us to explore our relationships to ourselves, to God and our world.
We will persevere, we will succeed and with God’s help – just look.
Let us walk with God this Lent. Look listen, open your heart, relieve suffering, learn and grow together. Maybe then you will not be able to keep from singing too.
Thanks be to God.