The Wordless Place
Based on Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Romans 10:8b-13, Luke 4:1-13, Psalm 91
What image(s) comes to mind when you hear the word “wilderness”? Is your wilderness deserted, barren, arid, rocky, burned over or bombed out? Maybe your image of wilderness is icy, forbidding, dangerous, heavily forested, mountainous; endless and trackless, uncaring and oppressive? I suspect that whatever your imagination has come up with when you began to ponder the word “wilderness”, that image (for many of you) made you feel just a bit uncomfortable, anxious, possibly frightened. For the more adventurous souls, maybe it made you a tad excited to explore somewhere where no one had gone before. Of note, this land in Madison County that you know so well was not so long ago, a place of wilderness and mystery – yet bursting with unrealized potential and possibility. That’s the paradox of wilderness, isn’t it…it is a land of undiscovered possibility and beauty hiding beneath the fear of the unknown.
I wonder, how does it sound in your wilderness? I suspect that there are no city sounds (e.g., car horns, sirens, loud mufflers, airplanes, people talking). Instead, I suspect your wilderness to be a very quiet – an almost too quiet place of wind, bird songs, leaf rustling, bugs buzzing, maybe water flowing. It is quite likely that you imagine yourself in this landscape all alone with nothing but your thoughts and your heightened state of vigilance. True wilderness, for the uninitiated, can be an overwhelming amount of absence of familiar noise – not even the bleating of the ubiquitous cell phone for in the wilderness there is no cell phone coverage. Wilderness is uncomfortable for most for all the reasons I’ve listed, and because it is a hushed place. No wonder then that our Hebrew speaking spiritual ancestors who wandered around for forty years had a word for wilderness that is translated as “the wordless place”.
We enter into our Lenten wilderness this week through our scriptures. The Israelites are coming to the end of their time wandering in wilderness with Moses. He tells them the words they must remember when they leave “the wordless place”, conquer the Promised Land and begin to harvest from the abundance God will provide. Paul writes to the believers in Rome that they now have something worthwhile to say as followers of the Christ. Jesus, still wet behind the ears from his baptism, finds himself in the wordless place with only the devil ringing in his ears. Like the Israelites in the Promised Land, Jesus remembers the truth of scripture to counter the lies of the Adversary. Before we go farther, let us thank God for giving us the words to say when we are word-less…
The Apostle Paul is writing his thoughts to the believers in Rome in today’s Epistle lesson. Paul tells them that living in and through their faith in the Christ they will never be without something to say – no matter what wilderness they travel. Paul says, “’The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim)”. The living Word of God in our hearts allows us to believe deeply and fully and so find ourselves forgiven and free with God. Then we can confess to all that we meet how the love of God, and the sacrifice of Jesus are leading us to salvation.
We are most of the way through Deuteronomy for today’s scripture reading. Moses has been detailing, since chapter 10, all the rules and regs necessary to follow God. He now comes to a crucial teaching for the long-term fidelity of the Israelites. God and Moses know that once the wandering tribes settle down in the Promised Land and begin their life of relative ease, that they will be certain to forget the God who made this all possible. Therefore, Moses teaches the people what they are to do and to say every year when they harvest the first fruits from their fields and orchards. They are to announce to all that, “The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.” Sounds like words we all should be saying routinely…doesn’t it?!
Jesus has been baptized and heard the announcement to the assembled that he is beloved of God. Immediately, he is driven out into the wilderness, all alone and without any provisions. Luke’s Gospel tells us that for 40 days the devil tempted him; we only get a peek at the final day’s temptations. Jesus is famished and must be at the end of his rope. The only words he’s heard in his wandering have been from the devil. The temptations he is given, seek to undermine God’s power and Jesus’ faith in God. What does Jesus do? He harkens back to Deuteronomy and the teachings of Moses. He speaks the words taught to his ancestors in the wilderness, and they sustain and free him from his own wilderness.
Wilderness comes in many forms. It can be a physical place that we seek respite in from the cares and noise of our worldly lives – something we prepare for and engage with for a limited time. It can also be a psychological space that we find ourselves in times when we aren’t certain what we are supposed to do next – or when we have followed a path that has led to a dead-end. At those times we are often confused and find ourselves at a loss for words. We find ourselves traveling in a wilderness, seemingly alone and without anything to guide our next steps.
Yet, we do have a guide, a counselor, an Advocate, whom Jesus sent to us so that we would never be alone. The same Holy Spirit of God which descended on Jesus at his baptism is available to us through our baptism. This Holy Spirit speaks for us when the only sound we can make is a wordless guttural groan, a sob, a cry of anguish or frustration. We do not embark on this wilderness journey of 40 minutes, 40 days or 40 years to live, trust and have faith without the assurance that the Spirit leads us: we are never alone! We remember and acknowledge the wilderness of our journey – a wild place of questions and fears, of doubts and temptations, of possibilities. This wilderness is part of our story but is not the last word. When we believe we are all alone, we have the voice that speaks in the wordless place, the Christ shouting down the Adversary and assuring us he is with us. We have the ancient promises that respond to our wilderness wanderings – the assurance of God’s grace, the gift of worship, of living bread and cup of sacrifice from the Christ, the communion of saints and the forgiveness of sins, the celebration of all the good things God has given us, and the life everlasting.
Our Lenten wilderness of 40 days can seem interminable, yet we have the words to speak to remind us of all those who have successfully walked it before us. When we are lost and think we’re alone in our wilderness, let us turn to God and say these words, “I give my life to you, O LORD, which you first gave to me”. Thanks be to God, amen!