Sermon: Ash Wednesday / Bewilderment

This is a sermon that I delivered on 03/05/2013. It is not academically cited or proofread for academic purposes. If you have questions about this, please contact me here.

Sermon Title: Bewilderment
Primary Scripture Reference: Matthew 4:1-5

Has anyone here ever been lost in the woods? How did you find your way out?

I’ve been lost in the woods a few times – not desperately lost – just kind of, not exactly sure where I was. The blue dot on my cell phone suddenly becomes a lot less helpful when there are no roads. I would find my way out by using landmarks, things that looked familiar, or things that looked promising, like a stream flowing a certain direction.

But as a North American, I think that our understanding of wilderness, and Jesus’ understanding of wilderness is very different. In Israel, this wilderness that Matthew speaks of, in Greek, this eremos, is actually a desert. A barren, desolate, desert. For Matthew, and for Jesus, a wilderness is a place without landmarks. Imagine the deafening silence of such a place, the isolating loneliness of finding yourself in a completely unfamiliar place, without insight as to your direction. To me, that feels like a combination of panicky scaredness, and that vulnerable homesick twinge that can creep up on me.

Have you ever felt such emotions?

I think that God wants us to feel such emotions during certain seasons of our lives. These aren’t negative emotions. Perhaps they’re sad emotions, they’re absolutely challenging emotions, and maybe, at times, they’re desperate emotions. But I think that if we’re unwilling to engage with these emotions, we may either become lost in the wilderness and never find our way out, or worse, we will be too afraid to be led by the spirit into the wilderness in the first place.

My most recent wilderness experience was during my middle year of Seminary. During the Spring semester of my second year, I was taking a full course load (15 credits), interning at Central Moravian Church, engaged with a 38 hour/week hospital internship at Jefferson Hospital in Philly, I moved to Lansdale – my first “adult move” since going away to College 6 years earlier – and, in the midst of all this, my two year relationship with a significant other, ended.

This was, without a doubt, the most stressful time of my life, to date. I had so many expectations of me, from competing interests, that it was impossible to navigate any expectation, successfully. I was feeling incredibly lonely, and isolated, in a town where I knew no-one.

And my hospital internship experience was another layer of bewilderment. I had two, 15 hour shifts per week, and a weekly, 8 hour “learning” session. My first shift was on Thursday night, and went from 4:30 PM until 7:30 AM. I would see the sun set, be awake essentially all night, and then see the sun rise. My second shift was on Saturdays – I would start at 7:30 AM and conclude at 10:30 PM. I would see the sun rise, and then I would see it set. During my shifts, I would respond and do my best to provide emotional and spiritual care to people and their families who had come in from medical traumas. I would sit with people as they transitioned from this life, to heaven. I would sit with bored and isolated people in the bone marrow unit. I would walk around the hospital and chat with nurses and doctors whose emotions on a given day could range from ecstatic to deep frustration.

There were no guideposts, trail markers, or paths apparent to me, in my wilderness. I experienced feelings of isolation, abandonment, futility, and like nothing I did was ever good enough. As soon as I felt like I had figured out where I was, my footing would falter. I gave serious consideration, many times, to leaving Seminary, to moving back home, to going anywhere but where I was.
But —- my simple prayer during those days was, “God, I can do nothing except my best. I turn the rest over to you.” And I believed those prayers. And my God who led me to that wilderness, led me out of that wilderness with a fierce trust in God, and a much deeper relationship with God. When I went into the wilderness, I saw the world through black and white, intellectual eyes. I came out of the wilderness with a spiritual life. James Lavoy went into the wilderness, and died due to malnutrition. James, the child of God, came out of the wilderness with an abiding knowledge of resurrection.

Who but God can know when we will be led into the wilderness? Our journey with God will sometimes be familiar, with the guideposts of tradition and the kindredness of sisters and brothers. And sometimes, it will go through uncharted territory, where we can rely only upon God for our safe passage.

I think that willingness to journey is our theme for Lent. I was expressing to Blair that I was frustrated that our lectionary puts Jesus Beatitudes’ and Sermon on the Mount – the rich teachings that we’ve been studying all Epiphany – before Lent. Because in the Bible, before Jesus offers us these deep insights into God’s kingdom, he first is led through the wilderness.