The Wilderness of our Hearts


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

March 10, 2019

Texts: Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Luke 4:1-13

        There's a scene in the movie The Last Temptation of Christ, when an old man tells Jesus that he'll find more then God in the desert. And, of course, the old man is correct. Jesus finds more than God. He finds himself. The desert of ancient Galilee is different topographically from the deserts of our southwest. Even in the dry season our deserts have cacti that bloom and a variety of life. The desert of ancient Israel was a bleak place, with stark mountains and deep ravines. The only persons who inhabited the Judean desert lived in radical com-munities like the Essenes who chose the place precisely for its desolation.

        Luke’s text does not tell us that Jesus was led into the desert but actually into the wilderness. Our image – or, at least my image of wilderness is very different than that of a desert. When I hear the word wilderness I think of the words of Katherine Lee Bates in “America the Beautiful:”  “O beautiful for pilgrim feet whose stern impassioned stress, a thorough-fare for freedom beat across the wilderness.” My ideal wilder-ness is a vast wooded place or the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, certainly not a place as barren and empty as the Judean desert, but images of the wilderness are determined by our culture, and for Jesus' time and place, the wilderness was the desert.

        For more than a thousand years before Jesus' time, the desert had been the wilderness. It was a place of wandering, a place of discovery, a place of terror, a place of peace. One writer has noted that the desert is a place of the heart. And that’s true for the wilderness as well. The question for us is how we address the wilderness places in our hearts.

         In her book, High Tide in Tucson, Barbara Kingsolver talks about what it is like to wake up in the desert, where nothing stands in the way of the sun as it rises with its light radiating across the sand. By noon, the sun is directly over-head and hot and one hallucinates, but then at night it sets in with the sharp almost cold stillness because the sand does not hold heat beyond the sun's rays.

           Biblical Hebrew uses four different words that are translated either wilderness or desert in English. The most common word is midbar, meaning an uninhabited place, a place where nomads could drive their goats and sheep, having a bit of pasturage after the rainy season. It is also the place where wild animals, such as lions and asses lived, ready to prey on those who enter it.

         A second word is 'arabah, meaning arid or dry. It is obviously where we get the word for Arab to describe the people who live in dry places, such as the Arabian Peninsula. In the poetry of the Tanakh these two words are used as parallelisms, such as in Isaiah 35.1: “The wilderness [midbar, or desolate place] shall be glad, and the desert ['arabah] shall rejoice and blossom.”

          The third word is horbah, which more accurately is translated as having been laid waste. It is the word used in Jeremiah to describe what happens to Jerusalem and is a word often translated into English as dryness or desolate.

          The fourth Hebrew word is used in the poetry of the Second Isaiah when the justice of God is compared to pools of water in the wilderness [jeshimon]. Torah tradition tells us of Moses and the people of Israel wandering in the wilderness [jeshimon]. During the traditional forty years, the people of Israel moved beyond their deep tribalism, forging a national identity. In literature, wilderness is a place both feared and loved.

         These four words reflect the different kinds of wilder-nesses we can have in our hearts. There are times when our hearts seem empty with nothing to inhabit them, only by the wild animals of anger or frustration; we are just washed out.

         In those times we feel dry and may even feel that something has laid waste to our hearts, our souls. We want to rant like Jeremiah but may not even have the energy for right-eous indignation. Then we call on God to create a pool of water within us, assuaging our thirst and we move beyond the desolation we feel.

         If we read Thoreau's Walden or Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, or even Bill Bryson's often humorous A Walk in the Woods we learn how wilderness can explore the relation-ship of wild places to examining our inner selves. Those books speak to the power of the wilderness in our lives.

        Wilderness here in the United States takes many forms. The website of the Wilderness Society, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting our wild places, provides incredible photos of the many forms of wilderness including the desert. Whether desert or wood, the wilderness is a place to discover our limits. That’s probably why the wilderness is a nice place to visit but no one really wants to live there.

         The early church monastics, in revolt against imperial Christianity, sought to prove their stamina in the wilderness. In the beginning, the monks were hermits, but they soon discov-ered that their solitude was no cure for the sin they ascribed to themselves. The mind that is alone can be assailed by delirious phantasms of the imagination and lust, the chief enemy of many early hermits, seemed to be ever present in their hearts.

        What's interesting, of course, is that the temptations of the early monastics were so different than the temptations of Jesus. The first temptation is not about feeding the world but about thinking that material satisfaction will cure everything. And that is one of the greatest temptations of our society. Just buy more, get more, and you will be satisfied.

         I know my temptation here; it is books. Back in the day when I had children in the car and we approached a used book shop, they would shout, “Keep driving, just keep driving.” I find myself still trying to figure out how to squeeze a trip to the Strand whenever I have to go to New York City.

         And the second is power: the idea that political muscle, the use of raw power, can solve a problem. We, of all people, should know better than that. Look how we fared in Vietnam and Iraq or even in Afghanistan. History has shown that the human spirit cannot be defeated by bombs or house arrest.                People will not be bombed into submission, either literally or figuratively. China, possibly the first truly Orwellian state, should take this to heart as they attempt to imprison more than a million Uighurs or hold down the spirit of freedom in Tibet.

          The third temptation is more subtle – tempting God, setting God up to fail, not because God fails us but because we are using the wrong test. We set God up to fail whenever we act as if God is some big Santa Claus in the sky ready to re-spond to whatever we ask for. The real petition should be to develop enough faith so that we rely on God to be our rock and our salvation no matter what. The wilderness is vast, almost as vast as our own hearts.

           The early monks withdrew into the wilderness because they thought it would be empty. It was not empty, however, but full – full of the imaginings of their minds, the desires of their hearts, the very temptations they could not shake. In the same way our wildernesses are not empty spaces but are packed full. Our hearts are full of extraneous stuff – petty jealousies, grudges, anger, feel of inadequacy, shame, guilt. We find more than God in our hearts; we find all the tempt-ations of the wilderness in them.

          The medieval mystics understood the wilderness of our hearts. Birgitta of Sweden who lived in the fourteenth century notes that age is no protection against the wilderness of the heart: “Therefore, daughter, you are not to marvel if even in old age, temptations increase for as long as life is permitted, temptation, too, is possible.” We need not withdraw into a wilderness or desert to face our temptations directly. We need only to live in the world for the wilderness, more than a physi-cal place, to be a place in our hearts. In doing that, we will come to terms with that wilderness, not by conquering it, but by beating a thoroughfare. Sometimes, just getting to the other side of the woods is enough.

           Let us pray: Eternal God, who has blessed us so richly, help us to realize the vision of Jesus for our lives. Help us to find your path. In the name of him who opens our hearts even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.