The Wilderness of the Heart


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown, NJ

March 1, 2020

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 than 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 far more bleak with stark mountains only filled with the life of radical communities like the Essenes.

       The text does not tell us that Jesus was led into the desert but into the wilderness. Our image – or, at least my image of wilderness is very different than that of a desert. I hear the word “wilderness: and I think of the words of Katherine Lee Bates in America the Beautiful, “O beautiful for pilgrim feet whose stern impassioned stress, a thoroughfare for freedom beat across the wilderness.”  

       The words of her poem cause me to think of the wilderness as a wooded place, or even the open plains of the Midwest, not a barren and empty one as the Judean desert. But images of 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. So, too, the wilderness. 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 and light radiates across the sand. By noon, the sun is directly overhead and hot and one hallucinates, but then at night it sets in with a sharp and 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 live, 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 wilder-ness [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. Beyond Thoreau's classic Walden, Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard and even Bill Bryson's often humorous A Walk in the Woods explore the relationship of wild places to exploring our inner selves.

       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 beyond the desert. Whether desert or wood, the wilderness is a place to discover our limits. 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 discovered that their solitude was no cure for sin. 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 still try to figure out how to squeeze a trip to the Strand Book Store 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 how we fared 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.

        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 respond to our petitions. 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, temptations of the world 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 temptations of the wilderness in them. 

       The medieval mystics understood the wilderness of the heart. Birgitta of Sweden who lived in the fourteenth century commented 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 physical 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 have blessed us so richly, help us to realize the vision of Jesus for our lives. Help us to find your path. Amen.