Date: March 6, 2022
Scripture Lessons: Psalm 91:1-3a, 9-16 and Luke 4:1-13
Sermon: Errand into the Wilderness
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
The sermon to the delegates assembled for the election of officers for the Massachusetts General Court in 1670 was given by the Rev. Samuel Danforth, pastor of the First Church in Roxbury, MA. Rev. Danforth was a graduate of Harvard College, a poet, an almanac maker, and an astronomer as well as being an associate of Rev. John Eliot, missionary to the indigenous peoples. In this sermon at this important event, Rev. Danforth addresses the question: “What is it that distinguishes the New-England from other Colonies and Plantations in America?” The answer is that they were founded for the pursuit of religious ends by reformed Protestant churches of England. He went on to say:
“You have solemnly professed before God, Angels and Men, that the Cause of your leaving your Country, Kindred and Fathers houses, and transporting your selves with your Wives, Little Ones and Substance over the vast Ocean into this waste and howling Wilderness, was your Liberty to walk in the Faith of the Gospel with all good Conscience according to the Order of the Gospel, and your enjoyment of the pure Worship of God according to his Institution, without humane Mixtures and Impositions.”
[ https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/libraryscience/35/ ]
It was in this sermon that Danforth referred to the immigration of these devout Europeans to the shores of this continent as an “errand into the wilderness,” which three centuries later became the title of a famous book by Harvard historian Perry Miller. Some of us read it in the course of our education in American and religious studies. It is a classic examination of the culture of colonial America from various perspectives, including, of course, religion.
There is a narrative that some Europeans came to these shores seeking religious freedom and seeking to establish a society based on religious principles. While they may have seen this as an ‘errand in the wilderness,’ we are well aware today that New England and what came to be known as North America had many indigenous societies thriving here on this land that were well-organized and living in harmony with the land.
But to the Europeans, this land was like a blank page to be written upon. A canvas to be painted and embellished. It was like marble waiting to be carved into a thing of beauty. Adorned with the godly society they would establish, righting the wrongs of the civilizations of Europe. And in some way, this was seen as a divine mission, at least by some in the first generation of those who came here. An errand in the wilderness, like the calling of Abraham and later Moses.
A wilderness. To us, maybe that means land untainted by human interference. Or land awaiting the application of white/European ingenuity. Or even worthless land. And now maybe even essential land to our survival. Wilderness can have many connotations.
In the Bible, this concept of wilderness is also a prominent theme. Cain kills Abel and flees into the wilderness. The Hebrews wander in the wilderness when they escape from slavery in Egypt. Elijah tries to escape to the wilderness. The Psalms and the prophets use the image of wilderness again and again to convey the transforming power of God. Springs bubbling forth in the wilderness. Flowers blooming in the desert. These images convey the life-giving blessings of God to humanity.
In the story we heard today from Luke we hear about Jesus being driven by the Spirit into the wilderness. It is interesting. Jesus has been baptized. We are told that God’s favor rests upon him. And now he is to prepare to begin his ministry. And does he go to the Temple in Jerusalem to study with the priests and scholars there in the cultic center of his faith? Is he sent to the local rabbi for field work? Professional development? An internship? Does he lock himself in a cell with the Torah – God’s guiding word for the Jewish people?
No. Jesus, we are told in the story, is driven into the wilderness implying little or no human influence. We want to notice several things about the character of wilderness. Of course, Jesus would know the stories of those from his faith tradition who had also gone into the wilderness especially Moses and the Hebrews escaping from Egypt, and Elijah and other prophets. So Jesus would know the wilderness as a place of encounter with God. A place that is, as the Celts call it, ‘thin space.’ Where Earth and heaven come together. Where there is closer contact between human and Divine, the physical world and the sacred. In scripture, wilderness can function somewhat like the mountaintop that we discussed last week with reference to the story of the Transfiguration. It is a space associated with encountering not only wild animals but God. So Jesus is sent to the wilderness perhaps expecting to encounter God. In the story, what he encounters is the devil, but the devil seeming to further God’s agenda preparing Jesus for his ministry. These encounters with the devil drive Jesus to more completely trust in the God of Love. Like training for an athlete, this wilderness time gets Jesus in shape. He learns to rely solely on God. He learns to identify evil. An he learns to trust his spiritual center. He learns to ground himself fully in scripture. He also hones his debating skills, his repartee, which will be needed when he is confronted by the religious scholars and officials of his day.
But we also want to remember that wilderness is not as the Europeans imagined, a blank canvas. Wilderness is nature that has been minimally impacted by human culture. So to be in the wilderness means to be in a space that has less human influence. We are to think of it as devoid of driving human concerns like development, economics, extraction of natural resources, space for human society. The concept of wilderness is intentionally meant to convey the minimal impact of these human influences and drives. With those things at a minimum, there is space. Yes, to encounter God, the Divine. And we want to remember that nature itself is the self disclosure of God. So being in the natural environment, the wilderness, also creates an opening to learn of God from nature.
Historic wisdom emphasizes the importance of nature. Martin Luther [1483- 1546] tells us, “God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.” [Quoted in The Green Bible, p. 1-103.]
In the wilderness, without a table to be fixed, without his mother hassling him, without neighbors sounding off about the Roman occupation and the fees and taxes, without religious officials forcing an agenda, Jesus can listen. Not only to his heart, his spirit. But to nature. While Jesus may not have had much human contact in the wilderness, there was surely much wildlife and the land itself to observe and contemplate.
The wilderness of what is Israel today looks barren at first glance which it is not, but in the first century it was home to lots of wildlife probably including lions, cheetah, camels, lizards; the hedgehog, fox, vultures, eagles and other raptors as well as many bird species; various kinds of insects – today are about 22,500 species of insect in Israel, who knows how many there were two thousand years ago. And there were likely bears, scorpions, snakes like the viper, cobra, and asp; the wild ass, gazelle, the oryx, bats, the arabian leopard, the arabian ostrich, swine, goats, sheep, hyenas and jackals, spiders, hyrax, a rodent, cougars, antelopes, and wolves. Jesus was hardly by himself in the wilderness in terms of the community of life.
And there were the land formations, cliffs, craters, mesas, plateaus, striations of rock and sand, dunes, the sun, stars, moon, colors and winds. There were the sounds of the wind and the animals. All this providing inspiration, information, insight, and understanding that helped to inform Jesus’ concept of the kin-dom of God. He had the opportunity to learn from the interwoven, interconnected mutually dependent life of the wilderness. This could inform his view of people living together interconnected, mutually dependent, and all sustained by the natural world, a gift of a loving God.
One of the most amazing minds in human history begs us: “Look! Look! Look deep within nature and you will understand everything.” Those words of Albert Einstein remind us of the importance of paying attention to nature.
So the wilderness is not just about getting away from distractions and human influences that cloud or obscure the presence of Divine Love and distort the perception of reality.
The wilderness, time alone, apart, be it out in the nether reaches or in the back yard, or a park, is also about intentionally creating the space for encounter with the Divine essence within us and around us in nature.
Wilderness time can function for us as it did for Jesus. These stories of his confrontation with the devil show the emergence of Jesus’ preparation for ministry. He learns to identify evil. And unmask it. He learns to confront evil. Even when it presents as good. And he uses his tradition to redirect the message. Wilderness helps Jesus to development a plan, a strategy for facing the world around him. Not for mixed income residences with office and retail space. But a development plan for the kin-dom of God. The commonwealth of God. On Earth as it is in Heaven.
Wilderness can help us to focus on Divine Love, on the essence of reality, on the richness and goodness of our faith tradition. It can ground us and root us in the reality of God.
This may have been the intention of those 17th century Europeans who engaged in their “errand in the wilderness.” They may have felt themselves drawn by God to this wild land. For illumination. And to live in closer harmony with God and with each other. But as historian Perry Miller points out, by the second generation on these shores, these motivations and visions were already dimming and what we might call more worldly concerns were at the forefront of their efforts. It is so easy for us to become distracted from the will and way of God. From the purposes of Divine Love. We know because it is happening still.
This Lenten season invites us to step back. To create space. To move away from our normal routines and busy-ness. To look and listen. To pay attention. To reflect. To examine. Our lives. Our world. Especially in light of pandemic and the continuing aftershocks of covid. In light of the most recent climate report from the UN saying that irreparable damage to the planet caused by human activity has now become unavoidable. And in light of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Which raises a host of concerns, some of which we will discuss after the service this morning. This war also invites us to reflect on the other wars that are going on around the planet and why they do not get treated with the same significance that the Russian invasion is given. Could it be that those other conflicts involve people who are brown, people of color, people not of European descent? We have many things to think about this season. To process. To unmask. To examine. To confront. As Jesus did in the wilderness.
And like Jesus, we are not left alone, not left to our own devices. We have God, however we may conceive of God. Speaking to us. There is our rich tradition of scripture and witness to inform us. There is the natural world offering revelation. So much in the wilderness seeking to inform us about how to establish the kin-dom of God, Heaven on Earth, in ourselves, in community, and in loving relationship with the planet Earth. European forbears came to these shores to live out the gospel freely without interference from society or government. May this be our errand in the wilderness this Lenten Season. Amen.
Relating to Perry Miller and Errand into the Wilderness, these resources were consulted:
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.