- Parish House
Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent – Luke 4:1-13
The Rev. Ragan Sutterfield
There was no cell signal so paper had to do, a Mapquest printout and an old Arkansas atlas stashed behind the driver’s seat. The road was right, we’d double-checked at the last turn, but we’d been going for over an hour and…nothing. The destination that didn’t look so far on the page of lines and squiggles wasn’t around any of the endless bends. No signs, no mile markers, just the crunch of white gravel and sunlight settling behind the spring oaks.
My father and I’d been camping at Lost Valley on the first half of a long weekend. The plan was that my dad would drop me off at the campgrounds at White Rock Mountain and I’d meet my friends there the next day to backpack the Ozark Highlands Trail. That was the plan, but we were reconsidering as we kept crunching along the dirt road.
Then we saw it, an old Civilian Conservation Corps campground off the side of the road. There was a small pavilion, a few picnic tables. “This must be it,” I said. We looked at the map. It seemed plausible. In all of those gravel miles this was the only thing that looked remotely like a campground. “If there was another campsite it would be on the map,” I assured my father who still seemed a bit doubtful. With no other apparent options, he finally conceded. I pulled my backpack out of the car and he helped me pitch my tent.
Then, with a goodbye and the fading sound of gravel, I was alone. The woods were quiet, the birds finished with their vesper songs, not even an airplane hummed overhead. I settled into the stillness of the night and in it I felt for a moment at ease, my body small in the blessed vastness, my breath easy in a place where I was one gift in a given world.
The winter had been gray with loss and ending. Sometime in the years before I’d decided that God had failed to deliver on my happiness and so I’d begun my own programs to seek it–I’d sought to sure up my own significance, find my own sources of love and affirmation, gain my own means of control. Each of those attempts had ended in disaster and diminishment–I was left with less than I had before. I needed to repent, to turn back to the truth of who I was before I’d lost my way. I sought that truth now in the wilderness, the only place I knew I could be still, and quiet, and alone enough to hear.
Jesus did not need such a return, but still the wilderness served as a crucible of his identity. Before being led into the desert, Jesus had been baptized in the Jordan river where a dove descended on him and a voice from heaven announced “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” In these words Jesus’s identity had been proclaimed–he was God’s beloved son, one in whom God took delight. But to live into those truths, to accept them all the way to the crucifixion, Jesus needed to go where his people had always gone to meet God–the place where no human beings lived; a landscape that had been formed by water and wind, plants and animals, the shifting plates of the earth, acts of God.
What I found alone in the woods, what Jesus found in the wilds past the Jordan, what all of us find when we enter the wild lands, outside us or within us, are three gifts that help us hear the voice of God that whispers to us all: “you are my beloved child.” These are the gifts of solitude and silence and stillness.
The quiet places of the wild world invite us to practice these gifts and it is through that practice that we are able to hear the God that is closer to us than we are to ourselves. It was, I believe, the practice of these disciplines that enabled Jesus to hear the Yes of God even as the Accuser cast doubt with a No.
In a busy place, filled with the noise of life, the exhaustion of the everyday, it is hard to hear the whisper of God’s Yes. There we might wonder if God really loves us, if we are in fact God’s children. When those doubts begin to play in the frantic shadows of our noisy lives, we are susceptible to the Accuser’s offer of power and significance, the means by which we can establish our goodness and sure up our identities apart from God.
That had been my own path–I had too often been busy and ambitious, hungry for more when all I needed was less. It took the violent interruption of disaster to make me stop and seek what Jesus found in the wilderness and now offers us. Solitude and silence and stillness–those are the gifts through which we can began to hear the quiet voice of God that hums like the electricity of our bodies, constant and close, but so quiet that we never give it our attention.
In solitude we find a space free from the voices of others, people and books, the clamoring cacophony of the news. We are alone with ourselves and with God. It is in solitude that we begin to recover the ability to be present–to be with people, each in their humanity; to be with God, constantly seeking the inbreaking of his love in our lives.
In silence we are given the space to be quiet within ourselves, to turn off the constant rush of our thoughts. It is in silence that we begin to listen, to God who speaks his whispers of “my child” into the stillness of the air; to our neighbors in all their forms, each one who has something we do not, something that might complete our understanding, our wholeness, our blessedness.
In stillness we stop the frantic and frenetic pace of our lives that so often falls for the lie that “we are what we do.” When we settle down we learn to wait for the few appropriate actions of our finite powers rather than rushing into the many distractions of our ambitions and the false obligations that are so often a cover for our own egos.
Solitude, silence, and stillness–these are the gifts of the wilderness that strengthened Jesus for his confrontation with the lies of the Accuser. It was solitude, silence, and stillness that marked the whole of Jesus’ life as he embodied the truth of his identity as a beloved child of God and opened the way for all of us to accept that identity for ourselves.
If you do nothing else this Lent, seek to deeply learn this: you are God’s beloved child. You will be helped along in learning this truth by spending time alone with God, sitting as much as you can in the quiet, and stilling your need for action and movement. Wilderness, of one kind or another, remains the easiest place to find these gifts. It was for me, those many years ago in the mountains.
I can’t remember when it was that I realized I was lost in the Ozarks; that the cold dilapidated CCC campsite was not White Rock Mountain or anywhere close. It was sometime before Orion faded from the sky and the Hooded Warblers began their morning songs. I broke camp early, and started down the road, heading west where I eventually caught a ride with a truck heading the right way. The truth was, though, that I had never been so found as when I was alone in those woods. In that time of still quiet I had begun to hear God’s Yes, God’s whisper that I was his beloved child inspite of all my failed programs of happiness. There was no other way I needed to find; there is no other path any of us need to follow. Amen.