20 September 2020

St Dunstan's Anglican Church Camberwell

Creation 3 20/09/20

Joel 1:8-10, 17-20

Psalm 18:1-19

Matthew 3:13-4:1

Who remembers the opening scene of the film The Sound of Music? Got the picture in your mind? What about Citizen Kane? Or 2001 A Space Odyssey ? Or the scene in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert as they drive across the outback? Topos, or place, brings with it a whole range of meanings, as film directors know so well. Both the passage we read from Joel, and the story of Jesus’ baptism and subsequent temptation, take place in ‘the wilderness’ but of course that is speaking into a long history of place that goes right back to the garden of Eden. The story begins, not in a wilderness but in a garden, which immediately after the creation narrative, suddenly appears. This is order out of the chaos of creation. Abraham wanders in the desert, equivalent to our outback, I think, and then the family settles in Egypt which is of course civilisation. Once the Israelites escape, it is to the wilderness, where they wander for forty years, which is symbolic for a very long time in an inhospitable place. While they wander, they are supposed to think about their identity as God’s people, they are supposed to make their relationship with God but they fail again and again. The wilderness is the place of metanoia, or change of heart, turning around.

By the time we get to Joel, the wilderness as described in the passage we read today, is symbolic of the exile. The Israelites have been in the promised land, but have been carted off to somewhere else, Babylon, as it happens. Their conquerors are described as the locusts who have consumed everything in their path and the picture is one of drought and desolation. This imagery reveals how intimately the Israelites were tied to the land. It is a picture that many in rural and remote Australia would identify with immediately. We, in our cities, have lost that elemental bond, I think. 

By the time of Jesus and John the Baptist, the wilderness has become a trope for the place of the prophet, largely because of the Old Testament prophets, like Joel. How did they know John was a new prophet? Because he lived in the wilderness, clothed in camel hair and eating locusts and wild honey. The wilderness is the right place for a prophet so when John calls people to repentance they go out to him, in the wilderness to be baptised. This is a call to metanoia, just as the wandering in the desert for those following Moses was, and also very much what Joel was calling people to. Jesus heeds the call and encounters not just John the Baptiser, but God, God’s-self. This is a foundational moment for Jesus and one where he understands his relationship to God.

The desert represents the place where anyone might encounter God. It also strikes me that it might be a place where you would be less aware of the Roman occupation. The Romans had taken over the cities, the arable land but not, I imagine, the wilderness. The wilderness was still somewhere where one might encounter God. Or of course, like Jesus, Satan, and the powers of darkness. Wilderness is somewhere that confrontation with self occurs, which is of course, what that temptation story is about. Jesus is tempted to be other than God’s servant, other than the beloved Son, the identity that has just been revealed to him. And I think that is still true for us today. You have to come to terms with yourself when you are in the wilderness, as well as understanding your relationship with God. But for Jesus, and for us I believe, there is another aspect to wilderness and that is of refreshment and restoration. 

Jesus when he is exhausted by the people and their demands, when he has done the healing and saving that his role requires of him and indeed that his compassionate heart dictates, takes himself into the wilderness for refreshment. We read that a number of times in the gospel narratives. On the occasion that we read about today it is the prelude, the place where he readies himself for the job. It is the place in which he draws near to God. It is like the burning bush for Moses, the Holy Ground where Jesus is able to encounter God.

Why? Why is the wilderness so important as a topos? I would suggest that it is because there, one might encounter the unspoilt creation, the created beauty of the wild. The fact that God can be encountered through the wilderness itself is surely significant.

As the temptation narrative, among many biblical narratives, shows us, the wilderness is also a place of hardship and the crucible where one might first know one’s self, and then be refined. Time in the wilderness is not easy, but it is beneficial. The wilderness offers an opportunity for restoration and a place for metanoia, a new direction, a reset on our lives.

In this period of celebrating God’s creation, it is important for us to reflect on the wilderness as the place where one might encounter God, whether or not you believe in God. The wilderness, and for us the outback, is a place where we human beings are no longer the dominant species but rather just one of the elements in God’s creation and that is enabling for us, I think. The wilderness is not all about us, rather we become who we are truly called to be because of its otherness. The wilderness is humbling, and enabling at the same time, and it has its own intrinsic value.

We humans who look at everything on earth in terms of wealth despoil the wilderness trying to make what we can from it, but we must learn that it is worth far more untouched than ever it will be despoiled.

My prayer for you today is that when this is all over you might be able to experience the power of wilderness for yourselves and encounter God there. Praise God, for the creation.

Rev. Roberta Hamilton