Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Wilderness Discipline of Thanks

Preached on Sunday November 21

Scripture Readings: Deuteronomy 8:1-10; John 6:1-15

There is a scientific word for a certain kind of fear. That word is agoraphobia. It means the fear of open places; the fear of wide open spaces.

I know at least one person who has this fear.

A couple summers ago I drove around with my camera, not long before harvest. It was a brilliant, crystal-clear day. Cotton-ball clouds (just the right amount) floated through a perfect blue sky. I took a bunch of photos of horizons, and long views down straight gravel roads, and far off farms; and I took pictures of the sky. I called my little album of those pictures “Our Local Vastness”, and I sent it over the internet to my family, relatives, friends, and I posted it on Facebook.

To my complete surprise, my uncle responded to say that he sometimes felt uneasy in wide open spaces, and that my pictures actually gave him that creepy feeling! But that awareness of wide open spaces is a feeling that most of us love.

I love our local vastness. I love the size of our sky. Surely it is bigger than the skies most people see. I love the view of the horizon in so many directions. I love how big everything feels; and I even love how small and exposed it all makes me feel.

My uncle is an amazing guy, and I love him. Otherwise I would say that agoraphobia was of the devil.

There is a pattern found in the Bible of the way that God works; and he seems to do some of his best work in wide open spaces. God called Abraham and his family out of the city of Ur and shaped their faith on the fringes of the wilderness. God led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, and guided them through the wilderness to the Promised Land. There they had a journey that (what with all those grandparents and small children on foot, along with goats and other livestock) should have taken two or three weeks, at most, yet God made that journey last for forty years, because his people needed to spend a lot of time in the wide open spaces before they were spiritually fit to come home. The Lord came down from heaven, and became truly human in Jesus, and continued to lead his people, from time to time, out into the wilderness; out into vast and lonely and hungry places.

Moses said to God’s people: “Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years; to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your hearts, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 8:2-3)

The Lord Jesus led his people into the wilderness, again, by the Lake of Galilee, where they would be hungry again, and where he would feed them again, so that they would listen to his words. If we read on with this story in the Gospel of John, we would find that, just as the Lord’s people did not learn this during their forty years in the desert, neither did they learn it when they were led by Jesus, and fed by Jesus, in the wilderness east of Galilee.

It is a hard lesson to learn. It is wilderness work.

Still, there are lessons to be learned from the patterns of God working with his people in the wilderness. And these help us to find the true lessons of thanksgiving.
We all know (don’t we?) that we (ourselves, here in Washtucna, and Kahlotus, and Benge, and Hooper) don’t live in anything like a wilderness. People from the west-side, or from California, or from Portland, or from other such places might think that this is a wilderness (as they drive through it); but this hasn’t been a wilderness for over a hundred years. Even so, we know some things about the wilderness that most people from the city don’t know.

The wilderness does not teach us about thanksgiving because of it representing the simple life. Life here is not simple. The wilderness is the very place where nothing is simple.

The wilderness only simplifies things because it makes the most important things harder. The important things take longer. They take more preparation. They take more planning and foresight. The things that are truly important find their way to the center of our lives, and there is not much room (not much time) for other things.

In northern lands the season of winter is like a wilderness too. It’s a wilderness for drivers, because winter conditions on the road make you stop daydreaming or enjoying the view. The wilderness of winter makes you start watching the road, and the cars around you (if there are any), because safety is in short supply.

Warmth becomes a precious commodity; a frightening thing to lose. It becomes an enormous, luxurious pleasure, because warmth is in short supply.

For God’s people (whether with Moses or Jesus), the wilderness is the place of scarcity, neediness, hunger. For God’s people the wilderness is where things are hard.

In the wilderness, life is not simple, but reality becomes simple. We know what we have and what we don’t have. We know our true size and strength. We know the real, true worth of things; the things we have and the things we lose. We know the worth of others. This is the very beginning of our ability to be truly thankful.

Part of my calling is to speak for the living God in the presence of death and mourning; to speak for the crucified, and risen, and ascended Jesus in the presence of deep loss. I think there could be no greater danger than to treat this like some simple thing. It is a wilderness thing. Even Jesus wept bitterly in the presence of death and sorrow. (John 11:35)

Where I have found the greatest gifts and the greatest reason to give thanks, in the presence of sorrow, is in the presence of other people who have suffered great losses and sorrow for themselves, and absorbed their lessons. They know what to say, and how to say it. They know what not to say. They know what to do and what not to do.

These people have the gift of comforting others. And I see (perhaps) that their gift does not come from having recovered from their loss, but from their knowing how to carry their loss. Their ability to comfort others comes from their learning how to keep on going.

They have learned how to continue a life where they are called to loving and giving in spite of their loss. And they are enriched by this. And they enrich others. Without having planned it, they have found quiet, humble gifts to give.

And I believe that one more thing gives them strength to comfort others. That is a sure sense of the value of love, and relationship, and commitment; and the fact that they have not lost their thankfulness for that love. They have never lost their thankfulness for the treasure of the person they have loved and lost.

This is a kind of wilderness life. The life-giving power of thankfulness in the wilderness is a gift we receive when we go into the wilderness in the presence of the Lord.

What God’s people had in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land (and what God’s people had in the wilderness with Jesus) was the presence of the Lord. Life does not become simpler, but reality becomes clearer. The important things take the center stage.

Maybe some people are afraid of the wilderness because it seems lonely. In that case, we can learn that God’s people are never alone in the wilderness. The Lord goes through it with them.

The wilderness is even a wilderness for God. God, who was present in the pillar of the smoke and fire that led his people to the Promised Land, struggled with his people in the desert. It was not easy to be their God in the wilderness. It was no fun at all; not even for God. The important things came into focus and became life and death issues. God had to be tough to bless them.

Jesus went into the wilderness more than once. He went out into the desert after his baptism (Matthew 4:1-11) in order to fast and be thirsty, and to experience temptation and loneliness. When we have nothing; when our standards, and values, and desires are tested beyond every limit; Jesus is with us in our wilderness.

The Lord saw his children in the wilderness of a fallen world; a world of fear, and anger, and injustice; a world of confusion, and doubt, and idolatry, and sin. The Lord saw his children in a wilderness of loss, and sorrow, and death. The Lord entered that wilderness to be with us, where we are. This is who Jesus is.

The Lord entered the deepest part of our wilderness in the form of a cross. He carried every hard and bitter thing (even sin, and evil, and death). On the cross he carried those things away from us, and buried them forever in his tomb. In his resurrection the Lord gave us his victory over the wilderness, so that the wilderness does not need to be a place of fear or emptiness.

The wilderness becomes a place where we are with the Lord, and the Lord is with us. He cares for us, and feeds us. So our wilderness becomes a place where we can give thanks.

The boy whose lunch became a feast that fed the five thousand is also a lesson in thanksgiving. The disciples thought the boy’s gift was too small, but Jesus didn’t think so. Jesus used the boy’s small gift and made it much greater than any smart, mature person thought it could be.

We don’t know who that boy was, or why he was there, or why he was the only one with food to share. I think the grown-ups took no food with them because they had desperate work to do. Jesus was someone who might save them from the Romans. They couldn’t just let him go. They couldn’t just let him wander. They had to be smart and move fast. They had to chase Jesus down and draft him to their cause.

The boy probably had food with him because he was seriously planning to have an adventure with Jesus. He didn’t know what Jesus was going to do next, but he wanted to find out and be a part of it.

He packed food for the adventure as a young boy might. He had a serious plan but it was a child’s plan. The five barley cakes would have been the size of dollar pancakes, cooked on a griddle in olive oil, and the two fish were dried and the size of sardines or herrings. He may have made a pocket to hold them by tying the corner of his cloak together, and his mother scolded him later for the oily stain they made in it.

The boy wanted to see what Jesus and the crowd was about, so he grabbed the food and ran off without telling his mother. When he got home, at the end of the day, he would yell, “Mama! Papa! Me and Jesus fed five thousand people!”

For the rest of his life, that boy knew that he could expect to get back better than he gave. The boy was thankful enough for the food his father grew and his mother cooked for him to share it with Jesus, in the faith that Jesus could make something good happen through it. The boy would know that he could share other things with Jesus, too. He could share his whole life with Jesus, and Jesus would make it into something worth sharing.

When our wilderness makes us want to hunker down we need to remember that, with the Lord, the wilderness is the place to share.

Over and over I have seemed to lack what it took to do any good; but Jesus did good with what I gave, even when it seemed so worthless, and so small. I am learning to be thankful. I have so much more to learn. It is a wilderness discipline.

When we are in the wilderness, we think we cannot share because we do not have enough for ourselves, or because we do not have enough for others. But the wilderness is the place where the Lord is, and he can make “not enough” into enough. It is, first of all, a matter of faith. Then it is a matter for thanksgiving.

The wilderness, where the Lord takes us, teaches us that we don’t live by reducing what we want. It is also true that wanting more and having more will not make us happy. But we don’t live by reducing what we want. In the Lord’s presence we live by changing what we want. “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 8:3)

Those who ate the boy’s loaves and fishes did not eat the finest of the food that Jesus served in the wilderness. The finest food was to hear what Jesus said and see what Jesus was able to do with the boy’s gifts.

“Jesus…gave thanks.” (John 6:11) We can’t imagine what form Jesus’ thanks took. Was it a long, original, inspiring prayer? Was it deeply personal and touching? Or was it one of those short, simple blessings that the rabbis designed for everyone’s basic mealtime needs? The standard blessing for the bread would have been this.

ברוך אתה ה' א לוהינו מלך העולם, המוציא לחם מן הארץ.‏
Transliteration as: Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha olam, ha motzi lehem min ha aretz.
Translation is: "Blessed are You, LORD, our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth."

No one but Jesus knew where that bread came from, or how it got there. The secret is that this bread was there because of him. Long ago, he had made the heavens and the earth. He had made the soil in which the barley grew. He had sent the rain that watered it. He had guided the hands that harvested it, and ground it, and cooked it. John tells us: “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” (John 1:3)

The meal was there because of him in another way, as well, because of a crowd that was hungry for something it did not know or understand. The crowd was a small part of a whole world that needed Jesus, and what Jesus had come to give them. Jesus had come to live, and die, and rise to plant the kingdom of God in our hearts and to draw all people to him. (John 12:32) Jesus came to become the meal that would give us life.

The barley bread and the dried fish were there for yet another reason, because one person, out of thousands, hungry in the wilderness, was willing to share his small gifts with Jesus. And so Jesus could give thanks.

Our wilderness, and the presence of Jesus there, makes our most precious things; and our smallest, most humble things; and even our losses and poverty holy. And that is the foundation of all thanksgiving in any wilderness where you may find yourself.

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