Called to the desert


Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Luke 4:1-13

I want to begin this morning with the passage we read from the book of Deuteronomy found in our Old Testament.  To put this passage in context, it is after the Exodus, and the Israelites have finally ended their 40 years of wandering in the desert, and they are just about to enter the promised land.  They can even see it in the distance.  Moses is about to die and he knows it, and he will not be allowed to enter the land with them.  And so before he dies Moses is reminding his people about how far they have come to reach this place this day, and the commandments of God that they are to keep.

And so Moses goes back to the beginning of the history of the Israelites and tells them their story, beginning with “once upon a time there was “a wandering Aramean”” .  This reference is to Abraham and Sarah who were called by God from their home in Haran, way on the other side of the Jordan River, 800 miles or so to the East.  Sarah and Abraham were living and working and probably settling into their retirement when God calls them to move.  They were comfortable in their life, they had a lot of stuff, herds and camels and servants.  And I smile every time I think about how this conversation would have gone between them—Abraham telling Sarah that we are packing up and moving to “God only knows where”, literally.  And so at age 75 they pick up and move, having faith and trusting God in his promises of land and children. And eventually over 20 years, these promises are fulfilled.  Abraham lives and prospers and has a son in the land around the Jordan.  And his ultimate faith in God and his response to his call still remain as an example of faith to both the Jewish people and Christians today.

On the other hand, there is the story of the Exodus which is the next part of the history that Moses talks about in this farewell speech.  Moses has moved forward 400 or 500 years in the story of the Israelite people, to the time after Joseph, Jacob and all of Josephs brothers had moved to Egypt because of the famine in this area around the Jordan River.  And They and their offspring end up staying in Egypt for 400 years.  And they multiply from the original 70 or so people to over 2 million.  And then God calls Moses to lead his people out from Egypt.  It takes Moses many years to fulfill this call but he eventually does what God has called him do, challenging Pharaoh and leading the new nation of Israel out to the desert toward the promised land.  

The Israelites are called out by God to freedom, and we all know the story.  They get to the desert and almost immediately question their decision to leave their home.  The place they knew.  And they enter a time of temptation.  Their picnic supplies that they brought with them when they left Egypt began to run out, and so they have a very real need for bread and water and lots of it—the lack of which would tempt us all.  So they begin questioning God.  They get impatient with the journey and they even turn to worshipping a golden calf.  They get sick of being in the desert and begin fighting amongst each other, fighting about who should be in charge and how they should go. And so they end up wandering around in circles.  The trek across that wilderness should have lasted 40 days, but instead becomes 40 years.  And so here they are at the end of their journey—they can see the promised land.

Then we heard in the gospel this morning about the time Jesus was tempted in the desert, following his baptism.  For 30 years or so, Jesus has been living at home with his family in a quiet village in Galilee, with his mother and his brothers and sisters.  He is working as a carpenter, a trade he learned from Joseph.  Then apparently it is his time to respond to a call from God.  He goes to the Jordan River where he is baptized by John, he is anointed with the Holy Spirit and immediately is driven to the desert.  There he encounters the same temptations as the Israelites during the Exodus.  Jesus, however, continues to trust God with all of his heart and his life. Period. 

And so what I want you to notice first about these 3 callings by God, of Abraham, the Israelites in Egypt, even Jesus himself, is that the first thing God required as they responded to their call is that they move.  They all were called to change their address.  And the second thing to notice is that their journey in their move required, at the beginning, spending time in the desert.  You know that actually goes for all people called by God to live a life of faith.  

When I first heard the call from God that led me to eventually be a priest, I was practicing law.  It took a couple of years, for me to respond and I eventually left behind that way of life.  And this time of discernment, this was my desert time.  When you start wondering out loud if you are being called to the ministry, people think you are crazy.  Even my family.  Along the same lines of Abraham telling Sarah we are moving and having a child in our 70’s but I don’t know where—but let’s do it.  This time in your response to a call, when you are walking but not yet there, is a walk through the wilderness with no mountains in view, no promised land.  Just this sense, this hope that you are moving in the right direction.  And it is not a time of light.  It actually initially feels more like a time of darkness, deep fog, wandering around in circles.  Looking back I now see it was my time in the desert.  Yet there were signs of encouragement along the way.  My prayers got deeper.  I kept looking for God in his word.  I attended church as much as possible and went to Bible Studies and seminars and retreats.  I also expanded my personal ministries.   I looked for God’s hand and work in my interactions, in the events of the day.

What would my faith require?  I did not realize it at the outset, but I was beginning a several-year period of discernment and pruning that would include my entire life, my work, my family, my home, my pets.  Every bit of it was called on by God.  It meant giving up old ways of doing things.  A change of address, a change of pastimes, a change of friends and colleagues, a change of work.  And many, many times I was tempted by my heart and by other people and by circumstances to abandon my call.  

As Christians we actually all are called to leave our old way of living and to instead live with God.  We all will spend some time in the desert.  God knows we need to, because in the desert our faith in God is strengthened.  When we are called by God to live a life of faith, we become sojourners, just like the forerunners of our faith.  Our earthly lives take on a temporary nature as we move toward our eternal home.  And so it is clear to me that God wants us all to spend some of our time in the desert, abiding in him completely and fully, with our bodies, souls and even our thoughts.  And if we have families we are to bring them along, our stuff and our pets, even our loaves of bread and our Yeti water cups.  Because he wants our complete attention, our complete dependence, our entire life with all our accessories.

Jesus in the desert could not see the promised land, but He trusted in God and God’s plan for him.  It is the same for us.  We do not know how our lives and the lives of those we love will work out.  But we are called to take those first steps of faith, which very well may be the first steps into a desert.  But keep looking to the Lord, and He will light our way and bring us home. 

Robin Hinkle is the rector of St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Jasper.