Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Kneeling in the Desert Sands (Mark)

Often, I wish that I could leave my hometown for awhile and stay in seclusion like the early Christian monks did. I would love to have that kind of community; I would love to have that focus and dedication to prayer; I look around, and I wonder why we do all of this stuff, this constant working and consuming and striving vainly after the wind. What for? We spend a lot of time focusing on taking care of decaying bodies, deteriorating houses, riches that fade, and temporal relationships. We spend less time away from it all, training our minds on more eternal things. In the midst of thinking about all this, I wonder: what does it mean that John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness?

Looking At Mark 1:2-9: (Part 3 of 4)
"As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, 'Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'" John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, 'After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.' In those days Jesus came..."
-Mark 1:2-9 (ESV)
St. Luke wrote in his gospel that, from an early time, John the Baptist "was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel" (Luke 1:80). So we can expect that when John eventually made a public appearance, he would go to the cities, right? Nope. John sought Yahweh in the desert and then fervently called the People of Israel to join him there. In doing so, he kicked off a national revival and became the hardcore, spiritual ascetic inspiration of the later Desert Fathers. But why is it so important that John is connected with the desert (wilderness)? At least four reasons:

Desert Thoughts and Deep Reflection
REFLECTION: When you're left alone, you think a lot. And you have time. Following John into the desert, Israel's sons and daughters could finally confront themselves and their own sin. They could leave behind their concerns of health, wealth, and home, and were freed up to think about more important and lasting things like preparing to come face to face with their God. In the desert their jobs didn't matter. Their house was not important. It was all going to be forgotten in forty to fifty years anyway, when they would like all other people eventually die. Realizing this, that it is foolish to focus on riches and clothes that moth and rust destroy, they were brought closer to God and gained a new desire to know Him. To learn from someone like John the Baptist, we have to imitate him. If we want what he had, then we've got to do what he did. What would it look like for modern people like us to go tenting alone in the wilderness? How could you get some seclusion for a week of reflection? It's worth thinking about.

That Burning Bush Moment Happens
COMMUNION: God often appears to people in the Bible after long periods in the wilderness: Moses, for example, spent forty years in the wilderness (before leading Israel out of Egypt) before the Burning Bush incident in the Book of Exodus. The ancient Desert Father, St. Antony, also disciplined himself through desert living before God appeared to him. It might not be that you have dreams and visions after spending time in solitude (but you might!), though it can still be true that your reflection will lead to communion--meaning that as you reflect on your sin, and God's goodness, and the futility of worldy things, and the value of heavenly things, that you will experience a heightened sense of the Spirit of God within you guiding and speaking to your heart. In order to have communion with God, often we need to go and be alone. Really alone. And we need to pause for reflection and ignore the distractions of the world around us. And when we do, often we will find ourselves more able to hear the voice of God.

With Solitude Comes Many Troubles
TRIBULATION: Like St. Antony found out, and Jesus before him, and the Israelites before either of them, attempting life in the wilderness or in seclusion is hard. On paper it's easy: "Fast two days. Pray to God. Memorize 2 Timothy." When we realize that the Devil prowls around like a roaring lion and looks for people to devour, the situation gets difficult. The Israelites were tempted to sleep with non-Jewish women and worship false gods (Numbers 25); Jesus was tempted to abandon His fast and satisfy His own hunger (Matthew 4:1-4); St. Antony was attacked by Satan, who "raised a dust of debate" within his mind to lure him away from his discipline, and then followed up with all kinds of temptations and torments (Athanasius, Life of St. Antony, 5). When we get separated from the world that ails us, we also become separated from the friends that encourage us, and Satan becomes more interested at taking advantage of the latter so that we will lose out on the benefits of the former. Anger, lust, pride, sloth, distraction; all of these are real temptations that we can face in greater measure while secluded and away from our homes. How can we turn this to our advantage? By conquering these trials. Overcoming temptation is a lot like trying to beat your bench press: once you've got it done, you come out stronger. These trials are like our spiritual exercise.

The Hard Discipline of the Soul
PREPARATION: All of this battling with Satan (by the help of the Spirit) makes us stronger, more capable of representing God to the world. But the point isn't just spiritual strength for its own sake--the point is to prepare to meet God. Time spent in solitude is time spent in anticipation. One day we will stand before our Maker, give an account of the things that we've done, and either we'll be told well done good and faithful servant or we will be really embarrassed about the things that we have done. Solitude is the time that we get our mind right so that we can get our actions right, because we have to think about eternity before we can act on it. That's what John the Baptist invited people to do. That's what the Desert Fathers did. It's still a good idea today. There's a reason why John came preaching in the wilderness to prepare a people for God.

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