Each Wednesday throughout these forty days of Lent we’re sharing devotional excerpts from recent or forthcoming Eerdmans books. Today’s reading comes from N. T. Wright’s The Way of the Lord: Christian Pilgrimage Today.
We hope you will be challenged and uplifted by this selection — and by each of our 2015 Lenten Midweek Readings.
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The road from the Jordan to Jerusalem lies through the desert.
A wise old Jewish writer, about two hundred years before the time of Jesus, put it like this: ‘My child, if you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for temptation.’ Or, as the Gospel writers might see it, after their description of Jesus at his baptism: ‘If you really are filled with the Spirit, you should expect to be led into the wilderness.’
You are never far from the wilderness when you’re in the Promised Land. Just a few miles to the south or south-east, or to the north-east across the Jordan, and you’re out in the desert. When the Israeli soldiers go into that desert, they drink a pint of water every hour just to stay healthy. From the top of the Mount of Olives itself you look west over Jerusalem itself, with its vines and fig trees and other signs of fertile life, and east down to the Dead Sea; and between you and the Dead Sea there is desert, wilderness. The rain comes up from the Mediterranean, falling on the hills of Judaea up to and including Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives. From there on eastwards it’s all dry, except for the occasional storm that sends flash floods down the wadis to the Dead Sea. When you’re in Jerusalem, the wilderness is just over the next hill.
From at least the time of the letter to the Hebrews, the wilderness has been used in Christian writing as an image for the dark side of the spiritual journey. Conversion, baptism, faith — a rich sense of the presence and love of God, of vocation and sonship; and then, the wilderness. If you come to serve the Lord, get ready for the temptation. If you want to go from the Jordan to Jerusalem, get your desert boots on. Nor is this simply like saying that if you want to learn to play Mozart you will have to practise your scales, or that if you want to speak German you will have to learn your irregular verbs. That’s part of it, but it’s much deeper. Christian writers of all sorts, throughout the centuries, have insisted that it is part, a necessary part it seems, of the Christian pilgrimage that at some stage, perhaps at several stages, we shall be called to travel through the wilderness:
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
The wilderness comes in many shapes and sizes, just as the deserts of Judaea and Sinai are by no means uniform. I used to think of deserts as simply miles and miles of flat sands, punctuated by the odd oasis; but the wilderness that surrounds the Promised Land comes in many forms. There are huge crags, like Masada, the last bastion of the revolutionaries after the fall of Jerusalem, an enormous barren rock to the south-west of the Dead Sea. There are gullies and crevasses, great rocky outcrops and hidden valleys. Walk a mile or two off the road and you could get lost quite easily.
The wilderness of the spiritual journey is much like that. For some, it is simply a sense that everything has gone very dry. There is no delight in prayer or reading the scriptures. Going to church has become boring and futile. The sacraments seem a pointless ritual. Where before there was a sense of God’s presence as a loving parent, gently nursing and guiding, or of the wise prompting of the Holy Spirit, there now seems to be a great emptiness. The story of Jesus, once so full of interest and stimulation, the scrap-book of the life of a new best friend, seems dull, and even the story of the cross and resurrection has apparently lost its power to sweep the heart. This is the common experience of many, many Christians at some stage in their pilgrimage. Tragically, some at once conclude that what happened at the Jordan was all a delusion, a passing phase, that there really is no Jerusalem to go on to. Others wander blindly without hope, and stumble by accident — or was it an accident? — back on to the right path. But the way of Christian maturity is to recognize the desert path for what it is — another mile on the road called ‘Faithfulness’ — and to tread it with obedience and patience:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought.
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.