Way of Love Sermon for Lent 2, Pray
The Wild Prayer of Lent
By Whitney Rice
If wilderness is the landscape of Lent, then prayer is the road that takes us there.
We live in a blind and busy city most of the time, a crowded confine of social norms, work and family obligations, and a general “business as usual” status quo. It can be difficult to sustain a dedicated prayer life in the chaotic swirl of trying to keep up with our calendars, care for our dear ones, and cope with the unsettled tension of our common life. The great gift of Lent is the call into the wilderness. It is an invitation to let the dust of daily life settle, and the graced silence of the desert begin to soothe and open our weary hearts.
But the wilderness cannot invade the city. It can’t come knock on our doors and drag us out into an encounter with the Holy. We have to say yes. And the way we say yes is by daily renewed faithfulness to prayer.
Abram knew this—we glimpse his prayer life in our lesson from Genesis today. He prayed to God out in the wilderness, lifting up his needs and desires and hopes with simple trust. And God made the covenant with him that would change not just his life but the destiny of humanity.
But there was an important middle step that is easy to skip over. Abram, falling asleep before his offering in the desert night, suddenly found his outer wilderness echoed by a cavernous and frightening inner wilderness. “As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.”
This is the reality of Lenten prayer that we might shy away from. If we allow the themes of repentance and mortality, sin and death, sacrifice and redemption, a road to resurrection that leads inexorably through the Cross, start to actually penetrate our hearts, we may find that we are in an undiscovered and thoroughly uncomfortable country.
Our psalmist knows what this feels like. In Psalm 27 we read of evildoers coming upon us to eat up our flesh, of war rising up, of an army encamping against us. Although most of us do not face those circumstances literally, the daily burdens of grief, uncertainty, economic hardship, and conflicts both personal and national often leave us feeling like we are surrounded by threatening forces.
But our psalmist knows that prayer and relationship with God are where we find peace in the midst of the turmoil. “For in the day of trouble he shall keep me safe in his shelter; he shall hide me in the secrecy of his dwelling and set me high upon a rock. Even now he lifts up my head above my enemies round about me.” The daily discipline of prayer, of deliberately entering our inner wilderness to search for God, is our touchstone of peace and silence away from the noise and crisis that all too easily seem to fill our days.
We all face different wildernesses. For some, it is the stress and worry of caregiving. For others, it is unrelenting pressure at work. Some feel lost in a wilderness of grief and loss. And for others, the desolate desert is addiction. Substances or behaviors can take over our lives until we are alienated from everyone we hold dear and are watching our lives slip away. Paul speaks of those for whom “their god is the belly,” and calls this “the body of our humiliation.” It’s such an apt description. The shame and stigma of addiction causes people to hide their struggles and deny the need for help, support, and treatment. Addiction feels exactly like “the body of our humiliation” in which we are trapped and imprisoned. And the desert grows ever more lonely.
But Paul states that it is exactly in the heart of our wilderness, addiction or otherwise, that we will find transformation. “[Christ] will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.” Paul knows how hard it is to hang in there when the wilderness seems empty—empty of God and empty of hope. It’s so much easier to give up on this thing we call our “prayer life,” and go back to the noise and comfort of the city. In the culture we inhabit, there is no shortage of distractions and pastimes to cover up our pain.
But we long for something more. We sense that God’s dream for our lives is more than numbing our suffering and hiding from true encounter with God and each other. The root word for the term “Lent” means spring, and even in the midst of our winter both literal and spiritual, there is a sap beginning to stir. A tiny spark of the Holy Spirit that no hardship can quench is burning brighter and brighter. There is more—more to our story as individuals and as a community. And we sense the promise so strongly that we’re brave enough to walk into the wilderness of prayer to find it.
The question we have to tackle is whether or not we’re really prepared to find Jesus out there in the wilderness. Are we ready to stumble across him in his own desert devotion? He sought out lonely and wild places in his own need for prayer and dedicated time with his Father, and in the lonely and wild places of our hearts, we will find him.
In our gospel today, Jesus says, “And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'” Notice that he does not say, “I will not arrive until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” He says, “You will not see me until the time comes when you say, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'”
Who is the “one who comes in the name of the Lord”? Well, for us, it’s Jesus, of course. But it could be seen more broadly as any messenger of God, anyone who bears a story or an idea or a truth we need to hear. And we like to decide who is worthy of bearing that title, “the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” We like our messengers from God to look like us, talk like us, have about the same amount of money as we do, and not make us too uncomfortable.
But the reality is that the messages we most need to hear will most likely come from people who make us uncomfortable, either by what they say or what they look like. And Jesus tells us up front in this gospel that unless and until we are willing to see all people as potential messengers of God, we will be blind. Part of why we commit to pray as part of our Way of Love is that prayer is God’s best chance to get at us and change our hearts. And changing our hearts is the whole point of Lent.
We need some heart-change in order for our eyes to be opened to everyone we encounter as a potential prophet or an aspiring angel, a bearer of the very image of God. “And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,’” Jesus says. If we would see Jesus, we need to ask the Holy Spirit to bring a prayer of blessing and greeting to our lips every time we meet a neighbor or a stranger. And we know in our hearts that the people we call strangers are only neighbors we fear.
Prayer in Lent matters for dwelling intentionally in our own wildernesses, but it also equips us to see and encounter our common deserts, the desolate landscapes of racism and sexism and homophobia and all the ways we “kill the prophets and stone those sent to us” as Jesus says. The seemingly unsolvable travails of our society, the divisions and hurts, the toxic legacies of history that entrap us and weigh us down, will never change on their own. Unless and until we’re willing to walk straight into those frightening wildernesses, the graces of the desert--transformation, covenant, deep encounter with God, and call to new ministry--remain sadly out of our reach.
What is the reward for saying yes to the call of the wilderness, the invitation to prayer that rings through the scriptures in the season of Lent? Our psalmist, on the other side of his own harrowing journey and struggle, exclaims, “What if I had not believed that I should see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!” The wilderness of prayer is the land of the living. It is the land of the Living God, the land of the Living Christ, the land of the Living Spirit. Though the journey may be long, unimaginable grace waits for our discovery in the loneliest and most unexpected places of our inner souls and our outer relationships. Our psalmist gives us heartfelt advice: “O tarry and await the Lord's pleasure; be strong, and he shall comfort your heart; wait patiently for the Lord.” And so: let us pray.