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2/22/2009 - The Last Sunday After the Epiphany - Alexander Webb, Seminarian

posted May 21, 2010, 6:21 PM by Unknown user   [ updated May 21, 2010, 6:22 PM by Terry Brady ]
In the name of the One, Holy, and Undivided Trinity. Amen.

Every year, around this time, a certain question begins to bubble up. Your answer to this question defines how you will live for the next six weeks, and also affects your perceived level of piety. I hear it over and over again, on the street, at lunch tables, and even at our coffee hour last week. The question is simple and familiar: “Are you giving anything up for Lent?”

I have nothing against Lenten disciplines, but this question misses the mark. The purpose of Lent is to draw closer to God. Disciplines are valuable when they deepen our faith, and they are worthless when they don’t.

Lent is a time for people whose faith, like the Christmas Grinch’s heart, is two sizes too small. Lent is our chance to find God in the wilderness of our lives. Biblical characters that brave the wilderness almost always find God before they leave. It was true for Hagar and Jacob, it was true for Moses, and it was true for Jesus. When we allow ourselves to journey in the wilderness, God shows up.

We can see this theme played out in today’s lesson from Second Kings:

Elijah, one of Israel’s most significant prophets, is on a journey with Elisha, his long-time apprentice. As they travel from Gilgal, Elijah announces that God has called him to go to Bethel. He tells Elisha to stay behind, but Elisha refuses, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” His words are as loyal as they are loving. He does not speak as a mere associate, but as if he were Elijah’s own son. His words echo the love of Ruth for Naomi: “Wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you lodge, I will lodge.”

Once Elijah and Elisha arrive in Bethel, the story repeats itself. Elijah is called to Jericho, and Elisha refuses to stay behind. In Jericho, it happens again, and the two set out for the Jordan. If this were an American movie, Willie Nelson would now come out to sing a bit of traveling music:

On the road again,
Goin' places that I've never been,
Seein' things that I may never see again,
And I can't wait to get on the road again.

Our movie’s plot thickens after Elijah and Elisha leave Jericho. There will be no more course corrections, no more attempts to leave Elisha behind. The prophets are about to meet God.

By crossing the Jordan – on dry ground, I might add! – Elijah and Elisha leave the Promised Land. They enter the wilderness. The Israelites walked forty years in this wilderness. God established the law in this wilderness. Moses lived most of his life in this wilderness, and died within sight of the place at which the two prophets now stand.

To the Israelites, this place had all the charm of Mount Crumpit, the Christmas Grinch’s cave, high above Whoville. Like Mount Crumpit, the Israelite’s wilderness was scary, dark, and desolate. The wilderness was far away from the warmth and security of civilization. The wilderness typified what it meant to be radically “other.”

Yet, God waits for the prophets in this barren wasteland. When they arrive, a fiery chariot whisks Elijah into heaven, and Elisha is anointed as the new prophet in Israel’s Northern Kingdom. When the prophets go to the wilderness, God shows up.

So what does this mean for us? If we go to the wilderness, will we meet God?

In short, I believe that we will meet God if we go into the wilderness. But, our wilderness might not look like the prophets’. Elijah and Elisha followed God to the most vulnerable place imaginable. For us, that might not be a physical place.

A spiritual journey is a lot more than taking a walk in the woods. You must be willing to search the depths of your heart. You must be willing to face your sins, name your inadequacies, and stare down your addictions. You must be willing to let God have control of both your path and your destination. Taking a true spiritual journey is a lot harder than giving up chocolate, but its rewards are far greater.

Bethel is not on the way from Gilgal to Jericho. For no apparent reason, God chose to send the prophets on a long, circuitous journey before meeting them in the wilderness. The prophets never knew where they would be sent next, but they never complained. God called, they followed.

Elisha will never return to this wilderness. Yet, it was important for him to go there, just as it is important for us to journey in our own wildernesses. Are we willing to go on the road with Jesus? Are we willing to go places that we’ve never been, and see things that we may never see again? This Lent, will we explore our inmost selves, and acknowledge those things of which we are most ashamed?

On the road again,
Goin' places that I've never been,
Seein' things that I may never see again,
And I can't wait to get on the road again.

Our journeys will get harder as they draw on and as Easter draws nearer, but God is waiting for us at the end. When Elijah and Elisha make it to the wilderness, God takes away the old and anoints the new. God will do the same in our hearts, but not if we don’t follow Jesus to the deepest, most vulnerable parts of our realities.

So, what are you going to give up for Lent? My prayer is that you will give up the security of Whoville for the vulnerability of Mount Crumpit. Jesus has invited you to go on a Lenten journey with him in the wilderness, and God is waiting for you at the end. Your only choice is whether or not you are willing to make the journey. I pray that you are.


1 Ruth 1:16 (New King James Version, repunctuated)
2 “On the Road Again,” lyrics by Willie Nelson, Honeysuckle Rose, 1980.