Ars Praedicandi: Listening in the Wilderness

On the first Sunday of Lent, we heard the story of Jesus forty days of temptation in the wilderness. The season of Lent is a wilderness time, traditionally a time for repentance, a time when we come face to face with the evil that is in us and around us. It is a time for self-examination, a time to remember our own mortality and a reminder of our utter need for grace.

Some people give up something for Lent—chocolate, or booze, or some other pleasure. Some people instead take on a discipline or a practice, like daily devotions or acts of mission. Whatever we decide to do, or not to do, it seems to me that the most important thing in these forty days is to listen to what God is saying to us. Usually we think in terms of what we want to say to God—in terms of who, or what we want to pray for. But prayer is just as much about listening as it is about speaking.

Listening to God is not always an easy thing to do. First of all, we have to stop talking, and that doesn’t come naturally for some of us.

Second, we might not like what we hear. Listening to what God has to say might end up meaning that God wants us to change. And that doesn’t come naturally, either.

Third, by listening to God we come to terms with the truth about ourselves. We are selfish at heart. We don’t always want to do the right thing. And even when we do, we can’t always do what God wants us to do or be who God wants us to be.

So no, listening to God is not always an easy thing to do. But here’s the thing: as hard as it might be, it is, at the heart of it all, a gift. It is a gift to be able to tell the truth. It is a relief to stop pretending we have it all together. And in admitting the ways we fall short of what God intends, we admit our need for grace and our deep hunger for God.

C.S. Lewis once said that God invented us the way we invented engines. A car is made to run on gasoline, and wouldn’t run properly on anything else. We were designed to run on God. God is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, the food our spirits were designed to feed on. We may try to satisfy our hunger in other ways—with literal food, or drink, or more stuff, or sex, or success, or any number of pleasures. It’s not that all of that is bad—it’s just not enough. To paraphrase an old song, we’re looking for God in all the wrong places.

The good news is that Jesus gives himself to us to satisfy our deepest hungers. I am the bread of life, he said. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. He is the promise God makes to us; the covenant that began with Noah continues on in Christ.

In his book The Greek Passion, novelist Nikos Kazantzakis writes about a starving group of exiles. They are camped on a mountain, overlooking a village rich with food. Finally, one night a group of men sneaks down to the village to steal some food for their own people. A ladder is there, leading to the storehouses of the richest man in town; they help themselves to corn, oil, and wine, and are never detected.

In the morning, the refugees awaken to the food, spread out before them. None of them knows, of course, about the work of the thieves, and so the news spreads—there has been a miracle! During the night, angels had brought corn and oil and wine to the starving.

The simpler of the folk cross themselves, while the more shrewd glance with smiles at a couple of the men whom they suspect had actually procured the food. But no matter. As Kazantsakis writes, “The women fell upon the corn and at once began to sift it, singing softly as though to lull a baby to sleep, as though they were handling the Child Jesus….In a twinkling they crushed a certain quantity on the stones, fashioned a flat cake and baked it on the embers, moistening it with a little oil to make it more tasty; then they gave everyone a mouthful, sharing it out like [communion bread]; and straightaway they felt comforted in flesh and blood, as though that bread were really the Body of Christ. After that, all drank a drop of wine, and the women could not keep back the tears. ‘O God,’ they sighed, ‘a mouthful of bread, a sip of wine—that’s all that’s needed to make the soul feel it’s growing wings.’”

A mouthful of bread, a sip of wine… sometimes, in the wilderness, that is what we need to keep going, all we need to help us remember that we are not alone, we have never been alone, and never will be.

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