Jesus’ first day on the job as messiah was a rush.
He started working on the Sabbath as rabbis do,
giving the lesson at the synagogue
of the little fishing village of Capernaum.
It was going well enough
-- but then something unexpected happened.
A demon-possessed man charged in disrupting the service.
Everyone was flummoxed.
Then, without thinking, Jesus reflexively took charge.
He commanded the demon to depart – and it did.
Jesus performed a dramatic public exorcism.
Well, that changed everything.
All the things he’d said that got polite nods before
were now thunderbolts of divine truth.
In that small venue,
he suddenly became a rock star of religion.
After things settled down, Jesus and his 4 disciples
went to Peter’s mother-in-law’s house for lunch.
But when they got there she was sick in bed.,
So, Jesus took her by the hand and raised her up
healthy as can be – and she served them.
I have heard a few women say
they’d be more impressed if Jesus had just gone
to the kitchen and fixed his own sandwich.
But he went with the miracle instead
and it was another stroke of PR genius.
One exorcism might have been a fluke.
But this healing proved that Jesus had the touch,
the power of the hour.
They ate and rested through the hot afternoon.
Then at sundown people stated arriving
-- sick people and more demoniacs.
Jesus healed the sick and drove the demons away.
The first demon had surprised Jesus and blown his cover,
called him “the holy one of God.”
But now he was ready for them.
He not only ordered them out,
he ordered them to be silent.
And they were silent.
Talk about power.
The people kept coming until late in the night.
They came in desperate need;
they left whole and happy,
praising Jesus both for his power and his mercy.
When the last one went home, Jesus went to bed.
But he couldn’t sleep.
Like a football player after a big game,
he relived each play in his mind,
reveled in the memory of each healing,
grimaced the recollection of each misstep,
like when he let the first demon tell his secret.
His mind raced.
Even when he finally fell asleep, it wasn’t restful.
The dreams were too real –
and they were like the day had been
-- only bigger, grander.
If he could do this in little Capernaum,
why not Nazareth?
Hey why not Jerusalem? He might even play Rome!
Jesus was experiencing an “inflation.”
His project was blowing up in his imagination
like a huge helium balloon
and his feet were barely touching the ground.
He had brilliant success, an open road of opportunity,
and, what’s more, like the Blues Brothers,
he was on a mission from God.
How important can you get?
Tomorrow, the crowd would be back for more miracles
and to sing his praises all day long.
But then Jesus stepped back a short distance
from his imagination to check in with reality.
He knew where to find reality.
He’d found it there just last week in the desert.
The desert is where he had discerned this mission in the first place,
discerned it in the midst of his hunger, loneliness, and anxiety.
That’s where he’d seen the possibility of glorious success,
then saw through that temptation and rejected it.
Now it was time to go back to the place of hunger, loneliness, and anxiety.
So, Jesus got up before sunrise
while everyone else was still asleep.
He walked through the darkness
into the barren wasteland.
The desert isn’t a place for rest and recuperation.
Quite the contrary.
Thomas Merton wrote:
“. . . (T)he wilderness (was) created
as supremely valuable in the eyes of God
precisely because it had no value in the eyes of men.
The wasteland . . . could never be wasted by men
because it offered them nothing.
There was nothing to attract men . . . . nothing to exploit . . .
The desert was created simply to be itself . . .
The desert is therefore the logical dwelling place
for the man who seeks to be nothing but himself
-- that is to say, a creature, solitary and poor
and dependent on . . . God,
with no great project standing between himself and his Creator.”//
So, Jesus went where being messiah didn’t count for much.
The snakes and the scorpions weren’t impressed.
In the desert, he was just Jesus, a man made of dust.
There was “no great project standing between himself
and his Creator.”
Life can easily turn into one “great project” after another.
When our projects go well, we are become inflated.
When they go badly, we become depressed.
When their success is uncertain, we get anxious.
All along the way, we are obsessed with our projects,
possessed by them,
like the demon possessed peasants of Galilee.
Even when we aren’t focused on a specific project,
we are possessed by a mega-project,
so ever-present, that we just assume its authority,
accepting its demands on us without question.
We call it “our life.”
But it’s really an agenda prescribed by our culture
that tells us how things are supposed to go.
and what we are supposed to do.
That too is a “great project standing between our us and our Creator.”
But in the desert, the cultural definition of success
the social definition of success carries no weight.
A BMW won’t get you over the rough terrain.
You can’t drink a Ph. D.
In the desert, we are just ourselves –
creatures – poor, solitary, depending on God,
neither possessing, nor possessed by, anything.
We can get to the literal geographical desert easily.
Just drive or walk out of town.
But the more important desert is the spiritual one.
We can find it in our souls.
And we have all been there.
We may be driven there when our projects
collapse around our feet.
But, like Jesus, we can also choose to go to the spiritual desert.
We can go there through centering prayer, insight mediation,
fasting, going on retreat, or prayers of repentance.
We can go to the desert without any formal technique
by just spending time alone, doing nothing,
just paying attention.
The next morning the 4 disciples found Jesus out there praying.
What else can you do in the desert?
They said “Master, your fans are all lined up to see you.”
But that didn’t interest him anymore.
He was ready to move on.
He still had his mission.
The project was still there
but it no longer stood between him and his Creator.
Jesus remembered who he was.
We can’t really get rid of our project.
But we can peel it off from time to time
and feel the air on our skin.
That’s the key to reverence, which in secular language
is called sanity.
In the desert, we find our true self,
solitary, poor, and dependent.
But that self, that precious self,
Is the pearl of great price.
To find that treasure,
we have to go to that place in our soul where,
as Merton says,
“we are just ourselves, solitary and poor,
with no great project standing between ourselves and our Creator.