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Around the year 270 AD an Egyptian by the name of Antony unexpectedly lost both of his parents. He was about 18 years old, and his parents had been wealthy landowners. He was left with the estate, living in a city where most of the population was quite poor. Antony was a Christian and the economic disparity troubled him. He was convicted by Jesus’ command to “sell what you have and give to the poor,” so he actually did it. He gave away some of the land to his neighbors, and sold the rest of his parents’ land and possessions, distributing the money to the poor.
At that time in Egypt there would be the occasional hermit who would live at the outskirts of a city and devote themselves to fasting and prayer. Antony sought guidance from these hermits and admired their commitment to seeking God. Antony became quite devout. But after a little while he lost his resolve and had an experience of being tempted by the devil, who was enticing him with the ease of his former life. After rebuking this devil Antony made the connection between this personal struggle and life in the third-century world. He believed that the church was giving in to the temptations of receiving favors and growing power within the Roman Empire.
So he went out into the desert, which there’s plenty of in Egypt. He lived a very simply life, dedicated to prayer, and word spread that this holy man had gone out into the desert to fight with the devil. He would get visitors regularly seeking counsel. After about 20 years of this way of life, some of his friends set out to find him and when they did, tore down the door of his hermitage and asked him to come back to the city. Antony agreed. Antony’s biographer, Athanasius of Alexandria, writing a few years after Antony’s death, wrote that when Antony came back to the city he healed many, purged others of demons and “consoled many who mourned, and others hostile to each other he reconciled in friendship, urging everyone to prefer nothing in the world above the love of Christ.”
A great spiritual revival broke out among the Egyptian church, and thousands committed themselves to the way of Christ. Athanasius writes, “And so, from then on, there were monasteries in the mountains, and the desert was made a city by the monks.”
Antony was not the first to seek God in the desert, but he is remembered in church history as the founder of Christian monasticism. (Info and quotes taken from New Monasticism by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, pp. 44-46)
It is no coincidence that the monastic movement began at a time when the Christian church was rising in prestige and wealth and power within the Roman Empire. Only a few generations later the emperor Constantine would convert to Christianity, further identifying Christian faith with state power.
Theologian Walter Capps has referred to monasticism as the West’s “most powerful and enduring instance of counter-culture.” (The Monastic Impulse, p. 7) The hippies got their start in the 1960’s, but the monastics have been going strong since the 270’s! Others have made the connection between the monastic impulse and the Anabaptist impulse of the 16th century. Seeking an alternative form of life from the dominant culture, more in tune with the Way of Jesus.
It is, once again, the season of Lent. For those of us not living out any monastic vows; for those of us firmly embedded within our culture of vast economic disparity, violence, spiritual hunger, overwhelming noise, clutter, and busyness, the desert calls. Not necessarily a geographical desert, although there’s no reason to rule that out.
Lent is a pre-scheduled, regularly occurring event in the life of the church. Our annual appointment with the desert. An opportunity to declutter, un-busy, and quiet our minds, and our lives, to make space, in order to be better attentive to the voice of God. A voice which will no doubt have a few things to say about our economic and political and spiritual practices.
Throughout Lent we’re going to be focusing on a series of Beatitudes which speak to different aspects of our Lenten journey. Each Sunday a single image will illustrate that beatitude. This Sunday we have a bowl, being poured out. The Beattitude is “Blessed are those who make space.”
When you make space, you’re blessed.
Results may vary. Hearing the voice of God is not guaranteed.
When Jesus went into the desert, it wasn’t the voice of God he heard, but the voice of the devil. Not exactly a spiritual high. Strength depleted after forty days of fasting, all of the usual stuff of life cleared out of the way, Jesus’ trip to the desert involved him facing down the most deep seated temptations residing in his soul.
The devil is tricky, even quoting scripture at one point, which is something to ponder in and of itself.
The devil’s opening line for the temptations is “If you are the Son of God,” which, commentators have noted, is better translated “Since you are the Son of God.” At issue isn’t whether or not Jesus is the Son of God – even the devil is willing to concede that point – but rather what this identity will mean for Jesus.
1. “Since you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
2. “I run things around here. If you bow down to my kind of power, it can all be yours.”
3. “Since you are the Son of God, publicly throw yourself down from the height of the temple, because your Bible says that God will protect you from all harm. Psalm 91.”
The formula the devil offers Jesus, roughly speaking, goes something like this: 1. Fill people’s bellies 2. Seize power 3. Achieve immortality. It’s a formula that’s been tried by numerous messiahs throughout history.
For this temptation story to have integrity, we have to accept that these were actual temptations Jesus wrestled with. We don’t have to believe that there was a personal devilish being sitting on his shoulder saying these things, but that he actually pondered these possibilities and found them enticing. They were real options, even expectations, for how he would use his authority and power.
But he rejects each one, and, as Luke says, the devil departed from him until an opportune time.
1. Rather than set himself up as the provider of everyone’s physical needs, he taught his followers to pray for their own daily bread, and to share their bread with each other.
2. Rather than exercise power after the manner of Rome, he played the role of a servant, and taught his followers to do likewise. Following Jesus was and is completely voluntary, with no compulsion.
3. Rather than seek immortality and consider himself somehow exempt from the sufferings of the world because he was special in God’s sight, he gave himself over to an early brutal death.
This is not much of a formula for saving the world.
Warning: time in the desert could leave one seriously out of step with the norms and expectations of the rest of society.
A major point of the temptations is that Jesus was not locked into playing out a role that others had set for him. The desert provides space to consciously choose, rather than be unconsciously driven by the general flow of things. In some cases, “Go with the flow” might be the devil’s trickiest temptation out there.
Jesus’ 40 days in the desert mirror the 40 years in the desert of the Israelite people. Lent has been very intentionally designed to also be a set of 40 – 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday before Easter, not including the Sundays in between, which are always meant to be little Easters year round.
The Old Testament passage that gets assigned to today is not one of the Israelites in the desert, but a passage that speaks to what they are to do once they have left the desert. Once you have been through the desert and entered a land of abundance, and have everything you need – as much bread as there are stones, how should you live in the promised land? Antony sold all his possessions and made the desert his home, Jesus wandered the countryside and villages dependent on the hospitality of friends and strangers, but what about those who have homes and live and work and serve God in the land of plenty?
To these folks, Deuteronomy commanded that when they had come out of the desert, and settled in the land, and planted seed, and harvested their crops, that they were to take the first pickings of the harvest, the firstfruits, and put them in a basket and take them to the priest, and lay them down before the altar. And then, they were to recite the story about where they had come from so that they would always remember. And this is what they would say:
Deuteronomy 26:5-10: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. 6 When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, 7 we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8 The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; 9 and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.”
And after reciting this, the person or family would bow down to God, and then they would have a party, right there with the priest, with the food in the basket serving as the meal. So it was really a picnic basket that they had packed. And they were to eat the meal with the priest, who had no land to produce a meal of his own, and also with the immigrants, who had no land to produce a meal of their own.
And then every three years they were all to take ten percent of that year’s harvest, a tithe, and bring it to their town square, and all of the groups of people who had no means of production of their own – the priests, the immigrants, the orphans, the widows (this was a patriarchal society so orphans and widows were without a provider) – all these groups would come and eat their fill and take what they needed. And, because the Israelites keep this memory of being a desert people, of being a formerly enslaved people, an immigrant people, they were to make space among themselves, open up their lives in this way.
The modern day equivalent here might be every three years everybody in Cincinnati taking 10% of the furniture in their house, 10% of the food in their freezers and refrigerators, and 10% of their bank account, and we stack all of it up down at Fountain Square, and anyone who needs a bed, or a meal, or cash to pay off debt, would have access. Every three years.
This is a case in which biblical literalism would produce a fairly liberal social policy. It was a way of making space in their economic lives to re-level the playing field in some ways, and to remember that none of this stuff was theirs in the first place, but is all a gift from God.
So, on this first Sunday of Lent, when we look for practical ways to make space in our lives for the voice of the Spirit, I have given you three completely impractical examples of how this has been done in the past.
1. Sell all you have and move to the desert like Antony
2. Face down the devil and defeat it with a perfect comeback line like Jesus
3. Flood Fountain Square with 10% of your wealth like the ancient Israelites
Maybe the feeling that you have to do something extreme in order to do anything of worth is a another one of those devilish temptations. Paralyzing us from clearing out any space at all.
So, in closing, rather than getting stuck in the all or nothing mentality, here are three things that Antony, Jesus, and the children of Israel might have to say to us.
1. Antony might say – Be counter-cultural. Get in touch in with your inner monk. You know it’s in there, and you know it wants to come out. Try silence, try a walk, try yoga. You might be surprised how natural and freeing it is for you to enter the desert.
2. Jesus might say (how’s this for being completely pretentious) – “Jesus says…” – Lent can be a time to step out of the norms and expectations of the rest of society and test the voices inside your head directing your life. Where, exactly, are those voices coming from?
3. The children of Israel might say – For starters, try this for a tithe – if you work 40 hours a week, then let the first four hours of the week, the firstfruits of your work, be an offering. And if you’re giving away 10% of your income, then the wages earned during those first hours aren’t for you at all. Be mindful of this while you work. A side benefit is that this could even provide a little extra motivation to get out of bed on a Monday morning.
Lent is here: Blessed are those who make space.