WHY IS THE DESERT A PLACE FOR SPIRITUAL ENCOUNTER?
he other day someone asked me, Bishop, why is the desert a place for spiritual encounter? This question gave me some food for thought. I responded by saying, Well you know the Israelites spent 40 years walking through the desert before they arrived at the Promised Land, a land of milk and honey. This journey was one of purification for them and a preparation to enter and take possession of the land provisioned by God through the promise He made to their ancestors.
Again, after his Baptism from John and before starting his public ministry, Jesus spent 40 days in the desert in prayer and fasting. Why did Jesus go to the desert? He spent 40 days in communication with God through prayer. He fasted from food and relied totally on God for his survival and wellbeing. He also wandered through the desert and experienced the hardships of being hungry, thirsty, hot, cold, dirty, tired, etc. Did he really need to do this?
At the end of the 40 days, Jesus was tempted by the devil offering him power, prosperity and position. Jesus did not give in to these temptations; on the contrary, he carried out his mission to the end. His strong relationship with God the Father that was forged in the desert became the foundation in his life.
We know the desert is a very arid place where hardly anything grows. The lack of water and the high temperatures during the day make it very hard to live in the desert. Occasionally, one might find a lace of rest, an oasis where there would be water and some vegetation growing. Camels are often used for transport in the desert as their bodies have evolved to allow them withstand high temperatures and long periods of time without any external source of water. It is because of its harsh conditions and vast land mass that makes the desert an ideal place for certain people like thieves, terrorists, or even good people who exclude themselves from society like hermits, or people who live as nomads and wonderers. In the Old Testament, David hid in the desert to save his life from King Saul who wanted to kill him. John the Baptist lived and preached in the desert and brought many people to confess their sins and make a commitment to change their lives after a baptism of repentance in the Jordan River. Jesus also chose the desert to prepare himself for his upcoming ministry which would ultimately take him to the Cross and Resurrection.
The desert was the birthplace of the people of God of the first covenant. The Hebrew people who escaped from Egypt as scattered tribes arrived the Promised Land as one nation under God. It was in the desert that they become a people of God by covenant. In the course of their history when their love and faithfulness to God grew cold, the prophets would suggest their return to the desert to rediscover their identity, their vocation and their mission as a way of reawakening their faith and strengthening their covenant relationship with God.
Life can sometimes become like a desert where problems seem to bury us in a sand storm and force us to ask, where we are going to turn to, to find a place of rest. This is a pertinent question. In my faith journey like the Psalmist, I know that "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name's sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff -they comfort me." (Psalm 23:1-4). But this affirmation does not provide the answer to the question. The answer comes I think when we are able to create a desert space in our overcrowded lives where we can be alone daily with God, a time to distance ourselves from the many noises and voices that bombard our lives every day, a time to hear God's word, a time to rediscover who we are before God like Moses, David, John and Jesus. I know many Christian traditions hold this time of lent as a time to fasting from food but an intimate encounter with God in the desert space will reecho what prophet Isaiah explains to us when he insists that fasting without changing our behavior is not pleasing to God. Change in behavior comes with right relationship, "This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own" (Isaiah 58:6-7). The time in the desert space is a time to affirm in the words of St Augustine: "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you." This is why the desert is a place for spiritual encounter. It is the university where God teaches His people and brings them into right relationship with him. In this season of Lent, God wants you in this desert space in order to purify you and bring you into a right relationship with him so you can enjoy the presence, the power and the provisions that such intimacy with him brings or are you still comfortable to continue in your old ways? The choice is yours.