Decisions In The Wilderness
Text - Mark 1:29-39
At around 4:00 or 4:30 A.M., without disturbing anybody else in the house, he got up, pulled some extra clothing around him for warmth, and went out beyond the edge of town to what the RSV calls “a lonely place.”
That translation, however, does not do full justice to the word heramos. The heramos is not simply an isolated place; it is a place where crucial decisions are made. It is the word often translated “wilderness,” and “wilderness” catches something of the atmosphere of danger and crisis which heramos contains.
It is out in the heramos that John the Baptist calls people to repentance, a turning around, a radical change in direction. He is the one whom the prophet Isaiah had described as “a voice crying in the heramos.”
It was out in the heramos that Jesus had done battle with the Tempter at the outset of his ministry. He had been enticed with three forms of ministry, all of which held more promise of success than the one to which he concluded that the Father was calling him.
It was a battle which he had to fight over and over. On the last night of his life, he fought it until sweat poured down his face. If there was ever a place which could be called heramos, it was the Garden of Gethsemane where the final cost of the ministry he had accepted was clear. “Father if it be possible, let this cup pass from me,” he prayed. “Yet, not my will, but yours be done.”
Between the beginning and the end, he was having to fight the battle again at 4:00 o’clock in the morning in the lonely place, a wilderness, the heramos outside Capernaum.
Get into his situation. The whole town was in a state of excited enthusiasm over him. He had preached like no one they had ever heard. He had brought a resurgence of health and wholeness to people who were crippled up by a variety of physical and mental illnesses. He was the talk of the town and the toast of the town, and they wanted him to stay there and be their teacher and preacher and pastor.
That is how most rabbis lived. They settled down and had a place and a people to whom they were committed. And they developed friendships and a lifestyle closely interwoven with the lives of others, and their ministries permeated the lives of people with the passage of time.
It was a deeply appealing possibility for Jesus. When he went to bed at the end of that tremendous day in Capernaum, he was moved by what had happened. He woke up long before dawn to go out and pray about whether to stay. Simon and others found him there in the heramos and simply reinforced his desire to stay. “Everyone is searching for you,” they said excitedly.
You can almost hear Peter going on as he did on the Mount of Transfiguration, which was another heramos, “It’s good that we are here,” he said. And indeed it was! “Let’s stay.”
What was the alternative there in the wilderness outside Capernaum? The alternative was a very different kind of life, an uncertain life, and it was the one which he believed God meant for him. It was the one he chose.
“Let us go on to the next towns that I may preach there also,” he replied to Peter, “for that is why I came out.”
My dad was a lawyer. In 1934, the year I was born, he went to work in the Mortgage Loan Division of Prudential Insurance Company. He worked for Prudential for fifteen years in Winston-Salem. My brothers and sister and I grew up there. In 1949, the company told him it wanted to promote and move him to their headquarters in Newark.
Dad went out into the heramos, the lonely place of decision making. Actually, it was our living room. I remember sitting there with him for a little while, as he told me what might be involved in moving and in not moving and asked me what I thought.
In the end, he concluded that God meant for him to stay where he was and to launch his own law practice. That is what he did, succeeding, but never, in financial terms, to the extent that he might have with Prudential and never to the extent that his peers did who had gotten a fifteen year start on him.
You can even find yourself in the heramos in the middle of a sermon. Methodist pastor and professor, William Willimon, once got a Sunday evening phone call from an upset parishioner who had been in church that morning with his wife and daughter, Anne, who was home for the weekend from college where she was completing a pharmacy major. Anne had announced at lunch or sometime during the afternoon that she was dropping her major.
The father wanted Willimon to try to talk some sense into Anne’s head. So the pastor called her and asked her how in the world she had come to such a momentous decision when she had already gone so far down the road.
She said, “It was your sermon that started me thinking.” And then she described her experience in the heramos. She said that she had never felt called to a career in pharmacy and that the sermon, which had emphasized the call of God to each person, had brought to memory the satisfying summer she had spent teaching in the church’s literacy program for migrant workers, a summer when she had really felt she was doing what God wanted her to do. She said that after the sermon she had decided to drop pharmacy and move in that direction.
And Willimon admits that he responded by saying, “Now look, Anne, I was just preaching.”
More often than not the heramos is a place where decisions are made which are less dramatic than the ones I have described. They are crucial, nevertheless, because in the making of them we move toward or away from God’s will. In the making of them we make progress or we regress. We gain strength, or we lose strength.
When we are standing in the interval between the calling of the question and the taking of the vote on the complicated or controversial issue, and we are trying to decide which way to vote, we are in a lonely place where it is often very difficult to know which way to go.
When you are trying to keep peace in your family, but you feel that God is leading you to express a feeling or raise a question which is likely to ignite anger, you are in that wilderness place where battles are won and lost.
When fifteen-year-old Lisa sat cross-legged on the bed staring at nothing and told her friend, Tracy, that she was so unhappy she wouldn’t really care if she died, Tracy was suddenly in the heramos. On the one hand she wanted to give her friend a pep talk and tell her that everything was going to be okay. It worried her when Lisa was like this. But a more compelling voice drew her in the direction of a more difficult alternative, the alternative of listening and saying very little.
One of the reasons conscientious people sometimes avoid communion is that they correctly recognize that participation in it puts a person in a lonely place, a tempting place, a wilderness place, the heramos. You sit there with that little piece of bread in your hand and you know you are at a point of decision. You are either going to eat it and be grateful for Christ’s atoning sacrifice and the blessed forgiveness purchased thereby for you, or you are going to eat it, remembering that, but also accepting Christ’s call to you to die with him. I mean that is what it is like to give up a resentment, to be the first one to say, “I’m sorry,” to congratulate the winner of the prize you had so coveted. It feels like death. “I’ll die before I’ll congratulate him.”
When you hold the cup to your lips and tip it back, you are in the heramos. You cannot avoid, except by mindless participation, the making of a decision. You either let the sweet refreshment take you into joyful reflection upon the victory of our risen Lord, or you let it take you to something more dynamic – new life in the power of that victory. And by that I mean specific things: speech that has more hope in it and less despair, work that is accompanied more by deep breaths and less by long sighs, physical expression of affection which arises more out of love and less out of duty, courses of action on all fronts which are influenced more by God and less by the Tempter.
In his book, Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life, Henri Nouwen has this to say in reflection on Jesus’ rendezvous with his Father at 4:30 A.M. in the heramos outside Capernaum: …the secret of Jesus’ ministry is hidden in that lonely place where he went to pray…. In the lonely place Jesus finds courage to follow God’s will and not his own; to speak God’s words and not his own; to do God’s work and not his own.
You do not really have that option, because you are not Jesus. Your words and your deeds will always be your own. But you can accept that fact and still live with decisiveness and courage if you believe that in every heramos of life, in every lonely and tempting place . . . you are, in fact, not alone.
Lord, we are all making decisions day by day, week by week, year by year.
We are making decisions about how much of our free time to spend on ourselves and how much to spend in service to others through our church and community organizations.
We are making decisions about how much to intervene and how much to remain detached from the problems of persons whom we love.
We are making decisions about how much to let our political commitments be influenced by what we know of your will and how much to let them be influenced by our own natural proclivities.
We are making decisions about whether we will keep on doing the work that is ours to do day by day or whether we will change course and do something else.
We are making decisions about how we will manage our spiritual lives and our sexual lives and our social lives.
It both encourages us and makes us uneasy to know that we are not alone in this decision making. It encourages us because we know that even if we make decisions which turn out to be unwise, you are still our strong companion as we recollect ourselves and move on.
But your presence in our lives intimidates us because we know that you are looking for us to reflect, as best we can, your will and your way in the decisions we make. And that often pulls us in directions contrary to ways we want to go. We know that in some, very specific instances, you are calling us to do or say things we would rather die than say or do and are calling us to stop doing things we would rather die than stop doing.
The only problem is that we know the way to fullness of life lies in our being willing to accept when necessary the death to which you are calling us.
Grant, dear God, that, as we join in our ritual of communion, we may embrace you more completely with our hearts that we may enter more fully into the deep joy you have in store for those who love and follow you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
J. Harold McKeithen, Jr., Minister
Hidenwood Presbyterian Church, Newport News, Virginia