“The Empty Quarter” “
Jesus Said What?”- Week 1
Rev. Phillip Blackburn
January 12, 2020
Empty places are scary places. If you are a fan of horror movies you will know that almost all of them seek to isolate their protagonist. Victims are placed in empty summer camps, abandoned caves or remote houses. The human mind seems to take emptiness or absence and fill it with the most devilish of things. The Bible was largely composed by people familiar with the vast emptiness of the desert. Small communities were built up around the coasts and rivers of the ancient near east, while the vast deserts that stretched across North Africa and Arabia were seen as places hostile to people. They were empty.
The vast emptiness of the desert is part of the story of Scripture. Over and over the desert functions as a character itself, serving as a location for temptation and miracle, fear and hope. And it is very much the fear of the desert wastes that Jesus plays upon in this passage from Luke. For modern, urban readers in particular, this passage seems almost bizarre. But for the ancients it made all the sense in the world.
To put it simply, for the people of the New Testament, the desert was haunted. Ghosts and demons roamed the waterless regions and people entered those areas at their peril. Empty places have always been scary places. As we find Jesus today he has just been accused of using demonic powers to exorcise a demon. While this might seem oxymoronic to us, in those days people often associated dark powers with supernatural events. Jesus was forced to justify himself and point out, rightly I would say, that demons have little interest in exorcising other demons.
To place a coda on this conversation he talks about the spirit wandering the waterless places, seeking a new home. Eventually, finding its old home, or host, unoccupied it returns in greater force. Thus the person who had been freed from the demon previously now finds themselves in an even more dire predicament.
So now that we have framed up the issue and the context, let’s deal with something about this passage. You are going to hear this passage differently based on whether you believe demons are real or a metaphor. For some of us, the world is populated by good and evil beings and there is an ongoing conflict between the two. This view would take this passage quite literally. For others of us, demons are not literal beings but rather the ancient name for embodied sin, the decisions we make as humans which separate us from God’s love. If you are in that camp, this passage likely sounds like superstition and if you were reading through the Gospel of Luke you would likely chalk it up to that and move along.
So what are we going to do with the passage today? I am not going to take demons literally, although for all I know they are entirely real. Rather I want to talk about Jesus’ greater point here, the problem with emptiness. I have provided you with a copy of Robert Frost’s poem “Desert Places.” The whole poem is there for you. It is winter and the poet walks through a snowy, rural landscape. Barren fields. Animals bedded down. Empty spaces between uninhabited stars. Twice he uses the word loneliness. But he is not scared of all the emptiness around him. The last sentence captures the trouble,
“I have it in me much nearer home To scare myself with my own desert places.”
Hmmm. This is where I want us to enter the story. We are not particularly acquainted with the desert places of the world. We live in a lush, forested Eden here in Arkansas. But the desert places within, now that is something we know.
Frost is talking about what happens inside himself; in the empty places of his life. I can’t define that for him, but I will tell you how I understand a desert place. I understand it as a place in our lives where our faith holds little sway. Further, I believe there are areas like this for all of us. To name a few, they are areas related to our work, our money, our relationships, our sexual practices our entertainments, our prejudices or our bodies. The odds are pretty good I just touched on yours. I am not going to stand here this morning and parse each area of our lives, but I believe quite strongly that all of us have areas of our lives where our faith holds little sway, where not only do we not ask ourselves what Jesus would do in that area, but we actively avoid the question. These are our desert places.
These are what Jesus is speaking to. Lots of us over the course of our lives have made positive changes. We have kicked addictions, altered our behavior, changed our spiritual habits. We have transformed our relationship with money or left jobs which asked things of us that were not right. Hopefully all of us have done this. In short, all of us have exorcised demons large and small. But our ability to keep them out relates directly to what we replaced them with. It’s like the kitchen counter in my house. I clear it off all the time, but that is just so more stuff can be stacked there. Just because I tidied it once doesn’t make it clean.
When Jesus speaks about the demon roaming the wastes and then returning home, this is what he means. He means that the demon was removed, but God never moved in to take its place. The faith of the healed was not changed. Their life remained the same. Their inner state reverted back to its old self and the demon returned.
When Wilfred Thesiger was mapping the Arabian desert in 1947, aka The Empty Quarter, he traveled with five Bedouin companions. He faced an incredibly harsh passage with precious little food or water. He drank 1 pint of water per day. One night, by the campfire, one of his companions spoke of making a journey through the Empty Quarter alone. Thesiger was amazed. He couldn’t believe what he had heard so he asked his friend, “who were your companions?” The man simply answered, “God was my companion.”
Our lives are plagued by the damage wrought by our desert places. When we allow a part of our life to exist outside of our faith we invite the demons and we deceive ourselves if we believe they will not arrive. Jesus makes implicit what the Bedouin made explicit, the only means of surviving the desert places, of journeying safely through that Empty Quarter, is with God as our companion. Amen.