Desert Island Discs is a radio show that premiered on the BBC in the 1940s. The premise was, and is, that a guest is invited to picture living life as a castaway on a desert island. Somehow the castaway would be able to play records, and by choosing eight pieces of music and explaining why he or she had chosen them, the guest would review his or her life. The music, or portions of it, were played as part of the show.
After the music, the guest would be asked what book would be the most desirable to carry along? The host would offer a complete collection of Shakespeare and a Bible or some other appropriate religious or philosophical book, so the chosen book would be added to that small but full library.
Last, the guests are allowed to choose one luxury item, although it cannot be anything you would be able to use to escape the island or to communicate with the rest of the world. Many, many choose a piano.
The music, the books and the luxury item would be the primary mental resources available to a person alone and deserted.
What could you return to, over and over, without growing tired of the reading or the listening?
What would feed you in a hungry place?
It’s the kind of game I enjoy playing. I can tell you right now that most of my CDs, because that’s what it would be these days, would be musicals, but I’m sure I would include Handel’s Messiah.
And what I would want to play on my luxury piano would be hymns. So if could really have only one book in addition to Shakespeare and the Bible, it would definitely be a hymnal. Since I was a teenager, I’ve sat and played through hymnals, seeking solace and inspiration. I remember scripture better when it’s set to music. And there is something about the four parts being played together that harmonizes not just musically but spiritually.
I like ancient chants as much as I like modern songs, everything from “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” which we sang in Advent, to the lyrical “Lord, You Have Come to the Lakeshore,” which we sang several weeks ago.
Your hymn choices may vary.
I’m sure Jesus’ choices would have.
We often think of Lent as a journey, charting a map of the places Jesus stops along his route from the glory of his Transfiguration on a mountaintop to the grief of his Crucifixion on a hilltop. But in truth, the 40 days of Lent represent his forty days in the wilderness, where the only goal was survival. And further, the 40 days of Lent represent the forty years the Hebrew people spent wandering in the desert, getting nowhere for two generations.
In the Bible, forty means a lot, and those forty days spent going nowhere on the outside represent a huge journey on the inside.
So Jesus spent a lot of days in the wilderness, where the Spirit drove him after his Baptism. Two other gospels tell this story, Matthew and Luke, with a greatly elaborated description of the ways Satan tempted him.
Mark is, by contrast, economical. One verse:
He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. (Mark 1:13, NRSV)
We have to imagine him hungry and thirsty, hot all day and too cold at night. We have to remind ourselves that the wilderness was not the woods of Northern Maine with its black flies and fresh water, but a desert full of scorpions and snakes and scrubby, prickly shrubs, where the little wadis or streams dried up depending on the time of year.
We perhaps can imagine what it’s like to be thirsty, but I’m guessing most of us haven’t ever gone without food for a long period of time. I hear it makes you light-headed, maybe even confused. I know dehydration will do that, too.
And so I wonder what it was like for Jesus, not on day 1 or 2, but on day 23 or 31 or 40. How wretched did he feel? How did he keep his wits about him?
I know how my mind works when I am away from home and disconnected:
• I wonder what they’re doing right now?
• I wonder what the weather is like?
• I wonder what they’re having for dinner? (Maybe this one especially.)
It isn’t much of a leap from those basic questions to memories of other dinners or other Sundays or other rainy or sunny or windy days. These are the garden-variety thoughts and daydreams anyone might have.
They get more serious when the time away is being used to contemplate the future, too, as Jesus must have done on his rather extreme retreat. He was driven into the wilderness by the Spirit, and there he stayed until the time was right to come out and begin declaring the kingdom of God to be at hand. To get from being baptized to declaring a revolutionary message—what desert path did he walk?
Hungry, thirsty, thrown back on whatever he could remember, I wonder if he heard the Psalms in his mind the way you or I might hear a song from the radio or a favorite record? The scriptures we know as the Old Testament were the words he heard whenever he went to worship. Just as we recall snippets of stories or whole verses of hymns, he had his memory verses, too.
Maybe he prayed with the Psalm we read today.
To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me.
Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. (Psalm 25:1-3, NRSV)
Lord, I don’t understand all this. I’m trying to understand. I trust you, but I’m not sure what you want from me. Don’t let the Enemy win me over. Don’t let the Enemy win over me.
Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.
Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. (Psalm 25:4-6, NRSV)
Show me what to do Lord, which path to walk, which direction to take. I’m waiting here, for a lot of days, for all the days it takes. Remember me, and remember that you have promised your steadfast love always. Your truth and your love are the things that save me.
Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O LORD!
Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.
All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees. (Psalm 25:7-10, NRSV)
I’m not really sure, Lord, if I’m good enough to do what you seem to want me to do. I’m not sure I am smart enough, or brave enough, or holy enough. Be with me, for the sake of your promise of love, love that never ends. You teach even sinners how to be good. Teach me. Help me to walk in the path marked out by your unending love.
Maybe he prayed something like that.
Mark gives us a Jesus who feels like a person, not quite God, someone who maybe didn’t know everything all at once, someone who learned as he went along. Last week we met him later in the story, on the mountaintop, where his closest friends heard the same voice from heaven only Jesus heard at his Baptism. But back in Chapter 1, no one else heard it.
Imagine, hearing that voice, and knowing no one else had. As much as we may say we wish God would give us a clearer answer, I’m not sure how ready we really are to hear something so direct, out loud, most of the time. From there he went straight to the wilderness, with only the Desert Island Books his memory could provide as a resource.
We get these forty days of Lent – a lot of days – in which to prepare our hearts and minds for the work of Holy Week and Easter. And I don’t mean arranging the flowers in the sanctuary. No. We have forty days to focus on the meaning of Jesus’ life, and the way the people of his time treated him, and the horror of his death and the nearly immeasurable glory and grace of his Resurrection.
We have forty days to face the ways we respond to temptation – I don’t know about you, but sometimes I give in to it. We have forty days to think about the way we manage to ignore God in our day-to-day lives. We have forty days to confront the wild beasts in our own lives, and forty days to give thanks for the angels who minister to us.
No one can make us do any of it, of course. It’s hard work to confront ourselves. It’s not fun, and it’s not easy, and doing it well won’t necessarily lead to prosperity or popularity. It almost certainly won’t.
I fear I haven’t made it sound appealing.
But why not try it? We don’t have to go hungry or thirsty. But we do have to be willing to go into the desert of the spirit, taking with us the ideas and the memories and the verses and the melodies that remind us what really matters. That’s the way we’ll have Lent together. We’ll pray with the psalms. We’ll bring our hymns and sonnets and family stories and half-remembered scripture verses. We’ll come and bring our Desert Island Books. In the name of the One who went out into the desert himself. Amen.