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1 Corinthians 1.10-18

Matthew 14.13-21

Remember that the LORD was baptized by John the Baptist outside the city, in the Jordan (the river that borders Canaan, which the LORD gave to Israel for their inheritance). Then He was led, alone, by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness beyond the Jordan, in the East. After He triumphed over the devil there, He came back out of the wilderness and made His dwelling with us in the city (of Capernaum). (Here is St Matthew’s way of expressing John 1.14!)

John the Baptist was knit to the LORD not just by blood (his mother, Elizabeth, was sister to Anna, the Blessed Virgin’s mother) but by the Spirit also. He was the LORD’s cousin in the flesh, but he was also filled with the LORD’s Holy Spirit even in his mother’s womb. By the LORD’s Holy Spirit, even in Elizabeth’s womb he bore witness to Jesus as the LORD God, and so he taught his mother, even before she gave birth to him, to address the Beloved Virgin as ‘Theotokos,’ ‘Mother of my LORD.’ (Lk 1.43-44)

Thus knit to the LORD, the Forerunner is always going before the LORD, preparing the way for His coming. Remember that it wasn’t until He heard that John had been imprisoned, that the LORD began, there in the city, to preach and to say to those ‘imprisoned,’ as it were, in the city: ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of the Heavens is near’ (Mt 4.12-17), the heavens that were opened at His Baptism in the Jordan. (Mt 3.16) And, He is the King of that Kingdom who became flesh and dwelt among us. As the first Joshua led Israel into the Promised Land beyond the Jordan, so the New Joshua now, in the flesh, in our flesh, begins to lead those who would follow Him into the Kingdom of the Heavens that were opened at the Jordan, which, the LORD taught, was within them; (Lk 17.21) and whose King, the LORD Jesus Christ, our hope of glory, as St Paul tells us, is ‘in you!’ (Col 1.27)

Do you see how the Gospel of Our LORD and Savior reveals another Kingdom, another Land, another Inheritance that is not geographical, not of this world? So also, the Path to this Land is not of this world. It is inward, hidden, of the soul. It—or rather, He—leads those who follow Him into the ‘wilderness’ of their soul and to the tomb of their heart; this is the Bridal Chamber of the LORD’s Tomb, for in the human heart, because of the Incarnation, ‘God is with us!’ He is ‘in the flesh,’ not outside of it. The WORD of the LORD, not as an abstract teaching but as the Son of God incarnate, in the flesh, is near. He Himself is the WORD that is ‘in your mouth and in your heart.’ (Dt 30.14 & Col. 1.27) He Himself is the WORD of Faith that the Church proclaims. (Rm 10.8)

And now in this morning’s Gospel, as we enter the season of the Fast to prepare our souls for beholding the beautiful mystery of the Falling Asleep of the most holy ‘Mother of the LORD,’ the ‘Jerusalem on high who is the Mother of us all’ (Gal 4.26), we see the LORD going out of the city and into the wilderness, the geographical image of death, after hearing of the death of John the Baptist.

We know from the Church’s liturgical prayers that John now goes before the LORD into the nether regions to prepare the captives there for the coming of the LORD even into hell, which is now very near. As John descends into hell and passes out of sight, we see the LORD going into the wilderness, into the narthex of hell, as it were. He goes, it says, by Himself just as He did when He was led by the Spirit ‘out of the city and into the wilderness’ when He rose from the Jordan and began making His way to the opened heavens.

Is it noteworthy that the opened heavens are not seen in the city? They are seen in the wilderness, beyond the Jordan—to the East!—and so beyond the geographical Land of Israel’s Inheritance. Nor are they seen in the earthly Jerusalem, except in the Temple, when the LORD is led like a lamb to the slaughter out of the city to the place of the skull, the place of death, and enters His Sabbath Rest in the tomb in a Garden near the place of the Cross, all outside the city. Only then is the curtain of the earthly temple split in two from top to bottom, as were the heavens at the Jordan, and the Temple of Jerusalem is opened onto the Jerusalem above, the City of God that is in the deep beyond all things in the heavens that were opened in the wilderness beyond the Jordan, in the Kingdom of God that is within you, in the wilderness of our soul, in the mystery of the heart where we are dead because of sin.

To all who follow Him out of the city, out of all the city’s religions, and into the wilderness, as Israel followed Moses out of Egypt, the LORD gives not His Law written on tablets of stone; He gives Himself, the Resurrection and the Life, as their very food and drink. And so it is revealed that the Inheritance the LORD would give to Israel is Himself, the fullness of His own divine Life and Joy. This is the reality, the icon (Heb 10.1) of which the Land of Canaan was but a shadow, a type, a pattern. (Ex 25.9; cf. Ex 24.8-11)

The wilderness outside the city is wild and savage, lifeless, beyond the reach of human governance. But the LORD of Glory has come into the wilderness and shows Himself to be the LORD even of death; for already in the Jordan, already in His Holy Mother’s womb, at the moment of His conception, He entered into our death and began conquering our death by His death. He fills its impenetrable darkness with His Uncreated Light, its terrifying loneliness with the joy of His living presence, making the desert to blossom as a rose, filling ordinary bread and fishes with His blessing so that they become food that satisfies our every desire. Dear faithful, look closely. Can you not see that this is but the visible face of the LORD’s Pascha in which He creates us anew? He creates in us a clean heart, a heart not of stone but of flesh; that is, He raises us from death and puts in us a new and right Spirit—as Ezekiel foretold when we stood inside the LORD’s Tomb on the evening of Great and Holy Friday.

And, it says, the crowds came out of the city, into the wilderness, seeking Him. They found Him not in the city but in the wilderness, in the mystery of death. And, it says, the LORD, when He saw them, felt visceral compassion for them. They were ordinary folk like you and me. See how they followed Him not in theory or in imagination but ‘on foot’, that is, in real, concrete obedience to His command to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Him that they might find the true life of their souls in the mystery of the LORD’s Sabbath Rest.

What, then, is the theology of the wilderness? The Psalmist tells us: ‘My soul thirsts for Thee like a parched land! My flesh faints for Thee as in a dry and weary land where no water is!’ (Ps 63.1, 143.6) The wilderness is our soul, our inner man bereft of God and His Bread of Life who comes from Heaven. When we are baptized into Christ, He leads us out of the city and into the wilderness of our soul, all the way to the tomb of our heart, as to the tombs of the Gergasene demoniacs. There, He expels the demons from their secret lair in our heart, He restores our soul. He recreates us in our original beauty and goodness, He makes the desert of our soul to rejoice and blossom as the rose (Isa 35.1). Our soul now becomes the fragrant, verdant Garden of Solomon’s Song, refashioned and reshaped in the Image of God that is the natural shape of our heart that is deep, beyond all things.

This morning, when you crossed the threshold and stepped into the narthex of our humble church temple, you mystically, invisibly came out of the city and into the desert where ordinary wood and stones have been blessed to become a visible form of the LORD’s Garden in the opened heavens. Here, ordinary bread and wine are blessed to become the very Body and Blood of the crucified and risen LORD of Glory. With Christ in you, the power of His Spirit is in you to conquer your death by His death, if, having been raised to life in the Font, you follow Him into the wilderness of your soul and take your nourishment in the ‘leaven’ of His Bread in the wilderness, and not in the ‘leaven’ of the bread of the city, and do as He commanded Israel: destroy all the idols polluting the sacred land of your soul, your mind, your body.

This is the invisible reality, the icon (Heb 10.1) that is in our deep heart, given visible form here in the visible Church. If we wish to receive the LORD’s blessed bread and ‘fishes,’ then let’s look inward and ask ourselves: where are we this morning? In our mind, our consciousness, are we in the city of the flesh; nourishing our mind with the values drawn from our own understanding or from the ideologies of the city that hates God? Or, are we in the desert of our soul, nourishing our mind and our souls with the leavened bread of the LORD’s blessed call to repentance?

What about our home? I mean, our physical, geographical home. What sights and sounds are seen and heard in our home; what is the ‘leaven’ that nourishes the bread we eat in our homes, the wisdom of our own opinions, or that of the LORD’s doctrine? Moms and Dads, are you raising your children in the city or in the wilderness where the LORD is so that your home is made to blossom as the rose and your children are shaped by the Rose of the Desert and not by the weeds of the city?

Let each of us examine ourselves: where do I make my mind to dwell: in the values, the wisdom, the memes of the city, or in the inner, unseen movement of prayer going out into the wilderness of my soul, seeking the LORD on the ‘feet’ of His Holy Name?

We can come out of the city as did the Gergesenes and ask the LORD to leave; or, we can come out of the city to sit in His presence in prayer and wait for Him to give Himself to us as our food and drink, so that in the strength of His Cross, we can go back to make our homes into little gardens in the LORD’s wilderness, emptying them of all idols of both sight and sound, so that our earthly life is taken up onto the inner Exodus of the Gospel that goes out of the city and into the wilderness to ascend into the opened heavens and into the Land of our Inheritance, which is the LORD Himself in the Garden of His Resurrection. Amen!