The Judean wilderness where Jesus was tempted by Satan is a desert. Have a look on Google Earth and you will see nothing but the pale sandy contours of hills there, with the relative green of Jerusalem to the west and the glassy surface of the Dead Sea to the east, so dark and still that the view on my screen reflects the image of the clouds back up to the satellite that snapped the photos.
For some people the desert is a kind of paradise. I think this was not the case for Jesus. He did not go into the desert in search of a utopian life. Perhaps he went there to clear his head after the voice from heaven made its proclamation at his baptism (“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased”). He certainly went to the desert to pray, and to rid himself of worldly distractions – a pattern he would follow throughout his short ministry.
The avoidance of worldly distraction must be a part of what drives others into the desert, like a man named John, about whom I read in the paper earlier this week. He moved from New York City to the desert of west Texas in 2007, 30 miles north of the Mexican border, and 60 miles south of the nearest town, where he lives by himself on a small compound he’s been building with his own hands.
John lives off the grid, using solar power for electricity, and to bake bread in a solar oven, and to heat the rainwater he collects for his occasional hot showers, which he greatly enjoys. I suppose it’s the scarcity of water that prevents more frequent showers, and that prompted John to pose this sort of philosophical question: “Do I stink now there is no one here to smell me?”
The Evangelists are silent on whether or not our Lord ever entertained this particular question throughout his forty days in the desert. But if you’ll allow me some poetic license, may I pose it as a question for all of us, here at the beginning of Lent? Do I stink if there is no one around to smell me? Do you?
For a long time the church has had a very clear answer to this question, even though she has seldom phrased either question or answer in this way. Yes, the church has said, you stink, I stink, we all stink together, no matter who is around to smell us. To put it theologically: we are all sinners. The Psalmist, in the great psalm of Lent, puts it this way: “Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, a sinner from my mother’s womb.” That is to say, I stink, even if you are too far away to smell me, and I always have. In case you missed it, that same sentiment was basically the theme of the Great Litany we sang together in procession: We stink, even when there is no one around to smell us! We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord! Perhaps it is this conviction that explains the use of incense in church – I believe there is historical precedent for that point of view.
If you are the type to think this way, you may be casting your mind back to try to account for how the church arrived at this conclusion, and you may be remembering a certain piece of fruit from a certain tree in a certain storied garden many eons ago. If you think this way, you are in good company – many thoughtful thinkers have pinned the special way that we humans stink on Adam, who actually didn’t stink until Eve gave him the forbidden fruit to eat, and although the Book of Genesis, doesn’t mention it, I expect that almost the first thing Eve said to Adam after they both bit into the apple was something like, “Honey, please, you stink, go take a shower or something.”
Saint Paul seems to think along these lines when he explains to the first Christians why they stink so bad (“sin came into the world through one man,” he says). Now, some people think that Saint Paul took this view because he is nothing but a noodge. But this is a wrong-headed impression of the Apostle who was actually a progressive thinker who challenged the status quo, and wrote as eloquently about the prevailing hegemony of the law of love as anyone ever has. Far from being a noodge, Saint Paul did not unwind his thought into the doctrine of original sin. He didn’t spell out the detailed implications of the idea. He didn’t describe a stain on all humanity as a result of the transgression of Adam and Eve. What he doesn’t do is focus on the stink. He takes it for granted that we are stinkers, because this is his experience, not only of others, but of himself. He knows that even if there is no one around to smell him, he still stinks.
But he knows something more important than this, too. He knows that as philosophical questions go, this one is only mildly interesting, and operates on a misguided premise: that what’s most important is getting in touch with how bad I stink even if there is no one around to smell me, as if mine was the most important odor around.
So, Paul doesn’t get stuck on the stink. He is not generally interested in the details of the odor of human failings, the details of sin. Now and then he brainstorms a list of sins that seem particularly glaring, but when he goes into detail it is only about his own sin, and how impossible it seems to be to escape the smell of it. He is far more interested in the sweet smelling sacrifice of God, the free gift of Jesus’ offering of himself, the abundance of grace that brings righteousness, justification, that brings salvation, and that ushers in the law of love.
Lent is intended by the church to be a time to lead us out into the spiritual desert, to look honestly at ourselves and our lives, our faults, shortcomings, and failures: our sins. It is meant to be a time that we can be alone with our own stench without the frequent showers, skin care products, fragrances, and plug-in air fresheners that so easily mask the truth the rest of the time. It is a time to look at ourselves in the glassy, mirrored surface of the Dead Sea and be honest about what we see, what we smell.
And we start Lent by remembering that when Jesus went into the desert, he had a very different experience than you and me. When Jesus looks into the Dead Sea, he sees something very different from what we see: he does not see his own reflection, he sees down to the deepest depths of death. When Jesus sniffs the air around him, there is no scent of his own sin, there is only the smell of cactus and sand, and the salty aroma of the Dead Sea.
And we remember that in the desert Jesus has a run-in with the same force that tempted Adam and Eve with that fruit all those years ago. And although he is tempted, Jesus does not sin, he does not take what is being offered as though it was somehow better than what God had offered him (“This is my Son, the Beloved”).
And Jesus knows that he is not going to be in the desert for ever, he is thinking still of the Jordan River he left behind and that waits for him while he is in the desert. And he intends to lead us to that river, because, yes, he can smell us even when there is no one else around, and he knows we need it.
No one likes to be told they stink, but the church has insisted on being frank about this, even in an age, when people are just not willing to listen. But not wanting to hear it is not the same as being odor-free. So go find a little desert of your own design some time this Lent; maybe you can find it right in your own room, beside your bed, or at the table, or in a chair that you can sit in quietly and pray, and draw deep breaths, and be honest about yourself, about what you smell.
Ask yourself if the details of that litany we sang are really so far off the mark, even though they are sung with a funny, older accent in church. Ask yourself if you like what you smell, or if you think you could do better. Ask yourself if the law that guides you from day to day is the law of love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
And if you find, from your time in your own desert, that you are wanting, do not decide that as long as no one is around to smell you, as long as no one else knows what you know about yourself, then you don’t really stink. Because this is simply not true, and eventually the wind will shift, and you will remember the truth.
For we live in a world that too often chooses to believe this sad un-truth, that has decided to simply ignore the stench of our own sins, or worse to believe that our sins don’t stink, which is a delusion of a disastrous kind.
"If you go to your own private desert, maybe you will remember part of the psalm:
Your hand was heavy upon me day and night; my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and did not conceal my guilt.
I said, 'I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.'
Then you forgave the guilt of my sin."
Some time in the desert, off the grid, can be a very good thing for the soul. If you find it nowhere else this Lent, find it here on Sundays, or come here once a week in the morning or at noon for an hour in the desert with Jesus, who, you will discover, is leading you closer and closer to the Jordan river, where he will wash you, and then you will smell terrific!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
13 March 2011
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia