Long before I had any notion I would become a minister, I volunteered on a project with one. This pastor was a dynamo—full of energy, ideas, ambition to accomplish wonderful things for God and God’s people. This person was someone we would call a force of nature.
I remember being simultaneously impressed and concerned by this. They certainly got a lot done and on many fronts. But I regularly found myself wondering where in their hectic life they made room to listen, really listen for the still small voice of God.
Many years later, I was introduced to a term that sums up this approach, this way of doing FOR God but not WITH God. It’s called functional atheism. By the way we function, we leave God out so consistently that it’s as if God doesn’t exist.
Functional atheists say to God “It’s OK. I’ll handle this.” Functional atheists do our doing without pausing to draw energy and strength from the Living God. We do our doing without attuning ourselves to God’s timing, direction, encouragement, and vision.
Funny how we do this to God but not to those who exist to help us live our best lives. We would never say to our dentist, “I’ve gotten fillings before. I know what’s what. I’ll take it from here.” Nor would we dream of saying to our mechanic “I looked at the owner’s manual. You go fishing while I put in the new transmission.”
I’m being silly, of course. But my point is this: God did not create us to exist apart from God. God made us to enter into a love relationship with God. And from this love minister together to a hurting world.
As Robin Meyers has been saying throughout the book some of us have been reading, faith is not about believing certain things. Nor is it about endorsing certain Judeo-Christian values. No, faith is trusting God. And trusting God grows out of a lived relationship with God.
One of the things I most love about Jesus is his capacity to actively, ongoingly trust God. His last week in Jerusalem, especially, is a testament to a faith that relied not on ideas or precepts but on a real, immediate connection with God. A God present to Jesus even as betrayal and death loomed large.
If we follow the thread of the trusting relationship that runs through Jesus’ life and especially through his final days and hours, we find ourselves at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
Freshly baptized, Jesus knows—and trusts—that this is not the time to rush off to begin being the Messiah. His instinct, his impulse is to go into the wilderness to commune with and listen to God—and at length.
Instead of assuming he knows what God has in mind for him, instead of jumping to conclusions or second-guessing God, Jesus opts to go away and grow quiet.
Jesus does this not for a few hours or a long week-end but for forty days and nights. This so that he can take into himself and be shaped by what God has just announced at the Jordan: “You are my beloved, I am well pleased with you.”
It’s unconventional but not unreasonable to say that Jesus took a sabbatical before his ministry began. He gave himself over to a time of deep noticing, deep listening, deep attending to the presence and power of God. As Jesus did this, he found himself wrestling with what scripture calls the Tempter, which is any force—within or beyond us—that insists it knows better than God what’s what.
This extended time in the wilderness, this pre-ministry sabbatical, would ground and guide Jesus. This season of solitude, prayer, and discernment would create an unshakable bond with the Holy One. This time apart would open a space in Jesus that only God could possibly fill, a place that would steady him when storms threatened and which would remind him of who he was even when his closest friend would say, as Peter did soon after Jesus’ arrest, “Jesus? I don’t know the guy.”
Beginning next Sunday I will be stepping away for four weeks. This is not a vacation or a month-long reprieve from my pastoral responsibilities.
This sabbatical, this time in the wilderness within is not a retreat from life. If anything, it’s an advance, an entry into the life I miss when I am busy and distracted. Taken from the word sabbath, a day devoted to God, sabbaticals are necessary for an active partnership with God. They’re foundational to faithful ministry.
While I am away, I will whittle my distractions down to as few as possible. I will do my best to give myself over to the kind of holy listening, the kind of spiritual attentiveness that came so easily to Jesus.
Although I bear very little resemblance to Jesus, like him I trust silence and simplicity. Like Jesus, I am drawn to it and know this is where God can most reliably be found.
And so, as I’ve said, for the next four weeks I will do my best to be present with God. I will do what I can to divest myself of busyness and noise to listen, notice, reckon and even wrestle with whatever arises. So that I might, like Jesus did, step out of the wilderness and back into the world grounded in my God-blessed identity, rooted in faith borne of trust in God.
This is what I intend to do. It’s also what I am asking you to do.
Do not give into the temptation of thinking of this sabbatical as mine alone. Do not imagine that what you are doing is simply waiting for me to reunite with you in late October.
It’s understandable that you might think this way. But that’s neither faithful nor fair. We are on this journey together. This sabbatical is yours, too. Which is why I am urging you to seize the opportunity to sit with God more often and at length, just as I will be doing.
In the coming weeks, reduce your distractions, simplify life. Open the doors and windows of your hearts, minds, and souls so that—just as Jesus did—the winds and whispers of the Spirit can come to form and inform you.
Enter these four weeks with intention and ears attuned so that you, like Jesus, might emerge from this wilderness time ready to set out on God’s mission of love with greater clarity and conviction.
Freshly baptized, newly named and claimed, Jesus wisely recognized that he stood at a crossroads. He could resume being his cousin John’s disciple. He could circle back to Nazareth to resume his carpentry and care for his aging mother. Or he could step into the wilderness, into the unknown to plumb the depths of his God-blessed identity, his calling, and his relationship with God.
We too are at a crossroads. We’re not wet behind the ears like Jesus at the Jordan but certainly like him, we have been named and claimed, we too have been called into being to be a blessing in this place and time. Not FOR God but rather WITH God.
And so we all share in this sabbatical time. A four-week season to seek God and soak in God. A time to sit with God so that individually and together we might come into a richer, fuller sense of who God is, who God has created us to be, and who we are called to serve (and how).
Your sabbatical time will differ from mine in some obvious ways. You will continue to gather online for worship. You will be the church as you go to the Women’s March next Saturday, as you meet at the Loncars the following week to tidy up Spring Creek Road, and then revel in one another’s company afterward. You will be the church as day by day, week by week, you receive and share the gifts that God lavishes upon you.
Remember: You are not just waiting for my return. You are being given an opportunity to enter your own wildernesses. Your sabbatical is just as vital as mine.
So that you might be supported in your sabbatical, I will soon be providing you with simple resources. Then when I return, we will gather to share with one another the fruits of our sustained time communing with and listening deeply to God.
Jesus went into the wilderness carrying questions about who he was and whose he was. He carried questions about his distinctive calling and who he was being asked to serve and how.
These are questions every person of faith, every community of faith, must ask. Not once, not in a rush, not apart from God. But repeatedly and at length.
If Jesus teaches us anything it’s that the wilderness is not a place we retreat to so that we can escape the world and ourselves. The wilderness is where we go to learn who we are, whose, and what God is asking of us.
I have no idea what I will find in the wilderness, just as you cannot know what you will discover. But I trust that God will rush toward us and keep good company with us, that we will be helped to listen deeply and well, and that God will regather us in late October with a keener sense of God, ourselves, our neighbors, and our shared calling in a world that has need of what God has given us—uniquely—to share.
Our wilderness sojourn awaits, friends. So Godspeed and blessings as we go. Godspeed and blessings.
Even now, the angels who so graciously attended to Jesus while he was in the wilderness are preparing to welcome and wait on us. Even now, when we may see only risk, God is preparing to give us gift after gift after beautiful gift.