Coming Out of the Desert

Jesus said, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Luke 24.46-47

By Doran Stambaugh

“Charlie Parker had wandered off into the desert in search of a fix.”

These haunting words are from Ken Burns epic 2001 documentary Jazz.

Charlie Parker, also known as “Yardbird” or simply “Bird,” was an American Jazz saxophonist and composer. His talent and influence on the landscape of jazz are unrivaled. It has been said that there are only two forms of jazz, before Charlie Parker and after Charlie Parker.

Early on in his career Parker recalled of his musical inspiration, “I kept thinking there is bound to be something else. I could hear it sometimes but I couldn’t play it.”[1] Eventually, Parker figured out how to play what he heard.

Speaking of this revelation he said, “I realized by using the high notes of the chords as a melodic line, and by the right harmonic progression, I could play what I heard inside me. That’s when I was born.”[2] That’s also when bebop and a whole music revolution was born.

But, like many other artists and musicians, Charlie Parker also struggled mightily with drug and alcohol addiction. In December of 1945, Charlie Parker traveled, by train, with a group of musicians, including trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie, from Chicago to California. They had been invited to share this new treasure of bebop at a club in Los Angeles.

In Ken Burns’ documentary, drummer Stan Levey recounts what happened along the way, “When we left Chicago to go to California it was a long trip through the desert and Parker got desperately ill, I mean really really ill. We had to stop for water in the desert. And I look out the window and I see this spot out there . . . and I’m saying, ‘What . . . is that.’ And I look closer and it’s Charles Parker.”

“Dizzy turned to me and he said, ‘What’s that?’ and I said ‘I think it’s your saxophone player.’ So he said, “Go get him.” So I ran out real quick grabbed him, and I said, ‘Where are you going?’ And he said, ‘I gotta get something out here somewhere.’ I said, ‘There’s nothing there,’ and I helped him back into the train.”

The narrator summarizes the story with those haunting words. “Charlie Parker had wandered off into the dessert, in search of a fix.”

It has been said that Parker’s life was a short but blinding flash of genius

Charlie Parker died on March 12, 1955. The coroner who performed his autopsy estimated him to be between 50 and 60 years old. He was 34. (Such was the toll his addictions had taken.)

There is something about that image of Parker, wandering off into the desert in search of a fix, that speaks so universally to the hopelessness of sin.

One of the ironies of sin, is that in the beginning, we do it. But in the end, it does us. At first we choose it. But in the end, we have no choice. We are powerless to not sin. It creates a hopelessness and a helplessness that is impossible to relieve. We wander off into the desert, in search of a fix.

When we sin we destroy ourselves. And if we can’t not sin, we can’t not destroy ourselves! We need help. We can’t actually live on our own strength.

This is the problem. And there is a profound connection between our problem, our predicament, our sin . . . and this season that we celebrate; the resurrection of our Lord.

St. John writes, “You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin” (1 John 3:5). He doesn’t just forgive our sins, HE TAKES THEM AWAY, (“The next day [John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)), that means they’re not there, they are gone. Not just the sins of the past, put also sins of the present and future. The sins that might be, they no longer have to occur. They too can be taken away, that is, they can be prevented from happening; Our Risen Lord has power not only to heal the past, but also to redeem the future.

Before our Lord “appeared,” there was no possible way for a human being to partake of the divine nature. We abandoned that hope when we sinned. But in the fullness of time, the Word became flesh, God became a man, the divine nature was united with human nature in Christ, the new Adam, the new creation.

He suffered and was crucified and died. He was buried, descended to the dead. And as he himself proclaims, “on the third day he rose from the dead.” After teaching this, the Risen Christ, in today’s gospel, immediately continues, “Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be preached in his name to all nations.”


Because this is very good news.


Because now we can at last fulfill the purpose for which we were created to begin with . . . for human beings to become partakers of the divine nature! We are no longer stuck in the old creation which continues to crumble and decay. Now there is a new creation in the risen Christ.

St. John Chrysostom writes, “God has opened the doors of repentance and has granted [every] sinner many means to wash away offenses . . . if the sinner desires.”

What is that thing that ails you, that sin that afflicts you, that habit that has entrapped you? Now is the time to be free of these afflictions! Claim the victory the risen Christ has won for us over every sin, and affliction, even over death itself. This is the season of resurrection, the season to put to death all the old habits, the afflictions of our former lives; there is new life to be had! New hope! New habits! There is freedom and joy in the resurrected Christ, the old has gone, the new has come!

“Everyone who thus hopes, purifies himself as he is pure.” (1 John 3.3). Everyone who hopes in the Risen Christ, lives differently, like him; thinks differently, like him; acts differently, like him. This is who we are united to! He in us and we in him. This is how we are purified; we are able to become partakers of the divine nature of our risen Lord!

Easter has no meaning whatsoever without acknowledging the problem that it solves. Every single one of today’s Easter readings speaks to the problem . . .

“Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19).

“Tremble then and do not sin” (Psalm 4).

“You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin” (1 John 3:5).

Jesus said, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:46-47).

Every single one of these Easter readings speaks to the problem; sin . . . of which the resurrection is the only, magnificent, life-giving, and glorious resolution.

We are no longer fated to wander off into the desert in search of a fix. Christ is risen from the dead. God has transformed the “deserts into pools of water, and dry land into water-springs. He settled the hungry there, and they founded a city to dwell in. “They sowed fields, and planted vineyards, and brought in a fruitful harvest. He blessed them, so that they increased greatly” (Ps. 107:37).

“He has put gladness in our hearts, more than when grain, and wine, and oil increase” (Psalm 4).

This is, indeed, good news. This is what we celebrate not only this day and this season, but every day and every season. Freed from sin and filled with joy, this is what inspires us to rejoice from the heart: Alleluia Christ is Risen. The Lord is Risen indeed, Alleluia!

The Rev. Doran Stambaugh is rector of St. Michael’s by the Sea, Carlsbad, California.

[1] Chasing the Bird: The Life and Legacy of Charlie Parker by Brian Priestley p. 27.

[2] c. 1939 quoted in Masters of Jazz


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