I heard a sermon on the wilderness this morning, as I’m sure many of you in churches that follow the Common Lectionary did as well. As Betty, one of our in care students preached, I began to hear a chorus in my mind that I learned as a child:
My Lord knows the way through the wilderness
All I have to do is follow . . .
I smiled at the memory, and then at the lyric: all I have to do. As though following comes easily, or without consequence.
While the other three gospels let their accounts of Jesus’ life unfold, Mark moves expeditiously. By the fifteenth verse of the first chapter, Jesus has been born, grown up, been baptized by John, and gone out into the wilderness. Read on a couple more verses and he’s called his disciples. By the end of the chapter, he’s already performed several healing miracles. So all Mark has to say about Jesus’ forty days in the desert is:
At once, this same Spirit pushed Jesus out into the wild. For forty wilderness days and nights he was tested by Satan. Wild animals were his companions, and angels took care of him. (The Message)
If his were the only gospel, we would have to lean heavily on our imagination. What made the Holy Spirit “push” Jesus into the desert? How did things change from a spiritual shove to temptation? What was it like for him to be attended to by angels and animals?
For me, the word wilderness – in church context – is connected to two big stories in Scripture. The first concerns the Israelites wandering in the wilderness for forty years after the Exodus; the second is the one we’re considering here. Though the latter telling leans into some of the symbolism of the first, it struck me this afternoon that we are talking about two very different things. Those fleeing Egypt were chasing a promise, but allowed themselves to get derailed because they became, as the King James called them, a “stiff-necked people.” The wilderness had not been on the itinerary in the initial planning. They were so blinded by their self-focus that they wandered around for forty years in Gaza.
In American terms, they spent four decades wandering around Rhode Island. When they finally got to Canaan, they were still whiny.
By Mark’s account, Jesus was in the wilderness almost from the start. He had to go out there to be baptized because that’s where John was. From there, he went farther out into the desert – pushed, impelled, sent, driven by the Spirit of God — to a place we don’t know and he stayed. I wonder if he reflected back on these days when he told Nicodemus we don’t know where the Spirit is coming from or where it is going. Though Satan gets most of the press, Jesus was surrounded mostly by those who cared for him – the angels and animals. When he came back to town, he was truly on a mission from God.
The wilderness is an enduring theme in literature. Time and again, characters go out into nature to try and make sense of what is going on. It happens in almost every Shakespeare play. In The Scarlet Letter, Dimmesdale had to meet Hester and Pearl in the forest before he could come to terms with them and himself. The conflict builds in the city, moves out into the country to find some sort of resolution, and then comes back to town. But I see something different with Jesus. He was not merely tracing the path of his ancestors, or even reframing their experience. Neither is his time in the desert another example of a literary device. It happens at the beginning of the story. Not much has happened. For Jesus, the wilderness was not something to be escaped, as it was for the Israelites, nor was it simply a place to get a little “me” time. Even in Mark’s brief account, Jesus’ time in the wilderness doesn’t seem to be all that relaxing. He went there on purpose and he embraced the wilderness. And, it seems to me, he never let go.
Something I read yesterday came back as I thought about the wilderness this afternoon. Stanley Hauerwas quoted from the L’Arche charter:
L’Arche knows that it cannot welcome everyone who has a mental handicap. It seeks to offer not a solution, but a sign that a society to be fully human must be founded on welcoming the weak and the downtrodden.
Hauerwas then emphasizes:
Notice that L’Arche doesn’t pretend to be a solution. It is a sign of hope. And hope, of course, is the way time is shaped.
Hope doesn’t just take time; hope shapes time. I like that image.
One dictionary I found defined wilderness as, “Something characterized by bewildering vastness, perilousness, or unchecked profusion.” I read that sentence and I think all of life is wilderness: a bewildering vastness.
All I have to do is figure out how to do my job and be the husband I want to be and figure out how to cook for homeless people and go to deacons’ meeting and write letters for Amnesty and keep up with our Kiva loans and write my blog posts and maintain lifelong friendships over too many miles and walk our Schnauzers at night and pray for Darfur and Congo and Iraq and Afghanistan and try to keep up on the news and practice my guitar and read and sleep and lose weight and exercise take out the trash and love kindness and do justice and walk humbly with my God.
John, who gave us the account of Jesus telling Nicodemus that we could not know how the Spirit came and went, says of Jesus, as he prepared to wash the feet of his friends, “Knowing that he had come from God and was going to God,” he began to wash their feet. The trajectory of our journey is circular; we’re not going through the wilderness, we’re going from and to God, even as we live here in the bewildering vastness of both our world and our Creator.