Wilderness (First Sunday in Lent)

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One of the benefits of my several trips to the Holy Land is that I’ve been made aware of the fact that my image of “wilderness” is very different from what “wilderness” means in the Bible.

As I was growing up, and long into adulthood, I pictured “wilderness” as a wonderful place of forests and streams; mountains and clear skies; and full of the wonder of plants and animals all living together in harmony.

But that’s nothing like the “wilderness” into which the Spirit drove Jesus.  The “wilderness” near the Jordan river is an arid and desolate desert.  It’s full of rocks, and almost devoid of vegetation.  When you get beyond the Jordan, there is no water.  There is no food.  There is no pretty scenery.  And Jesus is alone in the midst of all of this.

As I was growing up, and even today, I experience “wilderness” in comfort and safety.  Almost all of my excursions into “wilderness” happen in national parks, where I’m in my car, and traveling along roads carefully maintained by the Park Service.  These days, it’s even common to have cell signal and the GPS works!  And even when I’ve been in the Jordan wilderness of which the Gospels speak, I’ve been in a comfortable, air-conditioned bus with plenty of bottled water in the cooler!

But that’s not the way people in the Bible experienced “wilderness”. The wilderness was full of danger – Jesus was with the “wild beasts” which included lions, scorpions and poisonous snakes which were all over the place.  There was no refuge from the heat.  And there was no help if you got in trouble.  Being in the wilderness was scary and dangerous, not a fun part of vacation.

As I was growing up, and even today, “wilderness” is for me a very temporary place to visit.  I always know how far I can go and still be back in some semblance of civilization by the end of a day or two. 

But the “wilderness” the Bible speaks of could be a place where you got stuck.  Or you got lost.  Or, even if you knew where you were, you had a long journey to walk out.  And that could take days or weeks.  Jesus, Mark says, was in the wilderness 40 days – it wasn’t a short trip.

I have not been taking trips lately.  In what would ordinarily be unimaginable for me, I’ve now not even left Maryland in the last 12 months!  But I am feeling, even at home, like I’m in a kind of wilderness like the one Jesus entered.

This time of Covid has been a kind of “wilderness” for me, and maybe for you also, because it’s been a time of:

  • Isolation – I’ve felt like nobody is around!  Of course, I see people every day, but not nearly as close up or in the numbers that I used to.  Wilderness, for Jesus, was a place where he was mostly alone.  And often, the most difficult “wildernesses” in our lives are those times and places where we feel most isolated and cut off from others …
  • Danger – every day, as we put on masks to be around others, we’re reminded that there really is risk of picking up the virus, or spreading it to vulnerable people.  Of course, there are always dangers in our lives, even without a pandemic.  But sometimes, when you’re in a “wilderness” moment, you recognize the reality of the threats that exist around you, when you might not have in other moments.  Jesus, it seems, managed the threats and dangers of the wilderness, but that surely was at least in part because, in the wilderness, he was aware of them and knew to look out for them…
  • Feeling stuck – Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days; and we’ve been in this one for almost a year!  But it’s not clear that Jesus knew – or even had a plan – for how long his wilderness experience would last.  He simply endured it until it was done.  We all want to know how much longer this will last, and it feels like it might help us to endure it if we knew for certain when we’d be done with this.  But those answers aren’t really available.

So as I reflect on what “wilderness” really is – and as I feel like we’re in a wilderness moment right now – here’s what I think we can learn and how we can find hope in Jesus’ wilderness experience.

Jesus’ wilderness experience shows us that:

  • We actually aren’t alone, even in the wildernesses of our lives – Jesus knew God was with him, even in the wilderness (a place many envisioned as only the haunt of demons); and even in his isolation, Jesus had the “angels”.  That probably doesn’t mean constant companionship, but it does mean that at specific moments, Jesus was reminded that he hadn’t been abandoned.  And that makes me more aware of the “angels” that have been present in my life, and how God calls me to be an “angel” in the lives of others…;  Sometimes it takes a wilderness experience for God to show us that we’re not alone and abandoned, even in our most isolated moments.
  • We can and should rely on God to help us through the dangers of life – instead of pretending we can insulate ourselves from them; when I ride through the “wilderness” in my air conditioned bus, I feel like I’m invincible (which isn’t really true!)  Even outside of the “wilderness” my life is still vulnerable and so is yours…  I suspect Jesus used his wilderness time to grow in confidence that God would be with him and help him through every danger and challenge.  And often for us, it takes a wilderness experience for God to teach us to trust in his help and guidance instead of our own ability to insulate ourselves from the world around us…
  • God doesn’t let us stay stuck in the wilderness forever – 40 days in the wilderness would seem like forever to me; 12 months has already felt like an eternity.  And 40 years of wandering in the wilderness would be much worse!  But the wilderness is never where the stories end.  God brought Jesus out of the wilderness of the Jordan.  God brought Jesus out of the wilderness of death and the grave.  And God’s promise is that we, too, with Jesus, will be brought out of this, and every other wilderness we find ourselves in…

Unlike how I’ve often envisioned wildernesses in my life, it’s often the case that being in a wilderness is neither a fun nor a happy experience.  And yet, they happen in all of our lives.  And for many of us, this has been one of those times!

But Jesus was in the wilderness, too.  And Jesus is in this wilderness with us as well.  And no matter what wilderness we find ourselves in, Jesus’ experience shows us that we’re never alone, even when we feel isolated.  No matter what wilderness we find ourselves in, Jesus’ experience shows us that God is with us helping us through the difficulties and dangers.  And no matter what wilderness we find ourselves in, Jesus’ experience promises us that God will never let any wilderness experience have the last word in our lives.