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What to Make of the Wilderness

What to Make of the Wilderness

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And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.

13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan;

and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Mark’s writing is so spare that it often leaves us with more questions than answers.

When he tells us that the Spirit “drove Jesus out into the wilderness,” does that imply that Jesus didn’t want to go? Does it mean that Jesus would have gladly avoided the wilderness if he could have?

Mark tells us that Jesus was out there for 40 days tempted by Satan, but says nothing about what those temptations might have been. Matthew and Luke fill in the blanks here, but if we only had the gospel of Mark, we wouldn’t have the faintest idea what went on between those two.

And when we read that Jesus “was with the wild beasts and that the angels waited on him,” are we meant to assume that Jesus was endangered by these creatures or is it possible that he kept company with them? Did jackals threaten the Lion of Judah out there in the cold or did wolves lie down with the Lamb of God to keep him warm?

Did the angels who waited upon Jesus bring him little cakes and water like they had for Elijah, or did they sit by him as he fasted and prayed? Did they watch over Jesus as he slept or wrestle with him in the night?

Was the wilderness a safe space for Jesus or was he scared? Was he depleted by the end of those 40 days or strengthened for the work ahead? Was he grounded out there or set adrift?

We… don’t… know.

Mark leaves a lot up to the imagination and that’s a gift in its own way because it allows us to enter into this old familiar story year after year in new and unsettling ways. The spaciousness of his telling gives us room to explore how the whole metaphor of the wilderness can mean different things to us at different points in our lives.

The fact that the Spirit had to drive Jesus out there implies that the wilderness is a hard place. But you may also remember that Jesus retreats to the wilderness of his own volition before we are even out of chapter one.

Right after he preaches in the local synagogue, casts out a demon, heals Peter’s mother-in-law and then goes on to heal everyone else in the city - what we now call a full day of ministry - Jesus goes right back out to the wilderness to pray and regroup.

He will return there again and again when he needs a moment with his Father in heaven; which makes me think that as hard as it can be out there, the wilderness is not without its charms.

I’ve often thought of the wilderness both physically and metaphorically as more of a negative space; empty of comforts like food and shelter but also full of threats like snakes and too much sun.

I’ve thought of it as both a space and a time of trial and tribulation. Here in the church we often refer to our struggles - be it with unemployment, addiction, doubt, divorce, depression, grief, or illness - as kinds of wilderness.

And yet I led a funeral this past week for a woman who died of cancer after losing both of her children. Her grief was a wilderness, no doubt about it, but the cancer… no… the cancer was her ticket out. She embraced it as a blessing and allowed it to take her as quickly and peacefully as possible. So I don’t know.

How many of you look back on the pandemic as a wilderness experience? Me too. There was the isolation and the threat. Check one. Check two. Supply chain issues and no toilet paper. That tracks with my definition of wilderness.

We didn’t wrestle with wild beasts, per se, but we did grapple with violence and insurrection, white supremacy and temptation, fear and the ever present threat of a virus that seemed to lurk around every corner.

And there were angels too, no doubt about it, some of whom are still here in this very room; angels who ministered to us along the way and helped us through.

But when I think back on that wilderness, I think the part that effected me the most, the part I have yet to recover from, was the uncertainty.

Out in the wilderness there are no guideposts or marked trails. When you find yourself in the wilderness you don’t know where you are in relation to anything else. You don’t know which way to go or how far you will have to travel to get to the other side. You don’t know how to get out or even if you ever will.

I remember how hard it was not knowing; not knowing when a vaccine would come, not knowing when school would open. Not knowing when church would resume in person. Not knowing what was safe or right, too risky or overcautious. Not knowing how to prepare or what to do.

And now that it’s “over,” (right? maybe?)  I think I’ve come to realize that I still don’t know and I actually never did. I’ve always been a "Type A” person with a “Plan B” in my back pocket, but the wilderness of Covid knocked that part of me for a loop.

I don’t plan the way I used to. I still feel weird about buying tickets ahead of time for concerts or planes. I have a hard time committing to plans for the weekend, let alone the summer. Anyone else feel this way now? I have a hard time making decision because now I know, in a way I didn’t before, that I don’t know…a lot.

I don’t what’s coming. I can’t control the future. As much as I want to know what’s ahead and worry efficiently - I mean plan accordingly - I have no idea what the future will bring.

So I think the wilderness for me, at least this time around, might best be defined as a place of uncertainty; the place where I am not in control because I only know so much. And I feel like the Spirit, having driven me into that place 4 years ago, has yet to lead me out.

As we move into this season of Lent, I feel like there is more for me to learn out here in the wilderness, some deep truths about the uncertainties of life that I don’t necessarily want to face: lessons in surrender, humility, and what it means to trust in what Teilhard de Chardin calls “the slow work of God.1”

Learning to surrender and trust that God is slowly but surely making all things beautiful in God’s time, that’s hard for me; and I would imagine it is hard for you too.

But letting go on some level and trusting that ultimately God has got this… all of this…that God has got us…all of us….I know it’s hard, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good.

Elizabeth Gilbert has famously noted that we are afraid of surrender because we don’t want to lose control.

“But you never had control;" she says, “all you had was anxiety.”

If she’s right then the wilderness isn’t the place where we lose control. The wilderness is the place where we lose the illusion that we ever had control in the first place.

What we need to do, Gilbert says, “is relax and face the fact that nothing is under control.”

Yeah, I don’t know about you, but that revelation does not relax me. It does not relax me at all. But, she’s not done:

“Here’s an encouraging reminder,” she says, “for any of you out there who might still be suffering from the trauma-inducing misconception that you're supposed to be in charge (of everything) all the time. … Greater forces than us are running the show. The world doesn't turn because we personally turn it.

Step back for a minute and see how the show still goes on, even when we release the white-knuckle grip we have on the imaginary steering wheel of destiny.”

Step back…

Greater forces than us are running the show.

The world doesn't turn because we personally turn it.

Because you and me, my friends, we are only human.

Running all of this is way above our pay grade.

Which makes me wonder if maybe that is why the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness.

I think of him all baptized and spit shined, ready to begin his ministry, brimming over with power and enthusiasm, ready to get the party started.  And I wonder if that’s precisely why the Spirit felt the need to grab him by the collar and rein him in for a hot second.

I think maybe the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness so that he could confront the fact that he might be God’s beloved son, but the third leg of the trinity was now also decidedly human and his mortal form was going to severely limit what he could do.

We begin every Lent with that same acknowledgement. On Ash Wednesday we acknowledge our own mortality; that our life is finite. Like Jesus, we confront the mystery of living as immortal souls in mortal bodies.

As we mark one another with the sign of the cross, we acknowledge our limits, the depth of our failure to love one another as God loves us, and the even greater depths of God’s grace.

With humility, we acknowledge the reality that God knows we can’t do this on our own and come to realize that God never had any intention of letting us.

God is the greater force. We are only human; ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

God is running the show, we’re just along for the ride.

God is with us: here to love us as we learn to love ourselves and one another,

and here to love us back up to the task when we inevitably falter and fail.

Perhaps Jesus suffered hunger and thirst for a time to viscerally drive home the fact that he was only human, that he would need to remember to eat and drink and care for his mortal body.

Perhaps he suffered isolation so he would remember that humans need friends and he was not called or required to go it alone.

Perhaps he suffered out there for 40 days with nothing more to do then rest and pray, so he would remember that - Son of God or not - even he would need to rest and pray.

And perhaps the wild beasts and angels were there to remind him that God is intimately connected to all of creation and with us in all things at all times such that nothing, not even the scariest things in the wilderness, can separate us from the One who names and claims us as God’s own.

Throughout the Bible the wilderness is described as a hard place, but it is also a holy place. It is the place where people finally come face to face with their limits and find that the moment they truly let go is the very moment when God steps in. But the letting go…the surrender…the “not my will but yours be done” … even for Jesus, that was the hardest part.

Friends, I know that when it comes to Lent, people often use this as a time to fast from something they love to indulge in or take on a spiritual practice they know will reshape them for the better. And I will admit that after hearing Julia’s sermon a few weeks ago, I resolved that I would give up meat for Lent. But honestly that doesn’t feel like a fast for me.

It feels more like the nudge I’ve been waiting for to live more fully into the love I profess for all of creation. So I’ll be doing that for the sake of my heart. But if I were to leave it at that this year, I think I’d be missing something. If the wilderness is here to teach me right now that I’m not in control and help me put my trust in God, then it would kind of miss the point if my only practice was one of self-control.

I don’t know where you’re at and maybe giving up chocolate is exactly what you need to do to connect with God. If so, God bless you. But if that’s not where your heart is at, consider if any of these ideas might be useful:

What if this Lent we thought less about letting go of sweets and more about letting go of playing God?

What if we let go of the idea that we know what’s best or what’s coming?

What if we let go of the idea that we know more than we really do, and the misguided sense of responsibility that comes with that?

What if we let go of the idea that it all depends on us and the resentment that goes with that, and allowed others to step in and step up?

What if we let go of judging ourselves or others, neglecting ourselves or others, punishing ourselves or others?

What if we were to carve out time to not just do something but stand there:

Be still;

Be present with what is, and not rush to solve or fix or shore things up, and instead, took a step back to see what God would do if we let God be in charge; if we let God be God?

It might mean allowing some things to end or fail, maybe even die, remembering as we do that death is never the end of the story; that God will resurrect what is worthy in God’s good time.

I don’t know if any of that makes sense to you.

Honestly, this sermon was really hard to write.

God only knows if anything I just said was useful.

God only knows…and for Lent this year I’m going to try and learn to be okay with that.

And I pray that with God’s help, each in your own way, you’ll be okay too.



  1. Above all, trust in the slow work of God.

    We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay.

    We should like to skip the intermediate stages.

    We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new.

    And yet it is the law of all progressthat it is made by passing through some stages of instability

    —and that it may take a very long time.

    And so I think it is with you;your ideas mature gradually

    —let them grow,let them shape themselves, without undue haste.

    Don’t try to force them on,

    as though you could be today what time

    (that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will)

    will make of you tomorrow.

    Only God could say what this new spiritgradually forming within you will be.

    Give Our Lord the benefit of believingthat his hand is leading you,

    and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself

    in suspense and incomplete.

    ~ excerpted from Hearts on Fire

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