This is more or less what I said to the congregation on Sunday at the church I attend.
Lent 1: Entering the Wilderness
“We set up camp on the southern edge of Urraca Mesa after the storm clouds had broken that afternoon. It was our second day on the trail at Philmont Scout Ranch in theSangre de Cristo Mountainsof northernNew Mexico. My son and I had come with other members from our scout trop to spend ten days in the back country, walking some seventy miles through the high desert of the Jicarrila Apache. We hadn’t yet learned to move as a team. Our heads hurt from the recent change in altitude. Boots still weren’t broken in. And we’d yet to cross Urraca Mesa.
We’d heard tales about the place—this mesa in the shape of a skull, with its stories of strange lights and campers who’d long ago disappeared. At sunset we laughed as we took the trail across the mesa to a campfire at the ranger base on the other side. But around the fire our lightheartedness began to disappear. Maybe it was the Apache ghost stories that began to play on our minds. As far back as the Anasazi, we were told, this mesa had been recognized as a foreboding place, a point of entry to the underworld. Maybe it was the thick clouds that swept in, covering the moon as we started back across the ridge in the dark. Maybe that night we simply wanted to believe the tales, to play with thoughts of terror as children in the dark are prone to do.
Whatever it was, the tall firs seemed strangely mysterious, menacing us on either side of the trail as we began the return to camp. Flashlights kept failing. The trail played tricks on us, never looking familiar, countinually doubling back on itself. We stopped more and more frequently to count off, making sure all fourteen of us were still together. No one was laughing anymore. Only as we finally reached the mesa’s southern edge once again did the landscape suddenly open before us. The moon came out from behind the dark clouds, the path toward camp became perfectly clear, we moved with the ease and joy of those who know themselves accepted by the land. We came to feel that night as if we’d passed some test, moving from threat into love. We knew somehow that nothing else would frighten us over the next eight days on the trail.”
This is a story from the wilderness. I’m sure many of us here have our own tales from the wilderness. Perhaps of canoe trips we’ve made acrossManitobalakes where we know the wind and weather can shift quickly, bringing in storm clouds that threaten our lives on open water. The grandeur and power of the vast skies strikes awe in us. Or, perhaps we are more familiar with hiking or skiing in the mountains, where we climb up steep, uncertain ledges and peer over the edge into the abyss far below—a breathtaking moment, no doubt, for creatures without wings. Or the thrill of racing down a slope of fresh powder snow, knowing all too well the dangers of avalanche, the mountain’s power, next to which we appear so minute.
Sometimes the wilderness is a place we go to seek solace, solitude, peace of mind, to listen to the sounds of God’s creation and receive anew the life and healing God offers us. Other times it seems as though we are driven into the wilderness or swept up in the tumult that forms around us like storm clouds on a hot summer’s night. We do not like this second kind of wilderness, one we have not solicited, one we cannot control, cannot fathom. But it is precisely this kind of wilderness that is deeply related to the stories of God’s people throughout the Scriptures.
Let’s look at the story of Noah in Genesis. Noah was a righteous man, and his three sons were also blameless in the eyes of God. God saw, however, that the earth was corrupted, filled with violence, hatred, deceit, and defilement. So God said to Noah that he would destroy the whole earth, all the creatures that dwelt on it, but he would spare Noah and his family, and two of every creature. Noah was to make an ark to house this remnant while God flooded the earth. Noah obeyed, and when the time came his family and the creatures boarded the ark. God brought the rains and for forty days and forty nights the ark floated on the water covering the earth.
When the rains stopped and the flood began to subside, Noah’s family and the creatures found dry ground and exited the ark. Noah, according to Jewish custom, built an alter to the Lord and offered burnt offerings. Burnt offerings were for repentance, healing, and reconciliation, a signal that Noah wanted to make peace with his God who had just nearly wiped out creation. God accepts the offering, and moved by Noah’s gesture declares: “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” (Gen. 8:21-22) And then, there, on the terrain of a barren and soggy earth, a landscape of utter destruction, God creates a new beginning, brings new life to the desolate earth, to his beloved creation. There, in the calm after the storm, God makes a covenant with Noah. Noah, who has nothing but his family and the clothes on his back, in his vulnerable faithfulness, receives this covenant with God.
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall b e a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.” (Genesis 9:8-17 NRSV)
This covenant is a promise in which God renounces the use of violence to respond to human sin. It is a covenant of peace and love for his creation. God makes covenants in the wilderness. One could just as well look to the story of Abraham, who faithfully goes out into the wilderness to sacrifice Isaac. Here God’s angel intervenes and God makes a covenant with Abraham. Or think of Moses, who encounters God in a burning bush in the desert after fleeing the Egyptian powers.
Why does God meet his chosen people in the wilderness? In the wilderness we are vulnerable, we are interrupted from our everyday routines; the deserts and mountains, the forests and oceans do not yield to our presence, our agendas. In the wilderness we are not in control. And this is not something to avoid and resist, though we will often want to do so. The times when we are driven into the wilderness, whether literally or metaphorically, are not times to dread.
What am I saying? That our suffering is good and justified? No, absolutely not. I am saying that what we learn from the Old Testament stories of wilderness is that this is the place where God meets his people. We do not need to fear the wilderness because God has promised to meet us there. As the Psalmist wrote: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me.” (Psalm 23: 4) This is my first point, we will face wilderness in our lives and we need not hesitate to enter them.
Perhaps more difficult than entering the wilderness, though, is staying in it, dwelling in it. For forty days and forty nights the ark floated while the rains poured down destroying everything in sight. When we are in the wilderness too long we experience fatigue, hunger and thirst, we become paranoid, anxious; sometimes we begin to hallucinate, the proverbial oasis in the desert, merely a mirage. We are easily overwhelmed with despair. We search desperately for any way out.
I want to turn our attention to Jesus’ time in the wilderness. Three out of the four Gospels give an account of this. The story begins with John the Baptist who anticipates the arrival of the Messiah, calling people to repentance and baptism. Jesus arrives at the river Jordanwhere John is preaching and asks to be baptized. Mark recounts the event like this: In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Gallilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:9-15 NRSV)
The chronology of events here is striking. Jesus is baptized, receives the Spirit, and is immediately driven into the wilderness by the Spirit. The Greek word for “driven” here is ekballei, indicating a mighty force. And then, only after his time in the wilderness does Jesus begin his ministry inGalilee and the calling of the disciples. Why is his reception of the Spirit and his ministry mediated by this time in the wilderness?
We learn from Matthew, who gives a more detailed account, that Jesus spent forty days and forty nights in the wilderness. For Jesus’ contemporaries as well as early Christians, who were deeply immersed in Jewish history, the narrative of Israel, the mention of forty days and forty nights would have invoked the story of Noah. With these numbers, the Gospel writer would have caught their attention; something important was about to happen. I don’t want to get into the details of the temptations here because that would be another sermon altogether. (Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder has a helpful and accessible exposition of the passage in his well known book The Politics of Jesus.) I do, however, want to give you a sense of the thrust of the passage.
As we know, Jesus is tempted in three different ways over the course of his forty days in the wilderness. Each of the temptations is characterized by an appeal to seize control of his immediate situation, and thereby to prove the might of God. Each time, however, Jesus refuses, showing his allegiance not to worldly power, control, and domination, but to the faithful Word of God. At this point we almost expect God the Father to meet the Son in the wilderness and make a covenant as in other wilderness stories. But this does not happen. Instead, as we read through the rest of the Gospel story it becomes clear that Jesus, the incarnation of God, is himself the fulfillment of the covenant, God’s faithfulness to God’s people, and to all people.
My second point, then, is that as baptized believers we too are driven into the wilderness, to dwell there and remember who we are, who we are called to be, to refuse the desire for power and control, to empty ourselves and receive God’s Spirit anew so that we might also bear faithful witness to the covenant and to Jesus when we return from the wilderness. So the first point was entering the wilderness, and the second point was dwelling in the wilderness. The third point combines these as a way of understanding the season of Lent.
Today is the first Sunday of Lent. Today we enter the wilderness of Lent, forty days and forty nights, that is rich with tradition. During Lent Christians often take up disciplines of abstaining from something or devoting to something as a way of entering and dwelling in the wilderness with Christ. Some of you might practice fasting in solidarity with Jesus as well as the millions who hunger across the globe and in our very own city. Some of you might abstain from other things, like electronics. Maybe you will give up facebook, or TV, or texting—common every day things that govern our lives, things that the wilderness of Lent interrupts. Or maybe you will commute to work by bus or bike and enter the wilderness of bus shelters and crowded busses, and the blistering wind on your face as you struggle to peddle through mucky streets. Or maybe you will take some time out of your social calendar and visit the elderly and the sick—to enter and dwell in the wilderness where vitality and health are not the norm, not taken for granted. Or maybe you will visit someone in prison; a place for which society has filled us with fear, with people we have demonized. Or perhaps you will enter the early morning silence, alone in a room with the Word of God, and let the Spirit of God that you dread, that you have ignored for too long, fill you and heal you.
Whatever you decide to abstain from or devote yourself to during Lent, I encourage you to enter the wilderness, that place where you know you will be uncomfortable, that place you have been avoiding, that very place you fear most, and to dwell there for forty days and forty nights. Why would I call us into such fierce landscapes of wilderness? Because God promises to meet us there. As Belden Lane writes in his book on desert spirituality: “The wilderness is a place of suffering, out on the edge. It is a place of letting go, a place for dying, and yet also a place for coming alive. The desert is where things fall apart and where things may come together for us in unanticipated ways. […] The wilderness, in short, is a place of threat, vulnerability, and danger. Yet it is also the place where, incredibly, we encounter a love we never could have imagined.”
1. Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (New York: Oxford University Press. 1998), 177-178.
2. Belden C. Lane, Desert Spirituality and Cultural Resistance: From Ancient Monks to Mountain Refugees (Winnipeg: CMU Press, 2011), 16, 27-28. Original emphasis.