Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3: 18-22; Mark 1:9-15
“And the Spirit immediately drove Him into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12). Wilderness looms large in our story with God. In scripture wilderness generally implies desert. The dictionary says that wilderness is “an uncultivated, uninhabited and inhospitable region … a neglected or abandoned area.” Wilderness is a place not conducive to growth, life, love, or hope. In the wilderness we may hope only to survive. And we think of Lent that way sometimes, as a wilderness in worship that we hope to get through; in life, wilderness is something we all know too well – those places where we are vulnerable, lost, feeling dry in spirit, bereft of hope, and in danger of being crushed.
But, when we look at the story of God with His people, what we actually experience is the good news of God with us traveling into the desert wilderness of our lives and feeding us, healing us, and opening us up to new ways of God’s promise in our lives, even in the places of challenge. So, grappling with the wilderness spaces is an inherent part of being human and, also, important in understanding who God actually is to us.
Holy Scripture tells us quite a bit about the wilderness. The Israelites wander for 40 years in the Wilderness because they turned away from God. During their exile, they are hungry, and God sends bread from heaven (manna) to feed them. They are thirsty and God tells Moses to strike the rock, and water gushes out. Elijah flees into the wilderness to escape the murderous threats of Queen Jezebel and angels bring him bread and water; ravens bring him bread, too. God feeds him, God sustains him and nourishes him, as He did the Israelites. God reaches into the desert and connects with us, gives us the food of life i.e. His love, and saves us.
Tracey and I really like a Netflix series called Longmire, about a principled, if stubborn, sheriff in a fictional, rural Wyoming county. In a recent episode, his best friend, a Cheyenne named Henry, who he has been feuding with, is kidnapped by nefarious men. They take Henry to a deserted, wilderness place and tie him down to the ground, his arms splayed out like the crucified Christ, his feet tied to a stake, again, very reminiscent of any image we have ever seen or dreamed about the crucifixion. The evil men intend to leave Henry out in the elements to die. Stripped to the waist, Henry calls out for water as the sun beats down and he becomes more and more burned and dehydrated. The men taunt him and pour water on the ground by his head and allow him to smell food they have no intention of giving him.
The men leave him to die and he begins to see visions of people from his life who have died. These people come to him and encourage him, often in unorthodox ways, but they don’t rescue him; they strengthen him but he is still left in his predicament. Finally, his dogged friend Sheriff Walt Longmire, who is having a lot of trouble of his own, has put everything aside to find his friend who he knows is missing. He eventually finds Henry, and pulls him on a pallet he makes for the purpose, painstakingly out of the wilderness, back to his truck and the hospital.
Wilderness features so strongly in this story, the dryness of the canyons and hills where Henry is captive, and the motifs of thirst and hunger and the longing for salvation but the inability to escape the wilderness on one’s own. But it is in the midst of the wilderness that salvation comes, reaching into our places of isolation and pain, even when we are most vulnerable. The faithfulness of Henry, who does not give up; he comes close, but he hangs on, he cries out for help, and salvation arrives, a salvation that is gentle, caring, and knows just what to do.
What are our wilderness places, the places where we struggle, tied down, unable to feel the healing presence of God’s love, thirsting and hungering for the salvation of God in Christ? We know that our wildernesses manifest themselves in a variety of ways, from joblessness, to homelessness, to a cancer diagnosis, or other chronic illness; a divorce or struggling marriage; a feeling of isolation, of not being good enough or loved … the wilderness where Jesus is tempted is what sometimes happens, too, when we are trying our best to do what God desires us to do but we are tested by those who would see us fail. We cry out to Jesus but can hear no reply. We are tied to the stakes of fear, anger, financial ruin or pain and no one comes to release us.
We are in the midst of what I believe, speaking of challenge, is a national wilderness around gun violence. We can disagree about gun laws or the right to carry or whatever, but we can all get behind the idea of keeping our children safe, right? There is no question there! Yet, 17 more young people were killed in Parkland, FL last Ash Wednesday, another senseless act of violence that is met with much silence from leaders and those entrusted with making laws and policies that protect us. We are in the wilderness because our differences seem to be paralyzing us. And I am mindful of a Jesus who didn’t seem to come to topple governments or laws, not at face value. But he spoke the truth of God’s love to the powerful, often railing against the inability of the world to take care of its poor, its sick, its women and children, and a failure to give glory to God for His goodness and grace. We are called, by the power of Jesus, to bring us out of the wilderness, invoke Jesus’ name to protect our children from violence and instruments of that violence.
Paul tells us that “Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit…”
Jesus has died and Risen; Jesus has proclaimed the good news that God will not allow us to stay in the wildernesses of our own making but calls us to an oasis of His love that endures forever. Jesus died and rose again, my brothers and sisters, there is no need for us to struggle against each other so much, so noisily, so violently. God made us for love, for glorifying Him, but we can never truly glorify God while allowing violence against children to go on. He has made an everlasting covenant with us, sealed and bonded by the blood of Jesus and the waters of our Baptism, that we will be blessed and we are called to be a blessing. We will always find ourselves back in the wilderness, from time to time, sometimes for long periods of time; it is the nature of being human. But God speaks His truth to us, even in the wilderness of our anger or despair and would rescue us. He has rescued us in Jesus.
Our journey during Lent means that we acknowledge that we have acted against God’s will for our lives and wandered into the wilderness on our own power; we acknowledge that we have, willfully or not, lead others to the wilderness; and we, as humans, have fostered and grown those places where nothing good can live. So, we are called to repentance, to turn back to God. Acting in the world is part of our repentance; fostering a sense of God’s presence and love in us and in our lives is part of repentance, too. Jesus came in love AND he came calling us to be new creations in His death and resurrection. God came, in Christ, to blast away the wilderness and bring us near to His kingdom in this life, and saved in the life to come. Repentance is reflecting on our own places in the desert but calls to us to emerge from that desert, as God does a new thing in us, in the name of Jesus. God’s call is not just to us as individual humans, but to the world He has made. No one is to be left alone or unchanged, in the name of Jesus. Amen.