DISCLAIMER: This has nothing to do with Valentine’s Day.
Was God in the wilderness? Was God in the wilderness with Jesus that time, when he was being tempted by Satan? For forty days and nights, Jesus was there; a complete time; a good long time; much like Noah, or Moses, or Jonah. We read that it was the Spirit that led Jesus there, but we don’t read about the Spirit afterwards. Was Jesus alone; to fight for himself against the great tempter?
Today marks the first Sunday of the season of Lent. Many people around the world celebrated with pancakes and sweets on Shrove Tuesday. On Ash Wednesday we are reminded of the certainty of life and death. The authors of Genesis remind us that ‘you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ Today we journey with Jesus into the wilderness, as we examine our own wilderness experiences of life.
‘The wilderness.’ What images come to mind when you think of the wilderness? What emotions come to mind? Maybe you have a story or experience in the wilderness. Was it pleasant, like overlooking a giant landscape that seemed to stretch directly to heaven? Or maybe it was uncomfortable, like days of rain and cold that left the bones aching.
I remember one of my first true wilderness experiences when I was studying for a semester at the University of Melbourne in Australia. As many study abroad students do, I wanted a chance to relax a little academically as I explored this new land and culture. A few of my friends discovered the perfect opportunity as they suggested I enroll in a class entitled, ‘Exploring the Australian Landscape.’ This was a class where each week we would explore different parts of the natural Australian world, including two different camping trips to nearby parks. Camping, hiking, and getting credit for it? Sign me up! And so I did…with just about every other American student studying abroad that semester as well.
One of my most memorable experiences of my semester abroad came from that class. Two gruff Australian men led us on our first trip to ‘bush’ for our first camping and hiking experience. On the day of the trip we all arrived to load the vans; a light rain falling on our heads. One of my classmates asked them about the rain during our trip, to which the gruff man simply shook off; ‘If it rains, then we’ll be camping in the rain.’ Sure enough, that was the lightest rain we would see for the next 48 hours. It rained HARD, all day and night. And this ragtag group of international students learned what it meant to experience the real Australian landscape…I was ready to get back to my apartment.
But it was on the last day of the trip that everything seemed to change. As we went on our final day of hiking, the clouds miraculously parted, and we were left with a wonderful day of hiking in some of the most beautiful landscape that I could just now see clearly. Suddenly those previous two days of being wet, cold, and miserable didn’t seem so bad. And perhaps we were all a little tougher because of our sufferings. One thing was for certain, we realized this ‘class’ was more than meets the eye.
I’ve been on many other trips into the wilderness since then, but it was that weekend in Australia where I would learn to appreciate both the beauty and starkness of the wilderness. It is something to be enjoyed and respected.
Throughout history different people and cultures have come up with varying conclusions about the wilderness experience. For some the wilderness is a place of natural beauty, connection, and sustenance. The wilderness is romantic; life-giving. For others, the wilderness is a place of mystery, chaos, and death. The wilderness is to be feared and respected. For many of us, perhaps the wilderness is somewhere in between. Regardless of how we view the wilderness, today let’s understand it as a place set apart from our ‘normal’ lives. It’s the unknown.
The Bible actually tells us several stories of the wilderness. Keep in mind, the wilderness was a little more accessible, as ironic as that sounds, to many within biblical times. Yes, there were cities and towns, but there were not superhighways or easy flights connecting them. For many, the wilderness experience was part of the travel experience; it was part of the human experience. The first stories of the Bible included people like Abraham and Sarah, who traveled the wilderness to where God was sending them. Moses and Aaron led the people through the wilderness in the Exodus story. And now we hear the story of John the Baptist in the wilderness of the River Jordan, and Jesus.
God was there; in the wilderness in those days of old. God was there pointing to the stars in the heavens telling of the promise of future generations for Abraham’s descendants. God was there as a cloud and fire in the wilderness as Moses led the people of Israel to liberation. God took the form of a dove as Jesus was baptized by John. God was there. But was God there in the wilderness as Jesus was tempted by Satan?
We, too, today, all have our own versions of the wilderness experience. Even if we don’t physically travel off road to the ends of the earth’s civilization, we have our experiences of the unknown in this world. We go through days that have more questions than answers. We go through sleepless nights, not knowing where we are headed next. We experience moments of beauty and joy. We experience moments of fear and doubt. In some ways, we are not too far removed from our biblical ancestors desperately listening for the voice of God in the unknown. We are not unlike Hagar, at times ready to give up, only to be surprised by life’s encounters with the stranger. We are not unlike Jacob, wrestling with a mysterious figure in the wilderness in the hopes of a blessing. We are not unlike Jesus, voluntarily experiencing the depths of humanity, only to be tempted to walk away and leave it all behind for promises of an easier way.
Today, on this first Sunday of Lent, we enter the wilderness. The truth is, as many times as we have been there before, with both good and bad experiences, we just can’t be sure of what we’ll experience this time. Like Jonah we enter the belly of the fish. We may encounter wonderful surprises. We may encounter hardship and pain. We just don’t know what will happen when we enter the wilderness.
Yet, at the uncertainty of this human experience, it is truly a human experience nonetheless. We all have our wilderness experiences. We all have been rewarded and challenged in the face of the unknown. We all have known and will know what it is like to take steps into the unknown of life’s experience.
Jesus knew this as well. He was led by the Spirit following his baptism, not to become great and powerful like Satan would promise him, but to continue to enter the human experience just as he did in his baptism. Jesus entered the experience so that we may know that we are not alone. Jesus taught us what it means to live not by bread alone, but by the word of God. Jesus taught us not to seek power, but to seek servant hood. Jesus taught us not about certainty in life, but about faith.
And this is the Good News that we proclaim today. Yes, in the wilderness, in the unknown of our life experience, God is there too. Jesus gives witness to God’s presence in the face of Satan’s trials and temptations, and we give witness to Christ’s presence in our daily trials and temptations. God is here, in our wilderness experience, as we make our way to the cross.
This season of Lent, may we be as faithful as Christ to allow the Spirit to lead us where it may. May we be as courageous as Christ to encounter the unknown whatever it may be. May we be as loving as Christ to enter the human experience and offer God’s gracious love to whomever we may meet along the way during this wilderness experience.