Wilderness journeys

The Podcast

Mark 1:9-15

The wilderness of the Bible is a vast, uncharted place. It sometimes takes the form of a limitless desert populated by shifting sand dunes as far as the eye can see. It might be a remote expanse of dry, stubbly grassland suitable only for meager grazing of herd animals. Or perhaps it’s a region of rocky hills and outcroppings, crisscrossed by winding trails that double back on themselves, leading nowhere in particular. Water is scarce… or non-existent. Most birds and animals shun the wilderness. It’s an empty place. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and their families all wandered in the wilderness at one time or another, as they struggled to understand God’s call to them… and what it meant to be in covenant relationship with the Almighty. The Israelites spent forty years in the wilderness after their escape from Egypt as they struggled to free themselves from an ethos of slavery… and embrace their birthright as inheritors of the “land of milk and honey” promised to them by God. Jesus wandered in the wilderness for forty days after his baptism by John in the Jordan. It was here that, hungry and thirsty and parched by the sun, he confronted the devil, and all of his worldly temptations… and came out on top. The wilderness of the Bible is a hard, uncompromising crucible of faith in which wanderers learn to trust in God, and God alone, for their survival.

When was the last time you were drawn to the wilderness? Sometimes we yearn for the wilderness… for places of solitude where we can lay aside our daily cares and responsibilities, if only for a while, to bask in the beauty and genius of God’s creation. Of course, our wilderness is a somewhat tamer place than that of Bible times, carefully mapped and controlled, and rarely outside the range of emergency services. And before we venture out, we equip ourselves with the latest-tech gear from our local outfitters and are careful to carry plenty of food and water… on our backs, or in the trunks of our cars. We revel in the wilderness experience, all the while smugly congratulating ourselves on our self-sufficiency. And then we return home… in our own time… and on our own terms. I sometimes wonder if our complacency and the illusion of diminished reliance on God’s Providence has robbed us of something important. Still, we are drawn to the wilderness.

But I wonder if the wilderness can also be a region of the heart where we wander, seeking to fathom God’s will and purpose for our lives? We sometimes undertake such journeys in response to crisis. I bet you’ve been there before. Perhaps grieving the loss of a loved one… through death or estrangement? Or maybe you were stuck in a lousy job and stressed out about finances. Did you have a child in trouble? Or was it something more existential: had your doctor given you some news that you really didn’t want to hear? Was your faith in the Almighty being tested by extreme injustice and the reality of evil in the world? There’s so much pain…. And in the pain lies a paradox. We believe that God is good, and we further believe that, for God, nothing is impossible. And so, we are often left to wonder: where is God amidst all of the tragedy and travail of this life? We are hurting. We are crying out! Why isn’t God fixing this? And we’re tempted to take matters into our own hands and do our feeble best to fix what’s broken.  

But here’s the thing: we often confuse the symptom—that which is causing us pain—with the underlying illness. We think of war and famine… plague and pestilence… poverty and injustice… and unspeakable violence perpetrated against innocents as the illness. Which leads us to seek human solutions for problems created by humans. And we have a responsibility, as humans, to do the best we can to clean up our messes. It’s the right thing to do, after all. But that’s only a stop-gap solution… because we’re going to keep on making ever bigger and more calamitous messes until we figure out that the underlying disorder—the illness—responsible for most everything that pains us is estrangement from God.  

So, whatever “fixes” we come up with to cure society’s ills must, first and foremost, be founded upon the hard work of repairing the breach we’ve created between ourselves and the Almighty, and submission to God’s will for our lives. Otherwise, we’ll just end up chasing our tails. So maybe that’s another purpose of the wilderness: to give us the time and the space to learn that only in turning over our most pressing cares and concerns to God, and trusting in God’s Providence, will we be delivered. This attitude of submission can be a lonely and painful place. And still, we are drawn to the wilderness. Drawn so strongly, in fact, that we occasionally venture into the trackless wilderness of the heart in the absence of crisis to reflect upon what it is we need from God, and what God is asking of us. We do it in the silence of our prayers. We do it on retreat. We often do it during Lent. I think that’s because we know, intuitively, that it is in the wilderness of our hearts that we are most likely to find, and to be found by, God. Remember: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you, there is more of God and [God’s] rule” (Matt 5:3 MSG).

Why, then, did Jesus need to go into the wilderness? Jesus doesn’t need to find or be found by God. Jesus is God. What was Jesus trying to prove out there in the wilderness, wrestling with the devil? I believe Jesus did it for us. First to show us that the devil need not have the last word when we encounter him (and we will encounter him) in the midst of our wilderness wanderings. And second, to remind us that by taking on human flesh, God wills to be present with us during our darkest, most difficult times. 4th-century Archbishop of Constantinople, and theologian Gregory of Nazianzus wrote that God became fully human because, “that which he has not assumed, He has not healed.”[1] The Word became flesh and continues to dwell among us through the power of the Holy Spirit… especially during our wilderness travails. We will be healed. We need not fear the wilderness.

Lent is often referred to as a “pilgrimage…” a personal journey of prayer and devotion and returning to God. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that pilgrimages “evoke our earthly journey toward heaven” (Catechism,2691). Immediately after his baptism, Jesus set out into the wilderness to show us the way back to God through his earthly ministry and, ultimately, his crucifixion and resurrection. Walking the Way of Christ isn’t easy. We are often required to leave our “comfort zones” to carry out the ministry that God has given us to accomplish. Pope Francis wisely observes that our aim during Lent should be “to place ourselves decisively on the path of Jesus, the road that leads to life. To look at Jesus… to look at what Jesus has done and go with Him. This path of Jesus passes through the desert… [and yet we may] enter into the desert without fear, because we are not alone: we are with Jesus, with the Father and with the Holy Spirit.”[2]

It’s times like these that we come face to face with the realization that we need God above all else: food, drink, shelter and security. God will give us everything we need, but we must learn to have faith in God’s Providence. This, I believe, is why we are drawn to the wilderness. This is the purpose of our sojourn. And we are called to wander in the wilderness, not just during Lent, but throughout our Earthly pilgrimage. Like the ancient Israelites, we are called to offer up our “first fruits” to the Lord as we struggle and strain, with feet of clay… two steps forward, one step back… towards the Promised Land (cf. Lev 23:9). But our first fruits are not fruits of the ground, but fruits of God’s faithfulness (cf. James 1:18). We are called to offer, “our selves, our souls and bodies” (BCP 336) as we follow the Way of Jesus. 

How’s your pilgrimage shaping up?

[1] Gregory of Nazianzus, Epistle 101 of Critique of Apollinarius and Apollinarianism

[2] His “Angelus” address at St. Peter’s Square on the first Sunday of Lent, 22 February 2015

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