In the wilderness
We all have times of wilderness, where we set out on a journey that we have little say over and find ourselves in a place where life just challenges us to the core. Essentially this is not a bad experience although du8ring it, it might feel bad, because we feel threatened, afraid and out of our depth.
Think of Noah, the flood, the animals he rescued and the call of God to build the ark, to do so and then 40 long days and nights with rain and stormy darkness. He set off on a course, trusting God and in the middle of it he would have had no idea whether he would survive or not.
Same with the people of Israel wandering in the desert for forty years. Not certain whether they’d eat or find water. In time they learnt to trust God to provide, but it wasn’t without moments of extreme panic and fear and often going left field away from God to find their own solutions.
The issues for us are many, we can’t see how things are going to pan out, so we must walk forward without really knowing where our feet may land. What is God saying to me, what am I supposed to do next, what if the consequences are serious?
In our baptisms we all make a deep promise to God which is very serious;
By God’s grace, will you strive to live as a disciple of Christ, loving God with your whole heart, and your neighbour as yourself, until your life’s end?
I will with God’s help!
And then if we made that promise seriously, we get on with it, coming to church, trying to love our neighbours who-ever they may be and maybe saying prayers regularly if we can fit them in between our other life commitments.
We might go further, we might respond to the call of God to get married and have a family and we desire to raise our children as Christian or we may have work which we find to be a meaningful expression of our faith. A fulfillment of our vocation. We might choose to serve the poor in some way also.
These things can bring great joy in our lives or they can also take us into wildernesses we hadn’t expected to have to face.
A marriage breaks down. A partner dies. A child rebels and turns their back on the values one has worked hard to encourage. Sickness takes hold of a member of our family. A boss is not easy
The wild beasts, the dangerous creatures come and tackle us, not just physically, but in the heart. How do we respond?
Well if you’re me, like God’s people in the desert, you thrash around and cry out. Maybe you hit out at yourself or others, ‘what have I done to deserve this?’ Or maybe you know on some level that you deserve it, but you still cry out because you had no control over yourself, the devils and or demons of some kind which you have no control over came and took over your being, forced you into a destructive or negative place.
This is where we need Jesus: It is also where we find that despite our lack of faith, that God is truly faithful and even if on some level we let him go, as Israel did in the wilderness, God never lets us go.
In today’s Gospel we see Jesus, coming voluntarily to the wilderness place by the Jordon River where he was baptised by John the Baptist. We hear of the Holy Spirit coming on him like a dove and the voice of God, ‘you are my son the beloved, with you I am well pleased’, and then immediately Jesus was driven out into the wilderness. This translation is moderate to say the least. He wasn’t driven, the Greek word here, ‘Ek Ballai’ means he was thrown out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. He found himself there, in this wild place, where the devil persecuted him, and he was with the wild beasts. Wild beasts are not creatures like cows or donkeys or horses or domestic animals, but are dangerous animals, like wild dogs or cats which threaten one’s life.
In this place there was no escaping the need to confront these threats, and in the middle of it all he would have been tired and frightened.
What could have been his monsters? Truly it’s hard to imagine; the knowledge that he was called by God to challenge people who thought they were doing the right but in fact were leading many astray and causing much suffering. The fact that he was called to confront demons and evil spirits which possessed individuals and communities, alienating those who least needed to be alienated, the sick and the poor and the vulnerable. In this wilderness, perhaps he rehearsed how he would deal with these things and could see the consequences and a lot more besides; and so here he prepared himself for his very dangerous rescue mission for the world.
As we think about today’s Gospel reading, we must consider a couple of imponderable questions which come from them; why if Jesus was sinless, did he need to be baptised? Why if he was God’s Son did he need to go into the wilderness?
There’s no clear answer. But for me, I think it’s because right from the beginning of his mission, he was fully one of us, he was sinless as God’s Son, but the sin of the world was with him in his humanity. He walked in our shoes, and our clothing, and lived and breathed the things which we live and breathe. In this sense he bore our sins, not only on the cross but in his life. He was one of us, and open to questions and pain and suffering as we are and so he was baptised and thrust into the wilderness.
In the wilderness places, there is not always a lot of help and support but just sometimes something is said, or some one touches us with care and we find a moment of relief or a step with helps us find our way out. It gives us a weapon to protect us from the beasts. We are ministered to by angels who keep us going.
During the week I heard the story of a young girl who was despairing over the divorce of her parents. Her father was an alcoholic and her mother had had enough. She of course loved them both and didn’t know what to do. She was sitting in an airport waiting for a flight when a stranger sat next to her. He said he was an alcoholic and had been alienated by his family, he told her his full story and how he had been through rehab and was now back on track and hoping to find a way for some reconciliation. After a while he paused and walked off and she never saw him again, but hearing his story touched something deep in her which helped lift the depression over her on situation. She able to move forward in her life in a new spirit. The man was her angel in the wilderness.
For all of us, these things come in different ways, but for us to truly come out of the wilderness, we must listen to and obey the voice of God, even if it sounds like it might make life more difficult on some levels. With a marriage breakdown, one has to live alone, as does the one whose partner dies or when a community breaks down. Or we must find a way to keep loving the prodigal child. We must learn to trust God as the Psalmist does in Psalm 25.
1 In you, Lord my God,
I put my trust.
2 I trust in you;
do not let me be put to shame,
nor let my enemies triumph over me.
3 No one who hopes in you
will ever be put to shame,
but shame will come on those
who are treacherous without cause.
4 Show me your ways, Lord,
teach me your paths.
5 Guide me in your truth and teach me,
for you are God my Saviour,
and my hope is in you all day long.
You can hear the vulnerability in the voice of the Psalmist and so we must allow ourselves in this place to be vulnerable in a way we have never ever been. So, we are led in the wilderness, if we allow ourselves to be led, to a point of surrender. ‘I cannot do this without you my God and so in you alone I put my trust. Show me your ways, Lord, teach me your paths.’
Jesus came out of the wilderness with absolute clarity and began to proclaim that ‘the Kingdom of God is near’. And as he began to proclaim it, he called others to follow, he began to drive out demons, heal the sick and begin the long journey to restore the creation.
Lent is a time for us to take ourselves a little way into the wilderness. For most of us there are areas of wilderness in our lives we avoid, because we are afraid of what may come of it, but God is there, calling you to more life, deeper personal healing and to be an instrument to bring deeper personal healing to our world, and so we take some steps, in prayer, studying Scripture, caring for the poor, choosing to move away from the noise of the world where we can hear God speak- ‘you are my child my beloved in you I trust. Come let us journey together to bring my Kingdom into this broken and needy world. Let us journey with Jesus to the cross, where he will die, and we will also die in many ways, only to discover the amazing life waiting there for us, on the other side of the cross.
Lord Hold my hand, hold our hands, and take us to where you are going, because only with you can we get there,
Let me sing out my joy and know your peace. Amen.