Welcome to the Wilderness

Shared at Lake Nokomis Presbyterian Church, February 21, 2010

This reflection on Jesus' time in the wilderness came after we viewed the gorgeous and striking "40", from Proost.  It is a comic book rendition of Jesus' time in the wilderness, written by Chris Goan and illustrated by Si Smith, and the movie is the images only, set to a moving soundtrack. 

We mostly don’t choose our wildernesses.  We find ourselves there, sometimes startled, sometimes after seeing it coming for a long time.  Wandering in on our own or dropped off and left there by others or life circumstances, stumbling around to find our way out.
In the wilderness we’re stripped of our comforts – the things that make us secure, our job, our health, our reputation or routines, and now we’re precarious and frightened, and feel so vulnerable. 
In the wilderness we’ve lost something essential to us, our spouse or friend, our mental stability, or sense of belonging, or personal safety, and the terrible gnawing inside us threatens to swallow us whole. 
In the wilderness the wild animals and beating sun and swarming insects of one thing after another, bombard us from all directions, arguments, fears, worries, frustrations, terrors, inadequacies, both looming and terrifying, and tiny and annoying, relentlessly plaguing us. 
In the wilderness we trudge on and on and on, and can’t seem to see any end to this emptiness, this vast loneliness or directionless wandering. 
And certainly it feels like God is not there.  Definitely it seems like we’ve lost our way, our purpose, even our selves.  Who will you be?  The wilderness asks.  How will you live this life of yours?  The answers that may have seemed sure and clear at one point now disappear under the blowing sands of the wilderness.
So where is Jesus sent, as soon has he is baptized and claimed by God?  What’s the first stop on the tour?  Welcome to the wilderness.

On Ash Wednesday we entered the 40 days of Lent.  We marked the cross on our foreheads in ashes, visible, smudgy, dark and dusty.  Death.  Mortality.  Frailty.  Over top of the unseen but permanent mark of our baptism we traced the mark of our humanity. Beloved of God, says the water and anointing first, chosen and claimed.  Destined for eternity with the Creator, empowered by the Spirit for a life of faithfulness and love.  And dying.  Weak, says the ashes on top.  Vulnerable, human.
Let Lent Begin.

And here’s Jesus. Practically still dripping from the waters of his baptism, with the claim of God on him ringing in his ears, the Holy Spirit that alighted on Jesus as a sign of God’s favor now leads him, pulls him, into the wilderness.  In a barren, lonely and frightening place, Jesus’ identity which was splashed over and dropped upon him is now seared into him – God’s chosen one.  
Before Jesus is unleashed on the world, before he becomes a public figure and his ministry goes live, God sends him here.  To the wilderness.
Who will you be? asks the wilderness, How will you live out this calling of yours?

And if the wilderness itself weren’t enough, when he is utterly exhausted and has absolutely nothing left, totally empty, with a gnawing hunger that caves a hollow clear to his aching spine,
parched with thirst, burnt, blistered, tired and alone,
he is pushed to the edge and the questions loom upon him, threatening, enticing, practical, the stakes enormous – who will you be? How will you live out this calling of yours? 

The choices he’s presented not only don’t seem so bad, they seem pretty logical, if dramatic.  Will you be the Son of God that can cure all hunger by turning stones to bread, and satisfy your own needs in the process?  Is this who you will be? Will you be the one whom everyone sees and recognizes and respects as God’s Son because armies of angels protect you when you fall?  Will you be the Son of God that dethrones corrupt leaders and rules everyone with goodness and justice?  Is this how you will live out your calling?  You could have this if you worship me.  If you do this my way.  So, Who will you be? The devil whispers.  How will you live out this calling of yours?

And Jesus resists, Jesus refuses. Jesus rebukes the tempter and his version of divinity.  And when the ordeal ends and he collapses into the dust, the answer remains.
This is who he will be.  He will go through the wilderness, the dust on his own head caking his hair and face marking him as human, as one of us, smudged by death, as the sign of his own impending death, his own frailty worn on him. 
This is how he will live out his calling.  He will go to the lonely and desolate places, he will walk through the fear and abandonment, he will submit to hunger and heat and the voice of hell to be God with us.

He is not ready to preach the good news until he’s been in the wilderness.  He is not ready to heal and do miracles until he’s faced and chosen powerlessness.   He is not ready to bring the kingdom of God – a backwards and subversive, misunderstood kingdom that lifts up the poor and stands with the outcast, that moves in hiddenness instead of prominence and weakness instead of strength – he’s not ready to bring this kingdom until he has felt his own spirits broken and exiled, and until he has tasted the grace and mercy of God in his suffering.  He limps home changed.  And then his ministry to the world begins.  But it starts in the wilderness.

Why do the barren places become places of such defining?   “Perhaps above all things,” writes one author, “in the wilderness we find again a longing for reliance and dependence – where confidence in our own strength slips away – stolen by the night wolves and birds riding the heat of the day, leaving only a desperate need for shelter, for protection, and to hear the very voice of God…
It is in this place that God loves to meet with us, and the place that we finally turn to God.”[1]

Welcome to the wilderness.  Don’t be afraid to take your 40 days.  Go into your Lent.  Walk into the barren and empty space.  Face your fears and let yourself be broken by the questions of the desolate places, Who will you be?  How will you live out this calling of yours? 
Submit to the journey, and see where the Spirit leads you from there.


[1] Chris Goan, author of “40”, Proost.

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