When I was ten, I went to sleep away camp for the first time. We had to sign up for classes ahead of time, and I remember how mysterious some of the possibilities sounded. They had Swimming and Canoeing and Drama and Arts & Crafts, but they also had Rifle and Archery and something called Campcraft. I remember seeing a small group of campers hanging around outside the small building where Campcraft was taught and wondering what in the world it meant. I had never gone camping. The tents on platforms at Camp Alleghany were as close as I had come to roughing it.
I suspect the girls who took Campcraft were learning many useful things: how to use a compass, identifying animal tracks and trees and plants, probably figuring out how to avoid poison ivy and how to pitch a tent. While I was at Drama class rehearsing to be a non-speaking Hunny Tree in Winnie the Pooh, they were in the woods learning to find their way. They were developing skills for moving through the wilderness.
Even though I know the wilderness for Jesus was a desert place, I tend to think of wilderness as an untamed forest, a place where it would be very easy to lose my way. In the woods, it takes skills to get oriented. You need to know how to take care of yourself, how to make the most of your resources, and how to read the compass that will keep you going in the right direction.
And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.
Mark 1:10-12 (NRSV)
It is a simple story in Mark’s gospel. Jesus is baptized; he hears the voice of God calling him Beloved; and the Spirit immediately drives him into the wilderness, where he contends with Satan and the wild beasts. Was he provisioned for this wandering? Did he know how to find water? In that desert wilderness, water to drink was almost as crucial as air to breathe. And without the water you might almost wish you didn’t have the air.
For most of my life, though, the wilderness was ornamental, rather like the gardens in a novel by Jane Austen that might include a “little wilderness,” a small, treed area that was “wild” in the sense of going without the planning and pruning expected in the rest of the garden. My ornamental wilderness had the usual teenage angst: the boys who broke my heart, the little brother who got into some trouble, the grades that could have been better, even the friends my parents didn’t like. My twenties were much the same.
I was thirty before I had any kind of a real problem. It was my coming of age, and it was my entry into the wilderness, and I’m not sure we can have one without the other. In 1992, around this time of year, I went to the obstetrician for a routine blood test. I was just past the first trimester. The results begged another test and then another, and as Lent became Holy Week, I learned the final bad news.
I spent a long time wondering why God had let this terrible thing happen to me. I stumbled around in the wilderness, questioning what I had done wrong, blaming myself. That was my Satan; that was my wild beast. Months went by, perhaps six, and one day I began to see God differently. I began to see that in the love of others, in the kindness of ministering angels, God was with me. Soon after, my mother became very ill. One day she told me she thought she must have done something wrong, that God must be trying to teach her a lesson. And in having the chance to assure her that I didn’t believe that, I realized I really *didn’t* believe that!!
That was the day I knew I could see God’s bow in the sky, the promise that God will be faithful to us and not be the one to destroy us.
You’ve each been there in the wilderness, at some time and for some reason. Some of you may be there right now. Sometimes, the challenge is simply to remember the promise made to Noah. No matter how threatening the world or our lives may seem, we are not alone and God is not against us. No matter how high the water comes, no matter how the land slides or the rocks tumble, no matter how dry the well, God is not gone.
Many years ago, I sat with a cousin, admiring her baby: a little boy we liked to think was exceptionally bright and wonderful. He was the first child in the next generation of our family, beloved by all. Suddenly she said with great intensity, “I’ll be disappointed if he doesn’t do well when he grows up, if he isn’t a success.” I didn’t know how to answer this surprising statement. Unlike my cousin with her son, God wasn’t waiting to see how this Jesus turned out before deciding whether to care about him. We are all called beloved by God in much the same way, loved just as we are even before we ever prove ourselves against the challenges of the wilderness times. If that isn’t Good News, I don’t know what would be.
It was Jesus’ absolute and unflinching confidence in God’s love that provisioned him for his wilderness experience. The heat of the day and the chill of the night air, the sand and the thirst and the isolation, the temptations and the risks, none of these mattered to Jesus’ survival, because he knew he was not alone. How would our wilderness times be changed if we could be as sure as he was? How would we be changed? We would find shelter from the elements, the slaking of our thirst, the relief of our fears, and the guidance of the compass we need to find our way along life’s journey. In the wilderness, we would have all that we need.