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 mysteriously called Campcraft. The classes met at a small building, little more than a shack. What could girls be learning there?
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 rehearsed to be a non-speaking Hunny Tree in Winnie the Pooh, they were in the woods learning to find their way, 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.
One of the most famous poems in history, Dante’s Divine Comedy, traces a journey through Hell and Purgatory, but it begins:
"Midway through the journey of our life, I found
myself in a dark wood, for I had strayed
from the straight pathway to this tangled ground.
How hard it is to tell of, overlaid
with harsh and savage growth, so wild and raw
the thought of it still makes me feel afraid."
Dante found himself in what we might call a mid-life crisis. He loved a woman who did not return his feelings, and he was living in what felt like his own special hell as he tried to resolve his unrequited emotions. Love was his wilderness, his tangled ground, “so wild and raw the thought of it still makes me feel afraid.” However old we are, a broken heart takes us into the unknown places. And it may be that vulnerability factors in every wilderness experience, whether it is physical or emotional, whether it is a threat to our way of thinking or our way of being.
My mother entered a great wilderness when her mother suffered a series of personality-altering strokes. All the social veneer chipped away and my grandmother, always so optimistic and faithful, showed us the dark side of suspicion that had perhaps been lurking there all along. The real grandmother, my mother’s *real* mother, was gone already. Each of them journeyed through an unsettled and unsettling landscape, my mother as she tried to figure out where her mother could safely live and my grandmother as she saw the control of her own life slip away.
I imagine Noah, on the ark, crowded in with his wife and sons and daughters-in-law and all those animals. Separated from everything familiar, cut off from the ground itself, I wonder if he might not have considered drowning a better alternative to living through the experience. Would they ever get off the Ark? When we read the story in hindsight, either of these stories, we may think 40 days doesn’t sound so terrible.
But when you spend it in the wilderness, 40 days can be a long, long time.
In 1992, around this time of year, I went to the obstetrician for a routine blood test. I had just finished the first trimester. The test results begged another test and then another and I wandered through Lent afraid of what I would hear.
When Holy Week came, I learned the final bad news.
I spent a long time wondering why God had let this terrible thing happen to me. The wild beast of grief overtook me, dragging me to a dark and unknown land of the heart. I stumbled around in the wilderness, questioning what I had done wrong. That was my Satan: the tempting thought that I could understand what had caused the problem and find a way to take the blame for it and with the blame the power over it. But in the midst of the loss and the self-torment, I received kindness from others, people who knew how it felt. 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.
We’ve each been there in the wilderness, at some time and for some reason. Some of us may be there right now. Sometimes, the challenge is to remember the promise made to Noah. No matter how threatening the world 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.
For a church, the time of transition may feel like a wilderness, too. Where will we go next? What changes lie around the next turn in the path? Will angels minister to us, or will we fall victim to the wild beasts, or worse, to Satan? We have a process in the United Church of Christ for the interim time, work to be done and lessons to be learned, but in the midst of that work we may wonder if we will do it well enough. Will we succeed?
Did Jesus succeed?
By the standards of the world, I suppose he didn’t.
People expected the Messiah to beat back the invading Romans and help recover the territory lost to them. People expected the Messiah to rule the world and bring about the sort of order the powers that be would approve.
But God’s idea of faithfulness, thankfully, does not share the limits of the world’s standards.
God calls each of us “beloved;” God loves this church and all of us even before we prove ourselves against the challenge of a wilderness time. If that isn’t Good News, I don’t know what would be. God loves us through the wilderness time and loves us when we move forward onto new roads of ministry together.
We have to be careful not to believe solely in determination or worldliness or even shiny brochures, although they have a place in the process. We need to believe in love, the love given to us by God and returned to God and shared with one another. Then we will be ready for whatever the wilderness time may bring.
Jesus’ absolute and unflinching confidence in God’s love 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 trust God
as Jesus did? 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. And we would come out of the wilderness ready to proclaim the Good News to the world. Amen.