And the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness. Mark 1:12
In Biblical terms…the wilderness is usually not a place we want to go to. Going back to the Old Testament the people of God are in the wilderness for 40 years…and it wasn’t because Moses refused to stop and ask for directions. It was because the people constantly doubted God’s good intentions for them.
Our first reading catches the tail end of the story of the great flood…where the wilderness isn’t desert…it’s water everywhere….for 40 days and 40 nights. And the only refuge that God’s chosen, Noah is given, is an ark. Oh and by the way the Hebrew for ark means coffin. So Noah and his family and the animals are told to get into a coffin in order to find life. One would say that God loves irony.
And our Gospel reading brings us to a well known passage where Jesus is baptized and experiences the glory of God come upon him and immediately he is thrown into the wilderness. To do what? Camp? No… he’s in the wilderness being tested for 40 days and 40 nights.
And here we are in the beginning of Lent–our 40 days and 40 nights wondering about wilderness. Isn’t it tempting to just skip Lent? Isn’t tempting to skip talking about our dust and our mortality–especially when we’re reminded of mortality so often? Isn’t tempting to go back to the river to receive God’s blessing and avoid the wilderness altogether?
I have not been lost in the wilderness…literally. When I have literally been in the wilderness, I’ve usually had a good map, plenty of water, a good pair of shoes and thankfully a buddy with me. Those are the wilderness moments I can handle.
But there have been times where I felt lost and wandering in a wilderness metaphorically. Lots of times.
I can name countless times that I felt thrust into something new and felt like I didn’t have the skills or that I was being an impostor. Like the first 3 weeks after Elsa was born, I was waiting for the ‘real’ parents to arrive who knew something…anything…about babies. Or the first time I walked the halls of a hospital as a chaplain and I encountered a medical emergency and words and wisdom both failed me. Or the wilderness that I’m in right now as yet another massacre. Yet so many deaths caused by guns. And parents, just like me, who weep, bitter tears of which I fear to imagine too closely as I hold on tighter to my own child. I’m in a deep wilderness for I look to what I can do. I’m in a deep wilderness as I want to shout and yell and point fingers. I’m in a deep wilderness for the unhealthy love affairs we have with violence. And in my wilderness, I find myself crying out to our Lord, “how long, O Lord? Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.”
Those are some of my wilderness moments. And in my work as a pastor I’ve encountered some tremendously, faithful people who had their times deep in the wilderness, too.
I can’t help but think of Cindy Milbry who lived in a wilderness desert of sorts. A food desert. She lived in downtown Toledo, Ohio. In the places where industry long ago left, and as the neighborhoods became poorer, grocery stores left. Leaving whole neighborhoods who relied on walking to grocery stores and convenience stores stranded. No food. And very little money to get food. In the midst of this food desert Cindy found herself worshiping at a small, Lutheran church that acted as a beacon of hope for the destitute in her neighborhood. Redeemer Lutheran, who would open their doors on the coldest days to help the homeless warm themselves and who would collect food and resources for the many who struggled to make ends meet. And one day the church got together for a meeting about their food bank. There was so much need. And some days so little food and resources. They needed an outreach coordinator to beseech local and state programs, to reach out to local churches and some churches that weren’t so local. They needed someone to keep this program alive. And Cindy said that during that meeting when the pastor asked…no begged..for a coordinator that the room got real quiet and then she saw people staring at her. Some had inquisitive eyes and some had inviting eyes…but they were all staring at her. And she wondered, “What are you looking at?!” And then she realized, somewhat surprised, that she had risen her hand to volunteer. To be the outreach coordinator.
It was in this role that I met Cindy. As a local pastor, she reached out me, to see how our churches could come together to help so many who had so little. And I was amazed by her spirit. There was so little, and yet she always had hope in God’s provision. I asked her once about her work and she said, “We’ve had many tests over the years.” Days where there may not be enough food. Days where because of the stresses of low income and high poverty the very fabric of the community seemed to disintegrate. Days where the church itself may be forced to close its doors. But Cindy would be quick to tell me that in those darkest times, the light of Christ would be there. And with the glimmer in her eyes she would say to me, “You can’t have a testament, without a test.”
Jesus was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts
This past week I had the occasion to take a tour with some pastors through Gaudenzia–it’s an addiction treatment and recovery facility up near Harrisburg. During our time there I met Frances Lavender. Frances would be the first to tell you that she has had a life full of temptation, and then she would quickly follow with the statement, “And I’m here today only because of the grace of God and my Lord Jesus Christ.” She spoke about the wilderness that she had repeatedly thrown herself into through addiction and dependency on drugs and alcohol. And in this deep wilderness marriages fell apart, she lost her job, and the threat of losing her children loomed over her. By God’s grace she found herself at Gaudenzia–but she would be the first to tell you that in those early days if you tried “to throw Jesus at her” she would spit right back. She believed that no one could love her, especially not God. It wasn’t till God’s love penetrated into her exile that she was confronted with the universal truth that God loves her and that she is a valued child of God.
With these truths, and the work of counselors and friends who were in the same wilderness with her, could she begin to claw her way out of the depths and temptations that repeatedly buried her. She spoke about the power of finding a church that didn’t treat her like she had a contagious disease…but accepted her like one of their own…flawed sheep of the flock in desperate need of a good shepherd. She said that in her experience she kept on running from Jesus because of all she did–but realized that in the midst of her wilderness Jesus was there. And today her mission is to be a face of Christ for others who’ve been exiled into their own wilderness from temptation and beasts. It’s why she is a certified recovery specialist.
We all have our own wilderness.
And those wilderness moments that we find ourselves in…they can be the hardest things that you have experienced. You may cry and ask “how will I get through this?” or may even cry out “why have you forsaken me?”
…and Jesus was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
And few of us would willingly jump into wilderness moments. Jesus didn’t even jump in, the spirit compelled him…actually threw him into the desert. But in it and through it we are never alone.
Even this deep wilderness I find myself in with tears that mark children lost. In this wilderness I am not alone. On Friday in the midst of my grief a colleague’s words about the awful day in Florida reached out to me as though on angel’s wings.
My colleague and friend Pastor Andy Bell writes,
God was at the school. God was there with the students and teachers working together to survive. God was there with the staff who died to protect others. You want a biblical witness, laying down your life for another is straight out of John 15:13. God was there with the parents reunited with their terrified and scarred children. God there with the parents and families who hearts were broken by the news that their loved ones were killed by an act of pure evil.
Let me be clear : God will continue to be there in the kindness and love those families receive from their friends and community. In the support they receive from their churches and their neighbors. God will be there with the dead receiving them into eternal love and grace. God will be there in the months and years to come; a light for those who will no doubt be surrounded by the darkness of their loss.
And God was there in the midst of Cindy’s wilderness as the community drew together to support an impoverished church and the neighborhood it served. And God was there in the midst of Frances’ addiction scraping the layers of addiction and isolation away and surrounding her with true support.
And God is here today. In the midst of our community and in the midst of our most trying times.
It’s one of the reasons why we come here–why we worship–why we engage in Christian education–why we gather for fellowship and why we go to serve–because we believe that even in the depths of our wilderness that being in a community with fellow wanderers makes our wilderness less lonely. That somehow in this community you will find the presence of Christ in another and you, by surprise some days, may be the presence of Christ to someone else.
As we heard this morning from Psalm 25 , the Psalmist boldly claims
To you, O Lord, lift up my soul. My God, I put my trust in you; let me not be put to shame,
Though we may not choose our wilderness and though it may test our very being while in it, we find that from the wilderness we emerge wiser, humbled, and perhaps more ready for the things that God has in store for us.
Let us not be put to shame, O Lord. For you are our rock and redeemer. You are the water that quenches our thirst. You are the light that fills our path. You are love. Lead us these 40 days of Lent. Lead us through the wilderness we may be in. To you, O Lord, we lift up our soul.