Everyone has had a wilderness experience or two … or ten. They are a part of life … they build character … the hard way.As a kid, the only bicycle I had to ride up through my early teens … was my sister’s hand-me-down bike. It was blue, at least … and not pink with sparkly streamers hanging from the handlebar grips. But it had no bar connecting the seat stem to the handlebar base … and in my neighborhood, that clearly made it a girl’s bike. But that’s NOT my wilderness story.
It could be … I grew up in a neighborhood filled with second generation Italian and Irish Catholics … but my wilderness story involves the new bike I got at the end of the school year when I was 13. It was a black 10-speed at the end of the school year … and it had a bar where it needed one. Fifty years ago, parents didn’t hover over their kids like we do now. So, in the summer, I often left the house at 9 or 10AM and got back by 5PM when my dad got home for dinner.
I didn’t have tons of rules as a kid … but one of them was that I had to stay in the neighborhood when I was out with my buddies. One of my buddies was John McShane, the youngest of six in an Irish family in which his five older siblings were all sisters, each of them tough as nails. We all suspected that John would end up in jail someday and he typically set the agenda for most summer days because we were all scared of him. On the day I’m remembering, John decided that we were gonna ride our bikes to the local mall. I’d had my bike all of three days … the Huntington Mall was ten miles away … thus “out of the neighborhood … that’s probably all you need to know to fill in the blanks. We got to the mall … we locked out bikes up … a van was cruising the parking lot with bolt cutters … you know the rest of the story. John’s mom Said, “Serves you right. Walk home.” … my parents weren’t home … but Keith’s mom took off from work and picked us up. I had about two hours from when I got home to when my parents got home and heard the news. They were two of the longest hours I can remember in my adolescent life … waiting to give my parents the bad news … feeling ashamed for losing the bike … being furious with myself for going along with the other guys … and knowing my next bike would be the one I bought for myself as an adult. It was a wilderness experience for this 13-year-old … even in the midst of the suburbs of Long Island.
In Matthew’s Gospel … as is the case for Mark and Luke in their Gospels … the temptation in the wilderness is the first thing that happens to Jesus following his baptism … and for good reason. Jesus is led out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit, because God knows that the promises made at Jesus’ baptism will be questioned by the world. Has heaven really opened up and poured its blessings upon earth? … Has the Spirit of God truly entered our world and our lives? … Has a new age begun in which God’s Word which is Jesus has become God’s Word on our lips, and in our hearts, and reflected in our actions? There were plenty of voices in 1st century Palestine, whose answers to those questions was “no.” We read about some of them in the Gospels … and others in the epistles from Paul and other early church apostles … and in the Book of Revelation, the final book of the Bible, we see the final reckoning around those questions about God entering the world. Satan certainly doesn’t believe it in our story … each of his temptations begins with the word “if. “If you are the Son of God” is the way the devil addresses Jesus in the first two temptations about food and safety. And then presuming Jesus is not the Son of God, the devil weaves into his final temptation, the acknowledgement of a different god, when he says “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
As was the case in first century Palestine … so is the case today. There will always be those who suggest that because the world still suffers … because people still make poor choices with their lives … and because there are as many people who question the Word of God as there are those who endorse it … that maybe God has not really torn open the heavens and walked upon the earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. In short, there will always be those who believe that because God has not entered the world … we are on our own to save it. It betrays a basic misunderstanding of the Christian message. God’s promise to us is not that we can create a perfect utopia on this planet with the right medical advances and the right political perspectives and the right language and the right social causes and the right ideological values … and whatever other solutions are circulating the globe on Twitter and YouTube. God’s promise to us is that in the midst of a broken world that is filled with people who as often as not have brokenness in their lives … asking the right questions and wrestling with those questions, may be what God has called us to do. From the very start of Jesus ministry on earth, questions have been woven into the fabric of the Gospel as fully as have the answers God gives to us. We cannot expect an imperfect world to act perfectly when sin is rampant in our lives. Since we are imperfect human beings, we cannot expect to be able to answer all the questions that confront us in our broken lives … that is idolatry … an idolatry of self, that believes we are the center of the universe. That is why every single Lenten season … after reminding us of our mortality on Ash Wednesday with black smudges on our foreheads and confessions arising from our hearts … then points us to the questions and the challenges of the wilderness found in the temptation stories from either Matthew, Mark or Luke.
Yesterday morning after reading the paper, I did something I rarely do. I went down to my computer, and changed the ending of this morning’s sermon. I originally had a quote from a 19th century pastor that I had found in one of my daily devotional resources. In place of that I will simply call your attention to the death of a 101-year-old woman, last Monday. If you have seen the 2016 movie, Hidden Figures (or read the editorial page of yesterday’s paper), then you already know I am speaking of Katherine Johnson, who was hired first by the NACA, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, in the early1950’s. Then, as the “Space Race” between the Soviet Union and the United States began to unfold in the mid to late 1950’s, and NASA replaced NACA , each country started a singular focus to place the first person on the moon, and Johnson found herself brought into the mix . You can read about her online, or watch the movie, or read the young-adult autobiography she wrote entitled, Reaching for the Moon. What you will find, is a person that found herself in the wilderness. A wilderness defined by her race and her gender. But a wilderness that allowed her to dare to explore and discover what her own professional identity would become, first as a computer … yes literally a person who just computed numbers, in the absence of the kinds of technology we have today. And then later as an aerospace technologist involved in most of the launches that defined the space program of her time.
What I want to acknowledge is a simple statement that yesterday’s lead editorial offered about Johnson’s life. “Johnson spent her later years – until the end of her life – encouraging students to enter STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.” To take some liberties with that statement, you might say that Katherine Smith’s best advice for the young people she met and mentored was … to ask questions … for each of those STEM disciplines center on the need to ask the right questions about the known world.
For you and me … we don’t have to be an astro-physicist or an abstract mathematician to ask questions about the world and life. We don’t have to be theologians to ask questions about God and faith and the teachings of Jesus. It is enough to be a follower of Jesus … a follower of the one who reminds us that in a complicated world … the way we strive to counter those things that stand in the way of God’s love for us … is to ask the questions the world needs to hear.
Knowing that while our questions ALWAYS invite God into our lives … sometimes the answers are longer in coming. And sometimes those answers are quite honestly the questions that God asks of us. That rhythm of questioning has a name … we call it “the Christian life.” And it is never more present than during the season of Lent. So, walk with God … keep your eyes and ears open … and always be ready with a question or two upon your lips. Amen.