The Wilderness Reveals God

February 21, 2021

Mark 1:9-15

                Watching your children grow up is exciting. As you witness them taking their first steps or hearing them speak their first words, you get a sense of joy. The milestones that they reach are signs that they are growing as individual beings. There is also a time of trepidation for many in parenthood. The thought of sending your child to school for the first time can be overwhelming. There are tears. Probably more so for the parents than for the children.

                As parents, we send them with love and a purpose. It may feel like a wilderness much greater than the confines of home or preschool, yet they are sent with a purpose to grow even more. We are continually sending them out to experience something new, both exciting and scary. Sending them out to college is the pinnacle as they are now adults and old enough to navigate their own path, questioning what we have been doing the past eighteen years was enough to prepare them for this new wilderness. So, we send them with our blessing. A blessing to encounter a new wilderness to grow more and report back what they find and ask for help when needed.

                The wilderness is not a new concept in scripture as we get a glimpse of Jesus and his preparation for ministry. Another word for this wilderness is desert. In our current understanding, we image a wilderness as a place with trees and many animals and a desert as more desolate and barren. The wilderness and the desert in Jesus’ time were interchangeable. The land where Jesus spent his forty days was mostly desert in our understanding, yet also had areas of tress and vegetation.

                The image of the wilderness harkens back to the Israelites as they wandered the wilderness for forty years with Moses guiding them. The Israelites did not step as willingly into the wilderness as Jesus. They were constantly complaining to Moses and even crafted their own golden calf to worship because they thought Moses had abandoned them. Moses and Elijah, whom we encountered last week during the Transfiguration, also spent forty days in the wilderness fasting and in prayer. In his forty days, Moses received the Ten Commandments from God. Elijah, praying for guidance from the Lord on how to lead the people of Israel fasted for forty days seeking wisdom.

                Mark leaves it up to our imagination as to what Jesus did in the wilderness during those forty days. All we are told is that he was with the wild beasts and the angels waited on him. For some reason, I do not think room service was an option. Thankfully, we learn a little more from Matthew’s and Luke’s gospel as Jesus undergoes multiple temptations by Satan.

                Mark has welcomed us into his whirlwind introduction to Jesus’ life. First, he appears on the scene with John the Baptist at the Jordan. In these seven verses we hear today, we learn of Jesus’ identity, the time of reflection in the wilderness, followed by the task he is called to do in proclaiming the good news of God.

                Jesus hears his identity declared in his baptism as God calls him his beloved Son. As the reader we get the inside scoop, while the disciples that begin to follow have to wait a little longer to fully comprehend what is happening. The wilderness is the time of reflection as Jesus spends forty days in prayer and fasting. In this time, he prepares himself for the next three years of his ministry of preaching, healing, and traveling with his disciples throughout the countryside and villages. In that time of prayer and fasting, I am guessing it was revealed to him what his task would be. In that reflection and preparation, I believe he also grew in his knowledge of his true calling as the Son of God.  

                The wilderness provides the space we need to pray, fast, and reflect on who it is God is calling us to be. There were an early group of mystics known as the Desert  Mothers and Fathers that chose to live a life of self-reflection in the wilderness. I could here the following story come from their wisdom:

A seeker after truth came to a saint for guidance.
“Tell me, wise one, how did you become holy?”
“Two words.”
“And what are they, please?”
“Right choices.”
The seeker was fascinated. “How does one learn to choose rightly?”
“One word.”
“One word! May I have it, please?” the seeker asked.
The seeker was thrilled. “How does one grow?”
“Two words.”
“What are they, pray tell?”
“Wrong choices.”[i]

While I don’t believe Jesus made any wrong choices, the earlier prophets sure did. Moses and Elijah in their forty days in the wilderness were given the opportunity for reflection and to hear a direction from the Spirit to help them guide the Israelites in that time and place. The time of testing and temptation drew them closer to God. Jesus too was drawn into a conversation with God during his forty days in the wilderness.

While we have been in a wilderness for nearly a year now, it is easy to slip into a mode where we find ourselves complaining more than giving thanks. For those that want to reach a certain goal, this time has proven hard to measure success in the usual way. This time has also given us the notion that we have to do everything on our own. Personally, I am learning that it is okay to ask for help. We need to be willing to try new things. We need to be willing to make wrong choices so that we can grow.

We can be thankful that it has not been forty years of wandering around the wilderness like Moses and the Israelites after they departed Egypt. Amid this pandemic, we can still be thankful for many things in our lives and the people that we have been able to stay in contact with. We can even be thankful for social media at this time as it has created a valuable avenue for us to stay connected.

At times, it feels that we have been sent out to the wilderness much like Jesus was by the Spirit following his baptism. Jesus’ shows little reluctance to welcome the temptations and struggles that lie ahead. While, on the other hand, we have seen a myriad of reactions to our pandemic. For those that are introverted, they have loved the opportunity for staying away from people, while others have entered this time kicking and screaming. As we care for our friends and neighbors, we have learned to make sacrifices and are learning to live into new expectations.

                While the Spirit sends Jesus out into the wilderness, he is not alone and is accompanied by the wild beast and has the presence of angels. Sending our children out into the wilderness is daunting, yet we have faith that they will be surrounded by others encountering this new wilderness for the first time. In those encounters, we trust that they will not be alone. We are reminded that we are not alone as we enter our own wildernesses. We too have those that accompany us, like the wild beasts, and we have friends and neighbors reaching out with love. We can also trust that as we have been sent into this wilderness, there is something to learn here. It is an opportunity for growth, both personally, and in relationship with God.

                Being sent out into the unknown can be an overwhelming event. The realization that life is now going to be different, brings a longing for the life that once was, even if the new life is grounded more squarely. Jesus models for us what it means to step peacefully into the unknown and embrace the place you find yourself in. The vastness of the wilderness gives caution while also providing nearly endless possibilities for growth. While we may pause before sending our loved ones out into the wilderness, through the reassurance of Jesus we are reminded that we are not alone. The wilderness can be a place of grand possibilities. The wilderness reveals God.

[i] Brian Stoffregen.

By Alex Steward

I am a husband, father, and pastor within the ELCA. I did not grow up in the church and thus come at this pastoring thing with an unique perspective.

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