the wild heart of God

Badlands National Park

When my husband and I moved out to Washington last May, we took the chance to visit a few national parks along the way. Badlands was unbelievable–a completely foreign landscape hiding in the middle of South Dakota. Our scripture for Sunday was Mark’s story of Jesus spending time in the wilderness, and I kept picturing the Badlands as I thought about the passage.

Audio is below and the text is after the jump.

If this story sounds vaguely familiar, you’re not crazy. We read it in worship just last month. We have it again today because by and large, I don’t choose our readings for each week. They’re chosen for us according to the liturgical calendar—which is a stuffy name for how the church keeps time.

Now, I’m guessing many of us don’t spend much time thinking about the liturgical calendar. It doesn’t make our top ten spiritual experiences list. Nobody says, boy, I really felt God in the liturgical calendar this week.

What I love about how the church keeps times is that it’s not a straight line, day after day, year after year adding up and giving the impression of progress. Spiritual time, Christian time, moves in a circle, or a spiral. We come back around to things, time and again.

The major movements of the spiritual life—longing, rejoicing, penitence, grief, hope, wonder—aren’t things to move through and be done with. They come around on a regular basis.

This week marks the first week of Lent—a time of preparation for Easter. A friend said yesterday that Lent is the time of the year when it is okay to be honest about being messed up, about not having it all together—as individuals and a community. I like that. None of us has it all together. We’re all standing in need of new life. Lent gives us space to admit that, to meet Jesus in the midst of that, and walk along the road a little further with him.

That road we walk with Jesus starts with this story of baptism, wilderness, and good news. Our road for Lent starts in the wilderness—with these two short verses in the middle of our passage:

“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

They’re so spare, aren’t they? So lean. Just outlines, really.

“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness…”

Immediately—immediately after what? Immediately after his baptism. Immediately after the voice from heaven named and claimed him, as Son, as Beloved.

Jesus receives actual proof that he is special, loved by God. Which should be a great thing, right?

But then he is immediately driven into the wilderness. What’s that about?

Maybe we know what that’s like.

In that moment, as he came up out of the water, and the Spirit descended like a wild, free, flapping creature, in that moment Jesus was suddenly thrust into the fullness of his identity, into the brave new world of being a deeply loved and called child of God. And he was driven into the wilderness.

When something new begins in us, good or bad, God is often at work, using that thing to mold us into more faithful followers. That process of being molded often starts in the wilderness.

Like Jesus it may be something good that throws us into the wilderness: new love, a new job, an expanding family, embarking on retirement, a spiritual vision or experience of healing, a fresh start in life or in community. Or it may be something we would not have chosen: long illness or grappling with diminished physical capacity as we age, the strange landscape of grief, unemployment, divorce, the end of something we held dear. All these things disorient us, leaving us feeling like we’ve been driven into the wilderness.

And notice the action, here—it’s passive. Jesus is driven.

We are not as in control of our lives as we might think. Which is both a relief—it’s not all up to us—and terrifying: we may be driven into a wilderness we would not choose. We do not choose when joy will bubble up, or when pain will descend. And like Jesus we do not choose when we are to be driven into the wilderness.

“He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts.”

Things just got real. This is not like a hike when you’ve packed snacks and plenty of gear. This is out, off the map, on your own, with lots of grizzly bears.

In the wilderness the barriers that keep us safe: shelter, companionship are taken away. When the rain falls we get wet. When the rain doesn’t fall we’re thirsty. We are finite. And we are forced to consider the source of our sustenance.

This, of course, is the thinking behind the traditional lenten discipline of fasting. Whatever it is that we fast from—maybe food, maybe something else—mindless entertainment, or habits of life that leave too little for others, or personal demons—whatever it is, the prayer is that in our hunger we might encounter a deeper hunger for God. In finding where our strength ends, we might see where God’s strength begins. We break down our world, that we might see God’s world.  In the emptiness there might be space for the flapping, fluttering Spirit to land and sit with us for a while.

This is not comfortable. It was, as the Mark texts reminds us, even for Jesus a time of testing. Mark’s story doesn’t show us the shape of the testing Jesus faced—the push and pull in his heart. We’re simply reminded that if he didn’t escape such conflict and turmoil, neither will we. We are torn in different directions, tempted to be less than or other than that which God created us to be. This testing is not a sign of failure in faith—it is just part of the deal.

And there are, Mark reminds us, in the wilderness wild animals. This is a detail only Mark includes. It’s tauntingly vague. Do these wild animals threaten? Or do they lie down peacefully? Could it be both, somehow?

In the wilderness we discover that our God is not tame or “nice” at all—but wild, free, and powerful.

In the wilderness we are stripped of much that we hold dear, but we also have the potential to encounter the Author of Life—that wild, free, powerful Love in whom we live and move and have our being.

This is the great tradition we receive from Judaism, the tradition Jesus called his own. That’s the bit we skipped over with “he was in the wilderness forty days.” That forty days reminds us we’re not the first to enter the wilderness, and neither was Jesus.

He knew, surely, that long before him his ancestors had wandered in the wilderness—for forty years.

In the wilderness, when there was no food, God fed them with the bread of heaven. When there was no water, God brought water out of the rock. When they couldn’t find the way, God led them. And when they didn’t know who they were or whose they were, God delivered them from bondage, called them God’s Own, and made an everlasting covenant with them.

Long before that Hagar, a slave woman, was driven into the wilderness by the violence of her owner. She was met there, on the edge of death by an angel who showed her the way to water and promised her a future. In that wilderness Hagar met the living Lord and was the first in the Bible to give God a name.

Elijah, too, in the later years, was driven into the wilderness for forty days. The angels fed him bread from heaven, gave him strength for the journey, and deep in the wilderness, in a still small voice the presence of the Lord dwelt with Elijah.

Like his foremothers and forefathers in the faith, Jesus was driven into the wilderness, and thereby into the heart of God.

Mark ends this spare sketch by telling us, “and angels waited on him.”

Does that mean he was accompanied by heavenly creatures with wings? Or that he found sustenance where he expected to find none? Bread from heaven and water from a rock? A way out of no way?

Mark leaves the picture perfectly out of focus. We can just discern the outline:

Jesus was driven into the wilderness. And as the years turn, so too can we expect to spend some time in the wilderness. Any path that promises no detours to the wild is not a path worth following. During Lent, as we follow Jesus step by step on this dusty road, we are invited to consider what in our life—as individuals, as a community, as a society—seems to be a wilderness.

We do so trusting that though we may walk through the wilderness by ourselves, we don’t walk alone.

We walk with countless ordinary souls who, like us, have been driven out of ordinary lives into the wild. And we walk with God’s Own Son, Ancient of Days and Bright Morning Star.

The road may not be easy. It will require us to turn loose of things we hold dear, certainties to which we cling. There will be testing—Jesus didn’t get away without it, and neither will we. There will be fear—the wild is not tame after all.

But that is not all. In the wild we dwell in the heart of God. We are fed with bread we do not earn. We are led by streams of living water. The love of God has space to settle into our hearts and take root.

And at the end of the season, after forty days or forty years, or often something in between, we return to civilization.

That’s where Mark’s story takes us next—Jesus came out of that wilderness preaching good news.

If you are in a wilderness today, if there is grief that lingers close, or shame that sits in a corner of your heart casting shadows all around, if the way up ahead isn’t clear at all and you feel lost, if it seems that wild beasts surround you on all sides and the testing is more than you can bear, if you are not sure there is a way forward, know this: the story does not end here.

There is good news, just up ahead—the kingdom of God is at hand. The pain that haunts our bodies, the sin that separates us one from another, the brokenness that keeps us locked in war between neighbors and nations, the wild beasts that nip at our heels and terrorize our dreams, they do not get the last word.

We may linger in this wilderness for a while longer—but we will not linger forever. There are angels all around—on your left and on your right.

And the kingdom of God is at hand. There is life here, life that is truer and deeper and more beautiful than we can imagine. There is good news. God is here. We are not alone. We are held by a love that will not let us go. Thanks be to God.

by Sarah W. Wiles
February 26, 2012
Bethany Presbyterian Church
Tacoma, WA
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