Wilderness Living

by | Feb 21, 2021

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 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. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Mark 1:9-15

Good morning, friends of Christ Church. It is good to be with you at long last. While I would much prefer to be with you in person, we are blessed to be able to worship together via technology. Special thanks to your good priest-in-charge, Rev. Fanny, and your vestry, for their leadership.

Taking inspiration from the story we just heard and that we read in church every year on the first Sunday of the spiritual season patterned after Jesus’ 40 days’ in the wilderness,  I’d like to reflect with you on the nature of wilderness experiences in our own lives and what they can teach us.  

According to the Gospel of Mark, the same Spirit that descended upon Jesus as a dove when he rose from the waters of baptism drove him into the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan. Other versions of this same story suggest that Jesus went out into the wilderness of his own accord. Either way, to the wilderness he went. 

Sometimes we choose to enter a wilderness of one form or another; sometimes we are driven there by God or by circumstance, and sometimes the wilderness comes to us, catching us off guard. We go to the wilderness by choice when we know that it’s time to make a change, a change that carries with it some degree of risk, a change that takes us to the edge of who we are now and beyond. God calls us into the wilderness, or drives us there, when we’re being prepared or tested for a future call or invited into a deeper relationship with Him. The wilderness comes to us when we’re confronted with circumstances or a change that we weren’t expecting, 

What defines a wilderness, be it an actual location or an internal state, is that it takes us beyond the edge of what’s familiar and predictable. In that new place, physical or internal, our senses are awakened, and our awareness is heightened. We might go into the wilderness for the best of reasons–the birth of a child, acceptance of a new job, beginning retirement. Or it could be thrust upon us by circumstances we would never choose or wish upon anyone else. 

I did something two weeks ago that thrust a lot of people I care about into a wilderness of pain and sense of betrayal from the church they had hoped was a safe place for them and those they loved. I would do anything to reverse that decision now, but I can’t, and so the best I can do is enter that wilderness with them to the extent they will allow me in. While in no way equal to their pain, my wilderness is living with the dissonance, the disconnect between the person I want to be and what I have done. It’s not the first time, nor the last, surely, that I will be confronted with my sin. One of the dangers of public leadership is the increasing cost of one’s mistakes for other people. I can only pray that the walk toward reckoning will allow for God’s grace to enter in, and multi-generational pain, in time, to be healed. I’m also reminded, painfully so, that for some, the wilderness–living on the edge–is all that they know. 

Let me state here what many have said and what you may be thinking: we have all been living in the wilderness of COVID-19 for over a year. Because of the pandemic and its effects, we’ve all been living beyond the edge of life as we knew it, some far more than others. While there is hope on the horizon, we still don’t know when we’ll be able to speak of this wilderness in the past tense. “I hadn’t planned on giving this much up for Lent,” someone wryly posted on social media this time last year. Throughout the year the losses continued to mount. 

So I daresay, as Lent rolls around again, that we are all experts at wilderness living. 

For all its hardships, we’ve learned a lot from this wilderness and are continuing to learn. For most of us, COVID-19 wasn’t the first wilderness we’ve lived through, or even  the only one we’re in now. And we know that how we choose to live in it makes all the difference in the world. 

At a diocesan leadership retreat Bishop Chilton shared with a small group of us that for Lent this year, she felt that God was inviting her to let go of the word ‘when,’ as in when could she see her son again, or when would she feel safe to go to the grocery store. “‘When’ puts my focus on the future, which I can’t control,” she said, “and it takes my focus away from my life here and now. God is inviting me to live in the present moment, not in some distant ‘when.’” Focusing on the gifts and tasks of each day helps us all experience God’s grace through small things that we might otherwise miss. 

Let me suggest to you that the purpose of Lent is to help prepare us for our real-life wilderness experiences by reminding us of what we already know and need to hold onto when we’re living beyond the edge of what’s familiar.  

Here are some of the things I’ve learned and continue to learn about wilderness living. 

The first wilderness task is to accept where we are. No matter how we got here, when we’re in a wilderness, there is little to be gained by complaint or blame. Allowing ourselves to feel the wide range of emotion that being in the wilderness evokes is part of  what acceptance requires, while at the same time recognizing that not every emotion needs to be acted upon or taken as the sole interpreter of reality. The sooner we accept our new reality and make our home here, the better off we’ll be. 

A second wilderness task is to focus on daily sustenance, distinguishing between wants and needs. Simplicity is what sustains us in the wilderness. All of the classic Lenten disciplines, such as fasting or other forms of self-denial were never meant to be harsh; at their best, they are a course correction, a way of placing in check some of our less healthy habits and examining our daily practices of self-care.

A third wilderness task is learning to share the responsibilities of caring for the wider community. We tend to think of our wilderness experiences as solitary ones, with significance only for us, but when we’ve been in the wilderness for a while, we realize that we are not alone. The way we get through it is by caring for each other. Dr. Anthony Fauci, known for his expertise in stemming the tide of the virus, once said in response to those unwilling to wear masks in public, “I don’t know how to convince you to care for other people.” Our suffering can open our eyes to the suffering of others; it can soften our hearts. 

The last and most important wilderness task that I’ll mention here is learning to trust that God is present. While stripped of so much, we can experience a depth of spiritual connection to God utterly unique to the wilderness. As we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and completely honest in our prayers, our relationship with God in Christ becomes more real, a source of daily guidance and abiding love. 

Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness harkens back, biblically, to another wilderness time, when the people of Israel wandered in their wilderness from slavery to freeedom for 40 years. Those wilderness stories are a treasure trove when we find ourselves in wildernesses of our own. I’ll end with one of them–the story of manna falling from the sky. You may recall that the Israelites fled Egypt in haste, with Pharaoh’s soldiers in pursuit behind them. After God rescued them, the people of Israel rejoiced but also wondered what they were to do next. How would they live? Where were they to go? What would they eat? 

In that wilderness time, God provided for them what they needed for food in the form of a substance that fell from the sky that they could gather up each morning, sufficient for the day, but only for the day. If they tried to hoard the manna, it would rot. It was only enough for each day. I think back on what Bishop Chilton said about letting go of the word ‘when,’ as a way to focus on each day.  

I leave you with the image of manna–God giving what you need, what I need, for each day, as we make our way through whatever wilderness we find ourselves in. Pray with me now as we enter Lent–the spiritual season that teaches us how to live with grace and gratitude no matter where we are.

Let us pray: Lord, I give you thanks for all those gathered here today, the faithful of Christ Church, Clinton. I lift each one before you, and all whom they love and carry in their hearts. May your grace, your sustenance, your manna sustain them in the wildernesses of their lives. Lead them, Lord; lead us all through the wilderness to the promise of life that awaits us on the other side. In Jesus’ name and in the Spirit’s power, we pray. Amen.