1 Peter 3:18-22
Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Right now, I’m not having any trouble identifying with the wilderness in which Jesus finds himself in our Gospel lesson. My wilderness this week is far from the rocks and sand of the Judean hills, where the sun beats down mercilessly and tiny lichens long for drops of dew. Instead, it is a winter wilderness in which I find myself: frozen and bare, where even the air seems scarce, and ice crunches under my feet like dry bones. Instead of thirsting for water, I thirst for sun, my skin gratefully gulping up even the coldest and weakest rays. The bright white of the snow blinds my eyes, and the eerie quiet of falling flakes makes me want to howl. Like Jesus, I do not enter this wilderness voluntarily. After a week of warmth at a conference in Texas, every piece of my flesh recoiled from re-entering the Polar Vortex last weekend. As the airplane sped me along, I felt like clutching onto fistfuls of clouds in order to slow down the inevitable. My face wore a solemn and sullen mask, as I prepared to descend into the void of winter. I know how Jesus must have felt, as God’s Spirit drove him into the desert, still wet under the ears from his baptism. As little detail as Mark gives us about Jesus’ time in the desert, Mark is clear that Jesus did not choose to go. Who chooses to enter into the bleakness, or deprivation, or utter desolation in which we sometimes find ourselves in this world?
I was reminded this week that the Hebrew word for wilderness means “away from words,” or “beyond words.” The wilderness, then, is an empty place removed from God’s life-giving creative power. It is a blank space, an indescribable chaos yet untamed by God. For God’s Word to enter the place “beyond words,” is a paradox like the cross itself: God forcing Godself to strip away all power and authority in order to join us in the wordlessness of human suffering. It is not surprising, then, that Mark’s Gospel, the first account of the Good News to be written, has few words to say about what happens in Jesus’ wordless wilderness. Mark doesn’t tell us about the devious offers that Satan makes to Jesus, testing him with scripture itself. Mark doesn’t tell us how Jesus courageously resists. All Mark tells us is that there were wild animals and angels out there with Jesus.
When I replay in my mind films that I have seen about Jesus in the wilderness, my mind, too, keeps the images, without the words. It has been years since I have seen The Last Temptation of Christ, but I can still picture, with a shiver, Jesus sitting alone in a circle in the sand during the long desert night, as a hissing black viper, a formidable wild lion, and a blazing pillar of fire lunge menacingly at him out of the darkness, as in a nightmare. For me, it is clear that the wild animals with Jesus were dangerous ones, as dangerous as the wordless fears and temptations that lurk around in my own heart, waiting for God’s absence before they strike. The ministering angels are there, too, silently circling, gracefully hovering, but it is the animals who have my wary attention.
Given the danger of the wilderness and our aversion for it, it is interesting that we even attempt to spend Lent there. Even without our horrible winter weather, Lent is supposed to drive us all into the wilderness with Jesus. For forty days (not counting Sunday, always the Day of Resurrection!) the Church asks us to let ourselves be spirited into the wilderness, in order to prepare ourselves for the proclamation and ministry that await us on the other side of Easter. My mediocre Lenten effort to quit wasting my prayer time by scrolling through Facebook somehow seems unworthy, though, in light of what Jesus experiences. But perhaps it’s not the giving up of something that pulls me into the dangerous desert. Perhaps the giving up is what allows the Spirit to drag the wilderness to us. Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor describes things like my Facebook fiddling as “pacifiers,” ways that we try to stay out of the wilderness: “I mean, almost everyone uses something--if not anesthesia, then at least a favorite pacifier: murder mysteries, Facebook, reruns of Boston Legal, Pottery Barn catalogs, Bombay Sapphire gin martinis. I'm not saying those are awful things. I'm just saying they are distractions--things to reach for when a person is too tired, too sad, or too afraid to enter the wilderness of the present moment--to wonder what it's really about or who else is in it or maybe just to make a little bed in the sand.”
I couldn’t help but think of Reese Witherspoon’s recent film Wild, as I reflected on our Lenten wilderness. In case you haven’t seen it, Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, a lost and grieving young woman who heads out into the wilderness of the Pacific Coast Highway alone, weighted down with a 45-pound backpack and an even heavier burden of sadness and regret. With all of her modern camping gear to keep her going, one can’t quite say that she has entered the same extreme kind of wordless testing landscape as Jesus. Her wilderness adventure is more like me during Lent, giving the Spirit a chance to whisk her away to the real inner desert where her demons hide, to force her to confront her pain. In the film, her healing comes not from passing through the desert landscape or the mountain wilderness or even on her trek through the frozen snow. Her healing comes from the inner struggles that we see in flashbacks: her grief over her mother’s early death; her struggles with addiction and with intimate relationships. Facing these struggles are her real wilderness test. Her hike is merely the path down which the Spirit drags her to lead her into her own darkness.
As I make room in my life this Lent to be driven into the wilderness, what I really want to know is how I can get back to my old life when the testing is over. Mark seems to leave out that part of Jesus’ story. One minute Jesus is languishing in the wilderness, and then, all of a sudden, he is back in Galilee, proclaiming the good news that the Kingdom of God has come near. Finally it hit me: Jesus never does get back to his old life. His time in the wilderness changes him. He would no longer be smoothing planks of wood in Joseph’s shop in Nazareth. After the wilderness, Jesus embodies the dawning of God’s reign on earth, as he sets out on his way to the Cross.
I do have faith that Easter lies on the other side of the Cross. I can look through the hard, cold ice to the buds on the bare branches of the dogwood trees. I know what they will look like at Easter time when they are cloaked in delicate white blossoms. I can look through the piles of snow and know that the crocuses are coming soon. The wild animals who circle me in the cold darkness appear not because of a lack of vision about the Kingdom to come. What bothers me as I enter the wilderness is that I am no longer in control. I know that God will require me to open my door to the sketchy-looking homeless man freezing in the alleyway. I know that God will ask me to bring my last pot of warm soup to my most grouchy and unpleasant neighbor. With each tree branch that I hear collapsing under the ice of winter, I know that parts of myself are going to have to crack and bend with the same splintering sound before God’s Spring can come. What we learn in the wilderness might not change the landscape, but it will indeed change us. Are you ready to let go? “Repent, and believe in the good news.”