The Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] 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.

Mark 1:12-13

The wilderness that Jesus was driven into in today’s gospel reading was not a very pleasant place. It was more like that I would describe as a desert, a barren place with very little water or vegetation. A harsh climate. Dangers lurking everywhere. It was definitely not somewhere that most people wanted to go. Not for any length of time, at least. But Jesus went there, and spent forty long days there. He went into the wilderness, after he was baptized by John, to fast, and to be tested by Satan. But also, I think, to teach us about facing our own wilderness experiences. 

It was back when I was in seminary that I learned to view the wilderness not only literally, but also symbolically. I learned to look at the wilderness not just as a harsh, dry place half a world away, but also as a way to describe experiences that you and I have all the time. Whenever something happens to us that throws us off-balance, spiritually speaking, we end up in what might very well be called the wilderness, in a spiritual wilderness. It might be the loss of a job, or the end of a relationship. It might be getting sick, or losing a loved one. And it might definitely be a world-wide pandemic that is changing our everyday life in ways that we never could have imagined. 

We can call all of these different experiences “wilderness experiences.” And we all know that these experiences can often be scary, sometimes lonely, and even times when God can feel very distant from us. These wilderness experiences are challenging, and can even tempt us to turn from God, and find another way to deal with our pain. But they can also be times, when we approach them faithfully, that can deepen our faith. They can draw us closer to God, and change us in ways that are good, even if the experience was unwelcome. 

We all have these wilderness experiences. And, in some ways, our world is sharing in a wilderness experience right now, as we live through this pandemic. And, that being the case, it is worth wondering what we can learn, from Jesus and from scripture, about how to approach this wilderness faithfully, and in a way that deepens our faith. I want to lift up three aspects of these wilderness experiences, each of which is important to remember when we enter into them.

Not Always Welcome, or Entered Willingly

The first aspect is to realize that these experiences are not always welcome, or chosen by us. Listen again to how Mark describes Jesus’ experience in the wilderness. After Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan, 

The Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] 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.

Mark 1:12-13

The Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. He was thrown out into the wilderness, if we are to take Mark’s language literally. Even Jesus, in other words, didn’t willingly go into the wilderness. He didn’t simply decide to spend some time by himself, after his baptism, in order to prepare for his public ministry. No. The Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. Isn’t that often the nature of wilderness experiences? We don’t always choose them. 

Sometimes we do choose them, of course. When you think about it, Lent is really a season when we choose to enter into a wilderness, a time of fasting, praying, and re-examining our lives of faith. A pilgrimage can be an intentional time in the wilderness. Taking a new job, going off to college, moving to a new place. These can all be chosen wilderness experiences. 

But other times we are thrown into them. An unexpected illness or surgery. The loss of a job or relationship. Or, of course, an unwelcome pandemic. 

But here’s the thing about these wilderness experiences. Whether we choose them or not, we can trust that God is going to be with us in them, and that they can deepen our lives of faith, if we approach them with an openness to going through them with God. And that brings us to the second thing that scripture teaches us about these wilderness experiences. 

But Always Offer an Invitation to Deepen Faith

All wilderness experiences contain within them an invitation to a deeper faith. They challenge us to rely on God more. God is with us in our wilderness, every single time. Of that, I have no doubt. 

Isn’t that what Psalm 23 teaches us? “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death (the scariest wilderness of them all) I fear no evil, for you are with me.” God is with us in our wilderness, every single time. The angels wait on us in the wilderness, as they did for Jesus in today’s gospel reading. We are not left on our own. And every wilderness experience, chosen or not, invites us to deepen our faith and trust in this promise. These experiences invite us to deepen our faith. 

They don’t require us to. Do you remember the wilderness experience that God’s people faced, when they journeyed from Egypt to the promised land? God led them through that wilderness. Cared for them. Sent them daily manna. Showed them where to find water. Protected them from enemies. And, on their good days, God’s people trusted God, and trusted the leader that God raised up for them, Moses. But they also had many occasions when they didn’t trust. When they complained, or played the blame game, or tried to take matters into their own hands. 

Wilderness experiences are difficult. Often unpleasant. They challenge us. We, too, can find ourselves complaining. We, too, can be tempted to play the blame game. We, too, can want to take matters into our own hands. What happened to God’s people when they did those things? Well, it wasn’t always good. There were often negative consequences for their actions, before there was forgiveness. But God didn’t give up on them, and God doesn’t give up on us, either. Wilderness experiences can open our eyes to all the miraculous ways that God is present in our midst. But whether they do or not, God is present in our midst. 

Eventually, of course, wilderness experiences end. God’s people arrived in the promised land. Noah and his family finally left the ark. Jesus left the wilderness in today’s gospel reading. This pandemic will end, too. Or whatever other wilderness experience you may be experiencing. What then?

And We Leave Them with a Renewed Sense of Purpose

That brings us the third thing we can learn from Jesus and scripture about these wilderness experiences. When we journey through them faithfully, we always leave them with a renewed sense of purpose. We see that in today’s gospel reading. Jesus left the wilderness, came to Galilee, and began proclaiming the good news of God, saying, 

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.

Mark 1:14-15

His public ministry has now begun. His time in the wilderness is over, and now he is entering a new phase of his life, his public ministry on this earth. And that is true for us, too. We leave our wilderness experiences changed by them. Hopefully in positive ways. With our faith, our trust in God, deepened. With or perspective on life changed. With our priorities re-arranged. 

Wilderness experiences have a way of doing that, when we let them, and when we go through them with God. So, the question is, are we going to? Are we going to let this wilderness experience change us? Deepen our faith? Renew our purpose? 

Lent: An Intentional Wilderness

Today, of course, is the First Sunday of Lent. And this begins an intentional wilderness time for us. Every year, on this first Sunday of Lent, we hear again the story of Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness. Why? To remind us that Lent is a time when God invites us to enter voluntarily into the wilderness. 

We are invited to be intentional these next 40 days. Take time to step out of our ordinary routines, and tend to our relationship with God. View this time as a wilderness experience, a time to deepen our faith, to trust in God, and to come out of it changed. 

With Jesus as our model and our guide, we can do this. And, when you stop and think about it, we have two things that even Jesus did not have. 

First of all, we know how it all ends. Jesus, because he was fully human, trusted that the end would be life, but he couldn’t know it for certain. We know it for certain, because Jesus has gone there before us. He went to his death, before being raised again.And because He lives, we know that we will live, too. We know how it ends.

But even more than that, when we go into our wilderness, we have something else that Jesus did not have: We have Jesus himself. Even as we go into the wilderness to draw closer to Christ, we know that he is right there with us the whole way. For He is our Emmanuel. Our God-with-us, accompanying us through our wilderness every step of the way.

Closing 

So, let us journey through this wilderness experience faithfully, and willingly. Let us turn to the disciplines of Lent – fasting and prayer, almsgiving and works of love – with the confidence that we are doing so in response to God’s call, and with the knowledge that as we do this, we are never alone. And let us be ready to leave this wilderness, be it Lent or this pandemic, with a renewed sense of purpose and call, ready to proclaim the good news of God through word and deed, and ready to help others through their own wilderness experiences. With the help of God. Amen

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