Mark 1:9-16

Lent 1 2015

Is the wilderness really necessary?

Roy W. Howard

If we take the Biblical stories seriously, there is something necessary about the wilderness for spiritual maturity. I don’t fully know what to make of this, though I know it’s true; in part because of the universal witness of mature, wise people who testify to the necessity of wilderness experiences. If so many wise teachers whom I respect testify to the truth of something, then I want to listen to them. It would be foolish to ignore them.

I’m not talking only about the physical wilderness of wild landscapes. I’m mostly talking about that other wilderness – the metaphorical place where temptations and struggles occur within us and among us. This kind of personal and communal wilderness experience is necessary if we are to become mature people.

Take the experience of the Hebrew people that has become the foundational narrative of every people moving from captivity to freedom. It was not an option for the children of Israel to wander through the wilderness for a couple of generations – 40 years – on the way to the land of promise. It was a required experience to unlearnthe practices of their former life before they could learn the practices of human freedom. It was in the wilderness that they faced all kinds of fears and anxieties – many we can imagine and many we can’t – wandering into a new way of life with a wild undomesticated God determined to shape a free people who would be a blessing to all. God’s deepest purpose does not happen without struggle. That is a lesson that is tempting to forget because it runs counter to our inclinations to return to our particular version of Egypt or never leave it in the first place.

Rowan Williams’ whose little book we will discuss says during Lent says, “you go into the desert and into a period of struggle. You go into uncharted territory and an uncertain future, and you have got to learn discernment, how to tell good from bad. You have got to learn vision and knowledge. If all goes well, that inner freedom will lead to ‘sober drunkenness’, where you are ‘out of your mind’ – removed from your ordinary selfish, anxious, defensive habits. You do not quite know where you are going, but there is something so exciting and intoxicating about it that you know you are in different world. The travel through the desert takes many year; but at the end of the journey is freedom.”[1]

So, wilderness is not an option. It’s a necessity.

 Perhaps this is one reason at least once a year, at the beginning of Lent, we hear the story of Jesus’ 40 days journey into the wilderness where he encounters wild beasts and all manner of struggles with the Prince of Evil; most of which we can only imagine, before he is ministered to by the angels. We know this is an obvious narrative companion to that 40-year experience of God’s children on their way to freedom. But that doesn’t make it less true. In fact, I think it only emphasizes the necessity of this struggle. If God’s eternal son – Jesus – is to bring us to full maturity – the freedom of the people of God – then he too must undergo the temptations of the wilderness.

What I always find remarkable is that Jesus is “compelled” into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit, or as the Common English translation say, “At once the Spirit forced Jesus out into the wilderness.” It is one thing for Jesus to be as Matthew puts it: “God for us”, in a divine way; it’s another thing for him to be “for us” in the wilderness of life, outside of all zones of comfort where Jesus faces wild beasts, urgent temptations and the lures of the Evil One. To recall Brene Brown: here we see Jesus – God’s son – in the most vulnerable way possible. He is forced into the wilderness as a human being on the way to maturity, experiencing all the pangs of humanity that we too suffer on the way to maturity. God’s story becomes our story as we travel into our places of suffering, temptations, fears and even the lures of the Evil One. In a word: it’s out of our comfort zone where we grow.

That’s what I hope will occur when I walk the 500 miles of the Camino de Santiago across Northern Spain during my sabbatical in May. It’s not wilderness or desert but it will be away from all my normal controls and comforts, including you all and my wife.

Anne Lamott put it in her harshly honest way, “into life crap falls in.” That’s one way of describing the necessity of wilderness for spiritual maturity. Becoming vulnerable is another.

What the story of Jesus reminds us that that God has gone this way too and by his Spirit is present when we go this way either willingly or kicking and screaming all the way in. You can only resist the wilderness for so long; comfort zones have a way of collapsing under the weight of human life. “Crap falls in.” Temptations occur. Struggle ensues. That’s why we look to Jesus’ story; we do not walk alone. We walk with him and he walks with us into every wilderness. It’s exceedingly hard to imagine that this is necessary. And maybe not all of it is; but I’m convinced that it’s all part of our journey into the freedom of the children of God.

Along this journey there is a table spread for us and without knowing precisely how the angels of God minister to us.   Amen.

[1] Williams, Rowan. Being Christian. page 69