The wilderness had an emptiness to it. When Jesus looked around, he could see caramel-colored dirt and rocks stretchig out to the horizon. From the rock he was sitting, Jesus couldn’t see where the desert ended but he knew that it would continue– with its hills and ravines and jagged contours – all the way to a huge cliff that dropped down to the Dead Sea.
The Dead Sea. Jesus’ mind lingered on that image. The Dead Sea was where the Jordan River emptied out and just a few days ago he had been baptized in the Jordan River by his kinsman John.
“What was it that the Spirit had said again?” He wondered again, trying to pull every aspect of that incredible experience into his memory. John had plunged him under the water and, when he came up, water dripping down his face, the sky had torn open and a Divine voice had said, “You are my beloved, with whom I am well-pleased.”
Jesus soaked in the word, so that he could remember them wherever he went. He anticipated that there would times when people might not be very loving or well-pleased with him, and it would be those times that he would need to remember his belovedness the most.
After that magnificent moment, the Spirit had plunged him straight into the wilderness.
The wilderness might not have been Jesus’ first choice for a post-Baptism retreat, but the thing about the wilderness is that there nothing here to distract him from his journey with the Holy One or his journey as the Holy One. There was no one to talk to and nothing really to watch. Whenever Jesus wandered upon a short stubby shrub or a sand grouse, he marveled at it because life, here in the desert, was so rare. The thing about the desert was that its emptiness invited him into direct communion with God.
What Jesus discovered in his wanderings is that: the wilderness has something to teach us.
The thing about wilderness is it’s so ……….. wild. It’s something that we cannot control or tame, and I wonder if that doesn’t make us a bit uncomfortable.
I have a friend in Switzerland who told me that when the Swiss “landscape” their parks, they let them grow naturally. Their gardens have small trees, woodland plants, ivy and shrubby grasses.
In comparison, here in the United States, we seem to like our gardens orderly. Each garden should be mulched, weeded, and carefully cultivated with plants. It’s like we have this idea that gardens can be tidy, like we can neaten up that which is wild and tame it.
And I wonder if that is because wildness or wilderness – for that matter -makes us uncomfortable. Both wilderness on the outside and wilderness on the inside.
Just this week, at the Ash Wednesday service, I confessed that confession is something that comes hard for me. I think confession makes me uncomfortable because it navigates interior wilderness, forcing me to admit that maybe my life is not as need and tidy as I would like it to be. It means I have to admit that I mess up and fail and fall short. Wilderness makes me uncomfortable.
As I wrestled with that reality this week, I began to wonder if the most alluring temptation in today’s Scripture is to skip over the passage and the talk about wilderness altogether.
If the wilderness makes us uncomfortable, maybe we could just avoid the wilderness, maybe we could just stay on the outskirts, near the safe, manicured gardens.
The thing is that, when we skirt the wilderness, or the Scripture, we miss out on the chance to encounter God and learn what wilderness has to teach us
In the end, wasn’t that the test that the devil gave Jesus? The devil said, why are you out here in the wilderness, when you could be turning stones to bread, or ruling the world and or throwing yourself off a building for the thrill of it?
Turn away, the devil is saying, don’t waste your time in the wilderness.
One theologian defines sin as anything that separates us from God, others and our best self. I wonder if the devil wasn’t fact seeking to separate Jesus from those exact things.
It’s no coincidence that the root word of diabolical is diabalein, which means “to separate, to tear apart, to compartmentalize.”
In contrast, Jesus embodies integrity which means wholeness. Jesus calls us to a “wilderness spirituality” that invites the Spirit to work in all parts of our lives, even the messy ones, or the parts maybe we would rather God not know about.
As a way to live into our call to “wilderness spirituality” as opposed to “perfectly manicured garden spirituality”, Jesus teaches us, that we are called to regular spiritual practice and exercise. In the desert, Jesus does this through the practice of fasting.
I used to think that spiritual practices were something that you saved up for when you had lots of extra time, something that was separate, but the other week I read a blog by Marci Auld Glass that said, “There are twenty-four hours in the day. What are you going to practice with [your hours]?”
“Are you going to watch TV?
Or waste time on the internet?
Or go for a walk?
Or take up the musical instrument you have always wanted to learn?
Or give the gift of your attention and presence to the people around you?
How are you going to practice with the time that you have?”
Marci’s words helped to realize that spiritual practices are about how we live our whole life.
Not just a part of it.
Wilderness spirituality is about whole-life living.
I learned this not just from Jesus, and Marci’s blog, but also from Pastor Molly Phinney Baskette. In the book Standing Naked Before God: The Art of Public Confession, Molly explains that each week at her church in Somerville, Massachusetts a lay liturgist comes before the congregation and shares a public confession. They make space for people to tell the truth about their whole lives.
One week, a 31-year old nurse named Emily who was a recovered alcohol and drug addict came before the congregation and shared her confession.
She said, “A few days before I went into treatment…, and after a lot was uncovered about the terrible things I had done … , including but not limited to: lying, stealing, hurting the people who love me, and doing almost everything I had said I would never do, my dad sent me a text message saying something like: ‘Em, you have the power to start over. If you are completely honest, we can forgive you.’
I didn’t even know what that meant at the time and thought to myself, ‘I could never tell the truth. Who would ever love me or trust me again if I told the truth— about everything?’
We will hear today about fifth step of recovery, which is ‘we admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.’ I was horrified at the idea of telling someone all of my defects … But that horror kept me in a constant guilt/ shame cycle of using and lying. While writing a fourth step, we addicts write a prayer at the top of every single page that reads: ‘God, please show me the things in myself that block me from you and others.’ Because that is exactly what dishonesty and resentment do to an alcoholic: keep us blocked from making real connections with our families, our friends, and, most of all, God. So I did it, I took my fifth step: I read my fourth step inventory before God and to another person … and it was scary, and awkward, and amazing, and done in a setting of nonjudgmental love.
It was my real leap of faith, jumping from bridge to shore. Someone told me early on that everyone— not just addicts— should have an opportunity to do this, to be completely stripped down and vulnerable and open before God. It was the only way for me to really let God in …
And since this time, over eighteen months ago, I have real relationships with people, people have forgiven me, and I have not found it necessary to lie, steal, use drugs, or hurt people.
Before I did my fifth step, … I read the following from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous: ‘We pocket our pride and go to it, illuminating every twist of character, every dark cranny of the past. Once we have taken this step, withholding nothing, we are delighted. We can look the world in the eye. We can be alone at perfect peace and ease. Our fears fall from us. …We may have had certain spiritual beliefs, but now we begin to have a spiritual experience. We feel we are on the Broad Highway, walking hand in hand with the Spirit of the Universe.’”
“So, my dad was right,” Emily said, “Except for one thing: I did not have the power to start over. But God did, and I was finally at a place where I was willing to let [God].”
“Huh,” I thought to myself, “That’s the thing about journeying with God in the wilderness. It brings new life. It brings wholeness.”
We may have had certain spiritual beliefs, but now, in the wilderness, we begin to have a spiritual experience. We feel we are on the Broad Highway, walking hand in hand with the Spirit of the Universe.