First Sunday in Lent Mark 1:9-15
I’ve been thinking a good bit lately about wilderness…
Maybe that’s why Rob and I took two nights last week to finally watch the movie, Lawrence of Arabia. I’d been wanting to watch this movie ever since I traveled to Jordan and rode a camel through the Wadi Rum Desert—the Wadi Rum is where this film was shot over 58 years ago—in 1962. I don’t know what I expected the movie to be like, except I knew it would be an epically long film—4 hours long, and that as a war movie, it would be full of fighting and lots of desert time. I read that Omar Sharif, decades after this film and others had launched him, Peter O’Toole and Anthony Quinn into stardom, said “if somebody comes to you and says he wants to make a film that’s four hours long, with no stars, and no women, and no love story, and not much action either, and he wants to spend a huge amount of money to go film it in the desert–what would you say?” It was a crazy idea—but it worked; it worked mostly, I think, because the film captures this great tension: a long sojourn in the desert wilderness. Wilderness time, especially in the desert, could kill you, but it will definitely change you, in profound ways. Wilderness time shakes us and shapes us.
The wilderness stories of scripture describe many examples in which people’s lives were changed and formed during their ordeals—wilderness can be a physical place, the deep woods or a hot desert, but wilderness is always a spiritual place. The Israelites wander for 40 years in the danger and desolation of the desert; it is there they are changed from people who only knew themselves as slaves into the beloved people of God. Their desert time was no easy ordeal; their desert time transformed them in ways only a time of testing can do. Last week we talked about Elijah, at the end of his life, but you likely remember earlier in his life, he also spent a very difficult 40 days in the desert—Elijah escaped to the wilderness, after fighting off the prophets of Ba-al, and was so unbelievably exhausted, so lost in his purpose, he was ready to die. He knew if the desert didn’t kill him, Queen Jezebel would. In Elijah’s wilderness time, he questioned God and doubted himself; he curled up under a tree to die, he hid from God in a cave. But God sustained him and used that time to awaken Elijah to imagine a purposeful path ahead. Hagar is another biblical hero who escaped to the wilderness. She left her home after being treated so harshly by Abraham’s wife Sarah. Hagar could no longer stand it. Pregnant with child, she went out to the desert die, but God had other plans for her—it was in the desert that Hagar met God, and quite fantastically, the only time in the bible that this happens, she names him. She names God, El Roi—the God who sees me.
Few of us have experienced such needed escapes into the desert as the Israelites, Elijah or Hagar. Even fewer, I’d guess would choose to enter a time of wilderness. Jesus was thrust into his. As our gospel today tells us, After his baptism, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” Mark’s story is succinct, for a reason I suspect. As no one truly knows what another person’s experience is like in their time of wilderness—not in our time, not in Jesus’ 40 long days, but we can imagine how frightening it must have felt to be surrounded by wild beasts; we can conceive of the comfort of ministering angels; we can fathom what temptations might seduce us when we are alone and uncertain of what is to come.
As much as we would rather avoid these times in our lives, prolonged uncomfortable, unfamiliar experiences, the wilderness is where God is. Barbara Brown Taylor says this neatly, “The wilderness is where God does some of God’s best work.”
Jesus would not be the same person had it not been for his time in the wilderness—nor would Elijah or Hagar, or you or me—as it is in the wilderness, we meet our maker and come to know our own strength. It is in the wilderness our hearts are made wild. There is a reason Jesus’ ministry began AFTER he experienced a prolonged time of wilderness, that wilderness time formed him—Jesus’ heart learned to be tough and tender, fierce and kind—a wild heart. If you’ve been fortunate enough to hear Brene Brown’s talk on Strong Backs, Soft Fronts, and Wild Hearts, you’ll know she talks about this idea of a wild heart: “The mark of a wild heart is living out the paradox of love in our lives. It’s the ability to be tough and tender, excited and scared, brave and afraid — all in the same moment.” We find our wild hearts in the wilderness times of our lives.
Lent is the church’s way of reminding us that we humans need wilderness time. The 40 days of Lent are meant to shape us, a gangly group of sheep, into Christ’s followers. If not exactly wilderness time in the desert, where Lawrence of Arabia seemed to lose his sanity at times, our wilderness time of Lent is meant to be liminal time— a time when we consciously wait, and we allow our comfortable routines to be disrupted. Since we are lake people, and not desert people here in Scottsboro, think of what it might be like to let go of the boat in the middle of the lake and swim to shore, instead of what we usually do, step from dock to boat, for a time on the water, without even getting wet. Now imagine you have to make that from boat to shore in the dark of night, in the cold of winter—swim hard, keep moving, it maybe that when your almost numb foot finally hits the muddy banks you feel relieved only to realize you have no idea where you are. You’d never forget that experience! This is what liminal time is all about. An experience that forever divides your life into before the swim and after.
The COVID pandemic is THE liminal experience of our time—and we have been thrust into it. This past almost a year ow nhas been filled with alone time and anxiety. After these past 11 months, I wondered if I even needed to give something up for Lent, haven’t we given up enough already?
Then I realize, haven’t others, given up more?
This is the temptation, right? To avoid any further hardship, to deceive myself into thinking, I got this God. I don’t need any more shaping, I’m already a fine follower, Christ.
Long after Jesus left the wilderness, he still carried his wild heart. He even sought out times alone, to recruit his strength, and give thanks to God. He remembered that God fed him in the wilderness with more than food and water. God fed Jesus, like he feeds us in our wilderness times with an incomparable love, a love that powers us with resilience.
Our opening prayer for today, says this all for us, as we think about this Lent ahead of us. “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.” Let each one find you mighty to save.
It is worth repeating, friends, over and over: Let me, Gracious God, be formed by your love in these 40 days; let me find you mighty to save, through Christ our Savior. Amen.