Creation Series 3: Wilderness Matthew 3:13-4:2
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s live may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world and am free.
That poem is by the great Wendell Berry, writer, environmentalist, poet, Appalachian, and person of great faith. The peace of the wild things; the grace of the wild world.
Wilderness. Wild lands. Places that are largely untouched by humans or humanity. This word can cover a lot of different landscapes, both physical and symbolic and one person’s wilderness is another person’s home town.
When I first met Pr Mary Louise Frenchman, the pastor who served at Living Waters Lutheran Church in Cherokee when I first moved here, I said, “oh, aren’t these such beautiful mountains! We live in such an amazing place! It is all so very beautiful!” “Yes,” she said, “if you like green.”
She was from the Bad Lands of South Dakota, a place where the landscape is markedly
different from here and to her, this was a wilderness and never really home. I’ve been to the region that is her home and it is a canvas comprised of endlessly varying shades of brown, grey, yellow-green and red. For me, that is a wilderness and not really home. Both beautiful, both wild and untouched in many areas, both home, both foreign and alien.
A wilderness can be a jungle, a desert, the mountains (green, grey, beige, or snowcapped), the wetlands, the forests, the ocean, and perhaps even Antarctica. It is typically those landscapes and regions where we have not gained a foothold in some way. Those places that feel a bit alien to us, and although they may be the most natural place in the world for others, they seem far from home.
In scripture wilderness is something even more than this. The wilderness is the place we feel like God is far away or is quite unlikely to be. Of course, God shows up wherever God wishes, no matter how far away, foreign, untame, or unlikely it may seem to us.
One of the best biblical wilderness stories I can think of is that of Moses. Born in Egypt, during Israel’s slavery days under the rule of Pharaoh, he had been adopted into the household of the royal family. This was a truly amazing experience because Moses was himself an Israelite. But when he murders an Egyptian guard over the mistreatment of the slaves, he flees for his life. He runs straight into the open arms of the untame and unknown wilderness. He eventually makes a new life for himself, gets married and becomes a sheepherder.
One day, while doing his shepherding job, he comes across a bush that is on fire. Upon closer inspection, he discovers that it is burning and not consumed by flame. God speaks to Moses through this burning bush, tells him this is holy ground upon which he stands, and tells him to take off his sandals. God calls upon Moses to return to Egypt in order to free the Israelite people; the people of God. Moses does this, after some protesting of course, and the rest is, as they say, history.
In our gospel lesson today we heard about Jesus being in the wilderness after being baptized by John. Actually, he was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. That’s a nice way to put it, compared to the Gospel of Mark that says Jesus was driven into the wilderness by the Spirit. In the wild lands, Jesus is challenged by the Devil and manages to resist all the temptations and emerges victorious, if a little hungry.
The truth is, I think we all go into the wilderness at some point in our lives; perhaps many times over. Sometimes by choice and sometimes not, we find ourselves in strange landscapes. They might be literally landscapes; a new place to live or work, a new and different place we have never visited before. Or they might be symbolic landscapes; new stages in our lives, new or ending relationships, illnesses, challenges to the way we have always viewed the world or ourselves. We don’t know the roads well, we’re not sure how to get anywhere, and perhaps we don’t even know exactly where we are. Like Moses, like Jesus, like all those who have gone into the wild lands before us, we are in new territory and it does not feel like home.
Could Moses’ and Jesus’ experiences help us when we find ourselves in the wilderness? While they do not offer survival techniques in the sense of a literal wild land, they do give us true insights into what is really in the wilderness.
There are burning bushes in the wilderness. Moses just happened upon one. He wasn’t out looking for it, he was out there trying to do his job and there it was. And it wasn’t just a beautiful thing to see from afar, it was a vehicle for God to communicate something of great importance to Moses. He had to stop what he was doing and examine it closely. Actually, the scriptures say that he ‘turned aside’ from his path to go look at it.
Burning bushes can be all kinds of things in our lives. It is possible that the thing that makes us feel we are in some alien territory might be the burning bush itself. These are the things that put us in a state of awe, be that awesome or awful, and makes us want or even feel compelled to stop and look. Some people say that a significant illness has been a burning bush for them. Perhaps it is something wonderful, like a new baby, a wedding, or a significant item on your life’s ‘bucket list’. Whatever it is, it is one of those things that makes us stop what we are doing and take a look.
There is holy ground in the wilderness. When God speaks to Moses from the miraculous bush, he tells him to take off his shoes because the space upon which he stands is holy. Really? Out in the middle of nowhere, far away from everything that Moses thought he hand known about himself and the way life worked, there is something holy? Out there in the Bad Lands of South Dakota? Here in the heart of the Smoky Mountains? Yes, indeed there is!
Holy ground can be something as simple as a prayer or song that has meaning for us or a fragment of scripture that reminds us there is more here. It can be something as grand as a breathtaking sunset or vista that leaves us speechless. Holy ground can be at the bedside of a dying person when we realize how very close God is to us at that moment. It can be the place where we make friends that we thought we might never find in an alien land, that place where the wilderness of where we are is still so beautiful it takes our breath away.
Wherever the holy ground is, it is usually near that burning bush.
There is fear and courage in the wilderness. When Jesus is in the wild lands being challenged by the devil we do not know whether or not he was afraid, but we can guess that we would be. That’s one of the big pieces of being in the wilderness in the first place: being afraid. It is fearful to have your beliefs and convictions challenged. Even more than that, it is actually terrifying to come up against the work of evil in the world. We do know that Jesus responds to the Devil’s temptations courageously. He does not run from the challenge, nor does he stoop to the deceptive level of his challenger. Jesus responds by relying upon what he knows to be true and facing the difficult questions head on.
Fear is something we dread, deny, allow to consume us, or push away. But fear gives birth to courage. They are opposite sides of the same coin and if we have one, then we have access to the other. I think that the difference between fear and courage is faith. It isn’t that if we have enough faith we will never be afraid, it is that when we are afraid, our faith can use our fear to make courage.
And in the wilderness there is God’s call for us. The ways in which the devil tempts Jesus are, in a sense, the outline of a large portion of his earthly ministry. A significant piece of Jesus’ call was to resist these things and to obey God. For Moses, the whole outline of his life up to and including the exodus of the Israelites through the Red Sea was laid out for him by God there at the burning bush.
Sometimes it seems like those wilderness places are where we can really understand God’s purpose for our lives the very best. This can often be the case for us in a literal wilderness, too. Many of us may find that we can be still and listen to God when we are in the natural spaces, away from all the common everyday distractions. Maybe it’s because whether we are in the real or symbolic wild lands all those things that really do not matter have fallen away and the most valuable things rise up to our hearts and minds. Maybe it is because we are on holy ground or because those burning bushes have our full attention. God’s call shows up lots of places, not only in the wild lands, but sometimes being out there has a way of sharpening our senses.
And there is God in the wilderness. Of course, this seems like a given, doesn’t it? And that’s true, it is. After all, God is everywhere. But it often doesn’t seem so when you’re in the middle of a time of your life where it feels like you’ve been wandering around half lost and a long way from home for just about forever. Those can be the times when God seems a long, long way away, back home someplace where we left him on a shelf, in a book, in a building, on an altar.
God was never far from Moses, though Moses might have felt far from God, and God goes out of the way to make sure Moses doesn’t miss him in that burning bush. It was God the Holy Spirit who led or drove Jesus out into the wilderness in the first place and one of the gospel accounts says that angels were with him. No matter how inhospitable, alien or wild a landscape is, God is present. No matter how far from home, from the familiar, we find ourselves, God is never lost.
Maybe the wild lands exist so that we are reminded that God is not tame either. In the wilderness, both the literal and symbolic, we recognize our own lack of control over every detail, our smallness in comparison to the vastness of all things, our need for God. We have the chance to come to terms with the reality that we are not God, and we can also recognize our God given gifts of courage and faith. Above all else, the wilderness reminds us that there is no place God cannot and does not go with us.
Welcome to the jungle, the outback, the Antarctic, the wilderness of change, or any other kind of wild lands. And do not worry. Instead, come into the peace and grace of the wild things, for God is already here.