Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25: 1-9; 1 Peter 3: 18-22; Mark 1: 9-15
THE REV. JAMES M.L. GRACE
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
I was hot, tired, and hadn’t showered or bathed for a week. We were somewhere in the back country of Wyoming, and the group I had been hiking with for the week had just crossed over a mountain pass. We were above the treeline, somewhere above 11,000 feet, and we could see for miles as we looked across the beautiful mountaneous landscape before us. But we were tired, our bodies ached from carrying our heavy backpacks loaded with tents and camping supplies. I remember feeling the tension of loving where I was, the beautiful sunsets, all the stars in the sky, but also longing for the comforts of a big city. I loved the scenery of the wilderness, but I also loved a hot shower and a comfortable bed.
The words “wilderness” and “bewilder” come from the same root. To be bewildered means to be confused or puzzled. And the wilderness, at least for Jesus is the stage for where that bewilderment takes place. After his baptism, the same spirit that gently brooded over Jesus whispering words of adoration revealed its talons and drove him into the wilderness for forty days. His sojourn there recalls the forty day fast of Moses on Mt. Sinai as he received the law, Elijah’s forty days spent near Mt. Horeb, and the forty years Israel spent wandering in the desert.
The wilderness also connects Jesus with the experience and message of John the Baptist, who came from the wilderness himself. For Jesus, the wilderness is a place of temptation, of confusion, and of bewilderment. It is a dangerous place, far removed from the beautiful landscapes of the American West.
Why would God send Jesus to such a forsaken place?
Author Nikos Kazantzakis, who wrote the novel The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, offers an answer to that question through a story he tells in that book. Kazantzakis writes of Jesus as a young boy facing a prelude to the torment he would experience in the wilderness suggesting that Jesus was tormented as a boy, feeling the pain of claws scraping at his head and frenzied wings beating above him.
Jesus shrieks and he falls down while his mother, Mary, pleaded with a rabbi who knew how to drive out demons to help: “The rabbi shook his head. ‘Mary your boy isn’t being tormented by a devil; it’s not a devil. It’s God – so what can I do?’ ‘Why does [God] torment [my son],’ Mary asked the rabbi. The rabbi sighed but did not answer. ‘Why does God torment him?’ Mary asked again. And the rabbi responded, ‘Because God loves him.’
The wilderness experience of feeling bewildered, tormented, or confused is not a punishment. It is called living a holy life. Jesus models courage stepping into that experience, going into the wilderness, not because he wanted to, but because the wilderness is our human story. It is where so many of us are right now and we don’t realize it. Your wilderness might be a personal struggle, anxiety, fear, or scarcity. If that describes your bewilderment, your wilderness, then know you are in good company, because the God who braved the wilderness once, braves it with you again and again and again.
But we are not there permanently, it is a place we go to be bewildered, and the lesson we learn and relearn time and time again there is that whatever it is in our life that seems hopeless is in fact hope-filled, that what appears dead, actually is springing forth in life, that the wilderness is not really as desolate as it may appear – rather, it is heaven.
What we perceive as torment, the wilderness teaches us is simply misunderstood love. And that’s why we need to go there, because the wilderness and bewilderment are often our greatest spiritual teachers. We don’t go there to find easy answers – we go there to encounter the God who shuns them and instead invites us into a holy bewilderment. AMEN.