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What is God saying to us in the wilderness?

Show me your ways, O LORD, *and teach me your paths.

Lead me in your truth and teach me, *for you are the God of my salvation;

in you have I trusted all the day long. (Psalm 25:3-4)

It was a cold but clear day last Wednesday and I am so glad that many of you were able to come together to remember the day that begins our journey in Lent.  I believe that this time of Lent that begins on Ash Wednesday is one of the most sacred times of our year.  It seems to me to be a true grounding where we are invited to consider our beginnings and face our ending—all centered in the love of God. It is a true starting point to reflect on our lives—who we are and were created to be and to journey with Jesus as he teaches, heals, and loves on his way to the cross and ultimately, his rising to new life.

Lent is a time set aside for us to intentionally devote ourselves to making space for love and peace, to begin to clear out what clutters our lives, to spend time paying attention to the many ways God is visible in us and in all of creation.  It is a time set aside for us to repent—to turn around and reconnect with the One in whom we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17:28)

In our reading this morning from Mark’s gospel, we hear in 11 brief verses three important settings in the story of Jesus.  First, his baptism, revealing him as the beloved Son of God. In the third setting is the beginning of the rest of the story—Jesus emerging among the people to begin his ministry of proclaiming the good news of God and living out, through word and action, the saving grace of God for all humankind.

But between these two settings, Mark describes a second setting.  We hear that immediately after Jesus is baptized and anointed as God’s beloved, “the spirit drove him into the wilderness”—a place of separation, far away from the hungry and suffering crowds that would fill his days in the months ahead.  This was the only place and the only sustained time he would have to wrestle away from the crowds with the forces that work against God’s kingdom.

This time was not a polite invitation to go—we are told that the spirit “drove” him there.  It seems to have been a godly necessity for him to face these temptations that would allow him to come out on the other side proclaiming the good news that the kingdom of God was right here.

Mark does not go into the dramatic conversations that Jesus has with Satan in the wilderness.  We will have to wait for readings from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke for that. Instead Mark, in his spare and urgent writing gives us space to imagine our own wilderness experience where Satan tries to convince us of God’s absence in our lives or our unworthiness as humans for redemption.  Or the wild beasts that come at us from all angles—both good and bad wild beasts—that catch us unaware and remind us of what we cannot control.  And to remember those angels who care for us and companion us as we walk on the mountaintops and through the valleys of our lives. Jesus is directed to this place of wilderness—just as he undergoes baptism to become a part of God’s people, Jesus is driven to the wilderness so he can become one with the living God.

As Karl Rahner says in his book The Great Church Year,

Therefore Jesus goes into the desert, therefore he fasts; therefore he leaves behind everything else that a man needs even for bare existence, so that for this once not just in the depths of his heart but in the whole range of his being he can do and say what is the first and last duty of humankind – to find God, to see God, to belong to God to the exclusion of everything else that makes up human life.[1]

 This time in the wilderness seems to have been essential to Jesus in reaching out to the living God, in claiming his identity as God’s beloved son and letting his life, his words, his relationships and his love, even to giving himself on the cross, flow from this identity.

Each of us have faced a time in the wilderness—a time when we have faced challenges that have left us unsteady, a time when life has surprised us and left us unsure, a time when we have found ourselves in a strange place with no clear markers to guide us. Wilderness can be a time when we feel alone and untethered.

We are in a time of wilderness in our country. On Ash Wednesday, which also shared the date for Valentine’s Day this year, another tortured soul with ample access to weapons of mass destruction, walked into his school and killed children and adults at random. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida considered itself safe. It was a safe town. The school had gone through many “active shooter drills.” They even had a paid armed police office on campus. And yet again carnage reigns in places where children gather. There have been more than 1600 mass shootings since another horribly disturbed (child of God) young man killed 20 first graders and 6 of their teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012.

The recent national budget offered by our country’s leaders, which follows by only weeks, massive tax gifts given to corporations and the wealthiest of our citizens, proposed cuts to funding for basic services for our most vulnerable women, men, and children—Jesus tells us that the way we treat and respond to the most vulnerable among us is how we respond to Jesus. Jesus thinks this is important.

And our children, who were brought here as infants and toddlers, who have done everything they should in being good students, working hard in their jobs, caring for their families—continue to go to bed at night with no chance of peace. Our Bishop Doug Fisher asked in a plaintive blog post, “what is the word of God saying to the Church in the wilderness?”

Wilderness brings us face to face with the evil voices that sow doubt about God’s faithfulness or how we are God’s beloved children. The wilderness can lead us to a place of hopelessness. A place where the amount of pain can lead to numbness. And the screaming in our ears can deafen us to the voice of our God who mourns with us and shakes Her fist at the injustice we allow to continue.

It can bring us face to face with obstacles that keep us at a distance from God and God’s intent for our wholeness—roadblocks like fear, anxiety or even a subtle growing hardness of heart—where after the umpteenth assault—we begin to give up any possibility of goodness—seeing no endpoint on earth where God’s everlasting covenant of mercy and peace will reign.

But wilderness can also be a place of clarity where we recognize what we truly value in our lives, what is most sacred, and how utterly dependent we are on God’s mercy. Wilderness is a time of reminding us that while we may fear the unknown, we can entrust our lives to our faithful God who even in agonizing realities can bring forth hope and new life. Wilderness can be a time where God’s presence can be most acute in the forms of angels who respond, who stand alongside, who lift their voices, who offer their love and come together to stand with those who suffer and mourn. Wilderness is a place where we can find the courage to take a prophetic stance that announces a message of hope and that love is the strongest force on earth.

I do not believe that our time in the wilderness is intended by God to teach us something or to punish us or to remind us of our dependency. I do not believe that God causes us or ever wants any of his beloved children to suffer. I believe that whenever we suffer harm or in any way cause harm to others, God’s heart is the first to break.

But I do believe that God is calling to the church at this time. God whose love never ends, who knows each of us intimately from the womb, who will never give up on us or abandon us to the evil that seeks to claim our lives—is always drawing us into God’s future of justice and peace that begins right now.

As we face wilderness times, I wonder if in light of this story in Marks’ gospel we might ask where as God’s beloved children we are being shaped in this time that will allow us to be a part of Christ’s resurrection, loving and serving God and loving and serving others in light of our experience?

These questions can remind us of God’s presence during those wilderness times that leave us humbled and bruised.  Because we can remember that the spirit that descended on Jesus at his baptism and drove him into the wilderness, did not leave him there.  Instead that spirit brought him out where he was able to proclaim that the good news can be believed.

Archbishop Oscar Romero says, “When you feel the anguished desire for God to come near because you don’t feel him present, then God is very close to your anguish.”[2]

God will not abandon us during our time in the wilderness. God is, after all, the One who takes that which seems only to cause death and somehow draws out from it resurrection life. God is with us when we are in the wilderness and God is pulling for us when we decide how to respond

So, I invite each of you into the observance of a Holy Lent. On Ash Wednesday, we are marked as Christ’s own forever. Today, on this first Sunday in Lent we sing together The Great Litany, where we are reminded of our essence—that though we stumble and fall—we are always God’s beloved children—the ones in whom She delights. Every Lent we are reminded that we are still in covenant with a compassionate and merciful God.

God is with us in the wilderness, giving us what we need and sending his angels to care for us. Time has passed with moments on the mountaintop and moments in the wilderness, and we are still here and God is still with us. As we walk this time in Lent, may we remember that God’s promise of eternal life and eternal love has been placed in the heavens and on earth. We are called to believe in the good news and turn to face the One who has come near.

[1] Karl Rahner. The Great Church Year. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1993.

[2] Oscar A. Romero. The violence of love. Chicago: Province of the Society of Jesus, 1988.

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