Immediately, immediately, quicker than a flash, quicker than comet crossing the sky, that same spirit, that same soft spirit that has just descended on Jesus in his baptism, drives Jesus into the wilderness. Take note—the spirit doesn’t send Jesus into the wilderness; the spirit doesn’t invite Jesus into the wilderness; the spirit doesn’t even nudge Jesus into the wilderness: the spirit drives him there—there to the place where he encounters Satan, that wiley hindering angel, that trickster, that tempter, who along with the wild beasts tests, schemes, and connives to get Jesus to forget who he is and the work he is called to do. Forty days he’s in that wilderness. Forty days of tempting; forty days of fighting off or evading wild beasts; forty days of receiving the gifts of ministering angels.
You and I, we, too, have come to the waters of baptism; you and I, we, too, have been marked as God’s own forever; we, too, have learned our true identity as beloved and beautiful children of God—children in whom God delights.
And we, too, have our wilderness times—relationships that can’t be fixed, bosses that demean and humiliate, mean kids poisoning a classroom or mean colleagues poisoning the office, addiction, failure, loss of a loved one—wilderness times are part of the human condition. And so are the wild beasts—sometimes they are people—bullies or queen bees, sometimes they’re forces inside us—fear or ambition unchecked, searing disappointment, resentment, or festering anger—all forces that fray the bonds of connection, all wounds that fester and threaten to destroy.
Then we look up and see an angel ministering to us. Remember, ministering angels come with wilderness territory. Sometimes they have names we know and faces we recognize; sometimes they come in form of a stranger; sometimes they’re the dog at your feet or the cat in your bed. As I look back at the ministering angels in my life, I’m struck by the fact that almost every one of those acts of kindness took one of two forms—seeing me as God created me to be and acting from that point of recognition or meeting a very real, concrete and immediate need.
There are those who say wilderness times come and go. But I wonder—I wonder if Jesus didn’t spend his whole life in ministry in one wilderness or another—the wilderness of Roman rule and military oppression, the wilderness of people—even his family—living under fear and suspicion, the wilderness of temple system serving not God but mammon, and the wilderness of deep poverty that plagued the land. I wonder if there weren’t wild beasts constantly at Jesus’ heels, ready to pounce when the opportunity presented itself. Remember the Pharisees and Scribes, remember the Sanhedrin, remember the crowds that turned so quickly when Jesus was arrested.
I’m beginning to suspect that we, too, spend our lives in various wildnernesses—some we see and some we don’t. Wildernesses marked by arrogance, consumerism, indifference; wildernesses of violence, self-absorption or individualism run rampant. The wilderness of a world consumed by fear of terrorism.
I’m beginning to suspect that wilderness is a constant in our environment—only the landscape changes.
Remember, Jesus’ ministry was not defined by or confined to that first wilderness. Jesus’ ministry sprang from that moment he rose from the waters of baptism, that moment he heard God say, “You are my child, my beloved. I delight in you.”
Jesus went out from the wilderness to proclaim the Good News that the reign of God has come near, to call people to repent and to live into that good news that God’s reign of justice and mercy is at hand.
To those within earshot Jesus says, “Turn around.”
“Turn around from what you have done to other people...and from what they have done to you” (Barbara Brown Taylor, “Four Stops in the Wilderness” sermon, 2001);
“Turn around from fear;
turn around from resentment;
turn around from despair;
turn around from the forces that oppress.”
“Turn into the promise that God’s reign has begun, that the rule of love trumps the
rule of fear.”
“Turn towards your true self for there you will see the image of God.”
“Live with hope that the reign of God has come near to you—now, in this very moment.”
Then he issues an invitation to all who would follow him, “Join with me in bringing God’s reign near.