Good News from the Wilderness

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He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Alone in the wilderness – sounds like a PBS show, doesn’t it? Well, it is one; it’s the story of Dick Proenekke who retired at age fifty, built a cabin on the shores of Twin Lakes in Alaska, and lived there for over thirty years. He kept a journal, both in written form and with a small film camera, a chronicle of a life with only wild beasts for company and the occasional bush pilot dropping in to bring supplies and the mail.

Jesus didn’t go into the wilderness at the end of his career or seeking a break from it on a sabbatical of quiet solitude. His career, if you want to call it that, hadn’t even begun yet. He had just come down from Nazareth in Galilee and had been baptized by John in the Jordan.

Jesus didn’t choose to go away for a while; the Spirit immediately drove him out – the word has connotations of force and compulsion. The Spirit, having descended like a dove on Jesus at his baptism, quickly revealed another, less gentle side; if you want to stay in the metaphorical realm of birds, imagine some talon-armed raptor with powerful wings.

The way Mark tells the story, the sequence of scenes is cut faster than a car chase in an action movie. One moment there’s a heavenly voice calling Jesus Son and Beloved, and before he can draw another breath, the Spirit drives him out, still wet, into the silence of the desert. Dripping water in one scene, rocks and sand and dry brush in the next.

Forty days. Mark narrates at a break-neck speed, but this scene of very few words nevertheless lingers.

Mark doesn’t tell us any details like Luke and Matthew do, where Satan talks sweetly and quotes Scripture, and the devil’s agenda is obvious, and Jesus emerges victorious like a hero who has passed the wilderness exam.

Mark doesn’t give us any details, and we fill in the blanks. We know that Satan is nothing and nobody – nothing but the voice that speaks solely to drown out the voice and word of God.

Forty days of the devil whispering, arguing, shouting, and questioning in a million ways – all to make this human being forget or doubt the heavenly voice that spoke above the waters, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Forty days with no company but the wild beasts, and Mark leaves it to our imagination to determine if they were friendly like wolf and bear in the prophet’s vision of creation at peace, where the wolf lives with the lamb, or if they were hyenas laughing in expectation of a meal, lions prowling around the solitary man in ever closer circles (Isaiah 11:6ff; 65:25).

Forty days in the wilderness, and the angels waited on him. This is where Elijah comes to mind. Elijah who went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom tree. And there he asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep (1 Kings 19:4-5).

Elijah went into the wilderness because the evil queen Jezebel was furious and wanted him dead, and he was afraid and fled for his life. He was tired of fighting, tired of being the lone voice of resistance in a culture that preferred idols over the living God, tired of pushing and pulling without a moment’s rest.

“It is enough,” he said, exhausted in body and soul, and he fell asleep. He slept until an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” There was a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. He ate and drank and went back to sleep, and the angel of the Lord came a second time and waited on him, saying, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” And Elijah got up, he ate and drank, and in the strength of that food he went to the mountain of God, a journey of forty days. His body and soul were exhausted, but he found the strength to continue because the angels waited on him; he found the strength to live and to answer God’s call once again.

None of these details are spelled out in Mark’s brief description, but they are all there, layer upon layer, showing the story of Jesus to be the story of God’s people. The wilderness may be a place of solitude, but it is at the same time the place where all have been.

Remember Hagar, Sarah’s servant? She was driven into exile by her jealous mistress; her child, Abraham’s son, Ishmael, was about to die of thirst, when an angel of God showed her a spring in the desert. Hagar is there.

And Jacob, who received God’s promise in a dream in the wilderness with the angels of the Lord ascending and descending between earth and heaven.

Moses and Miriam and Aaron and the other Hebrew slaves who crossed the wilderness on the long journey from Egypt to the promised land.

Elijah, Hosea and Isaiah – the prophets who knew the beauty and the terror of the wilderness and who taught us to see it as the vast place between the life that was and the life that shall be.
The wilderness has written in its sand and rocks the stories and songs of all who have been there. Jesus lingers for forty days to take it all in, and we linger just long enough to draw some of the lines that connect his journey with the journey of God’s people.

In the wilderness Jesus faces all that we have ever faced or will ever face in our loneliest, hungriest, and most exhausted moments; days when we cannot hear the heavenly voice, and other voices fight for our attention; times when the promises of God sound like idle tales and all we seem to remember are the fleshpots of Egypt. The wilderness is that forty-day-place, sometimes that forty-year- or-forty-generations-place where life is at stake and nothing and no one can save us but the One whose Spirit hovers over the face of the waters and who speaks words of creation, delight, and redemption.

Mark paints this wilderness scene with just five strokes and two short sentences. And there’s no neat resolution about how Jesus defeated Satan and got him to stop chattering, whispering, or asking questions. But in the very next sentence Jesus shows up in Galilee; he comes proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” He emerges from the forty-day-place with the good news that God’s promises are trustworthy and that God’s reign has come near. Jesus’ journey from baptism, through the wilderness, and to the proclamation of God’s reign recapitulates the journey of God’s people in a new exodus: from slavery, through the wilderness, to freedom in the promised land; from exile, through the wilderness, to the new Jerusalem; from sin and alienation, through the wilderness, to creation at peace.

The reason that Mark doesn’t end the wilderness scene with a neat conclusion, I suspect, is that Jesus still has to walk through the lonesome wilderness of the cross and enter the night of God-forsakenness with nothing to hold onto but the promises of God.

Lent is an opportunity for us to enter the forty-day-place by leaving the familiar pattern of our days behind for a while. We strip away perhaps only a couple of routines in hope that a little disorientation will help us re-orient our lives on the path of Christ.

Some of us seek to enter the silence of prayer more frequently, so that it doesn’t frighten us when silence comes to us un-announced.

Others eat less and read scripture more regularly, so as to give our lives a different rhythm, one more in sync with God’s desire.

Again others write and answer our email only once a day, and instead spend a little time every day journaling about the voices of temptation that fill our heads and hearts with noise.

Lent is an invitation to us to sharpen our senses so we can taste the difference between the bread of Pharao and the bread of heaven; see the difference between a holy vision and an unholy illusion; and hear the difference between the whisperings of the devil and the still, small voice of God who calls us to a future not bound by the past.

Silence, of course, is not easy to find, and when you find it, it’s not necessarily easy to stand. The husband of a friend went on a camping trip in the badlands of South Dakota near the Rosebud Indian reservation. The first night he could not sleep, he said, for the beating of native drums, the sound traveling far in the night air. The second night he discovered that the drum was inside his own chest.

The sound of your heartbeat is nothing, though, compared to the noise of your own thoughts, the twitter, jabber and chatter inside your head that sounds like a jungle come to life as soon as you turn off all your electronic devices and decide to spend a little time with nobody but God and yourself.

Lent is the church’s invitation to all of us to sit with the noise and let it be until it dies down and to do nothing but listen for the voice of God; to walk around Radnor lake and do nothing but listen for the voice of God; to follow Jesus on the way to Jerusalem and do nothing but listen for the voice of God, steady as a drum, the heartbeat of the universe, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”