By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Mark 1:12-13
I want to invite you to close your eyes for a moment and think about what you see in your mind’s eye when I say the word “wilderness.” What image comes to mind; what feelings? Imagine yourself in the wilderness. What do you see, what do you hear, what do you smell? What is wilderness to you?
I know I’ve shared this story before, but good stories bear repeating. About 20 years ago, I went on a silent retreat in Texas. An old ranch not far from the border with Mexico was donated to the Catholic Church in 1961. Named Lebh Shomea, a listening heart, it eventually became a retreat center. It’s situated within the 4,000 square mile Wild Horse desert. I was very excited about my retreat. It was my first time in Texas, my first time in the desert, my first time at a Catholic retreat center and my first time on a silent retreat. For me, nature is a big part of my spirituality and when I am in a brand new setting, like my first time in a desert, it just kind of awakens my senses. I arrived on a Monday evening and Tuesday morning after chapel and breakfast, I set out to walk a path in the desert scrub. After passing a couple hermitages, there were no other signs of civilization. The only thing I heard were some birds overhead. It was so peaceful. I breathed deeply as I walked, sun on my face (I’d been in the Chicago snow the day before). Among the scrub were Juniper trees and, as I rounded a turn in the trail, there under a Juniper was an animal skull picked clean. I stopped dead in my tracks. Moments before I’d felt so much at peace in this desert wilderness in the midst of nature. Now here I was looking down at that picked over skull wondering what it had been and what had brought about its demise. It was only a skull – like a set of a western. Whatever had happened to it, it had been torn apart, picked clean, with only the skull remaining. Suddenly I didn’t like this wilderness quite so much. I certainly didn’t feel “at one” with it. I felt very, very vulnerable, isolated, and potentially helpless against whatever had carried out this savage deed. I turned around and headed back to the retreat center and, from that point on, limited my walks to the grounds of the ranch.
Each year on the first Sunday of Lent, we find ourselves with Jesus in the wilderness. Each year on the first Sunday of Lent, we read a version of Jesus’ temptation or testing in the wilderness. Hear now Mark’s version:
Mark 1:12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. 14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."
Mark’s version of this event in Jesus’ life is very succinct and in many ways unique. Mark doesn’t tell us that Jesus fasted. Mark doesn’t relay any dialogue between Jesus and Satan. Mark is also unique in telling us of the presence of wild beasts.
Physical wilderness is a place that is sparsely populated, vast and barren. It is a space where we find ourselves vulnerable and isolated. Do you remember the mental image of wilderness you formed at the beginning of my sermon? That is physical wilderness. But wilderness is more than a physical thing, right? Wilderness can be a metaphor for a spiritual experience or condition.
So, take a moment now to think: when has been a time in your life when you have found yourself in a situation in which you felt isolated and vulnerable, you faced adversity, and felt as if you were being put to the test? It could be an illness, a financial difficulty, a betrayal. Close your eyes and bring that to mind as well. That is most definitely wilderness, is it not?
So it doesn’t really matter whether you’re in the Midwest or the Desert Southwest, to be human is to find yourself, from time to time, in the wilderness – alone, vulnerable, and feeling powerless. Wilderness is a dangerous space to be in because, in the wilderness, there is so much to threaten us. But wilderness is also a place of opportunity. We, like Jesus can emerge from the wilderness with renewed strength and purpose. Jesus emerged from the wilderness ready to launch his public ministry.
Now, there is one warning I want to give about this morning’s sermon: while the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness, we should not attribute our own wilderness experiences to God. Jesus was unique; that’s why we worship him. You and I are not Jesus. In fact, James 1:13 tells us, “No one, when tempted, should say, "I am being tempted by God"; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one.”
Nevertheless, while God does not tempt us, there is no doubt we face tests of our own. And, while God does not lead us into the wilderness, we nevertheless, sometimes find ourselves in the wilderness. And when we do, this story reveals something very important.
According to Mark, even as Jesus was being tested and grappling with the wild beasts, angels, messengers or ministers from God, were serving him. Likewise, we are never ditched by God in the wilderness. God attends to us in the wilderness. God provides for us by sending angels, messengers of his grace and mercy.
It’s important for us to recognize that, although “angels” in our bible are usually heavenly beings, that interpretation is not exclusive. People can also be angels because the word simply means “messenger.” And, although we associate angels with these dramatic proclamations – like Gabriel’s announcement to the Virgin Mary – angels do more than speak. In 1 Kings, chapter 19, the prophet Elijah is fleeing the wrath of Queen Jezebel, running for his life to Mount Horeb, the mountain of God. It is a journey through the wilderness and is, apparently, arduous. He is sitting under a solitary broom tree in the wilderness, completely hopeless and weary. He falls asleep and is awakened by an angel, not once, but twice. The angel miraculously provides Elijah with food and drink, acknowledging his need for strength for this journey. Biblically, angels do more than say stuff. They provide for us in sustaining ways in times of need. God did not leave Jesus alone without angels in the wilderness and God does not leave us alone without angels in our wilderness.
I know I’ve mentioned before that Britt’s and my first pastoral appointment in Pennsylvania was very difficult. There were three churches on the charge and two of the three had some pretty nasty leaders. At the same time, my mom was dying of cancer. But, during those two years, every so often – when I was feeling my most discouraged – I would get a note and a prayer from an elderly man in my dad’s congregation in Johnstown. Gene Kimmel woke up around 5 a.m. every morning and spent hours in prayer. So I’ve no doubt that the cards and notes I got from Gene were in response to the urging of God’s Spirit. God nudged Gene at just the right times to reach out and offer me prayers and encouragement.
I’m going to guess most of us have had a similar experience. In fact, sometimes we’re the ones God’s Spirit prompts. Someone comes to our mind for no apparent reason, out of the blue, and we feel this overwhelming sense that we should call them and, when we do, we discover that they are in a wilderness. And then we realize: that overwhelming, inexplicable sense that we needed to reach out originated with God who was calling us to be his messenger, his servant of mercy and grace. We were the angel God sent.
Now, you may be in a wilderness right now. Or, you most dreadful wilderness may be a distant memory. But, life being what it is, you will inevitably find yourself in a wilderness again at some point in the future. So I want to invite you and encourage you this week, to sit down in front of your computer or with pen and paper and journal a bit about a wilderness experience and the messengers God sent, his angels of mercy and grace, when you were in that isolating, vulnerable, frightening place.
This is Lent and that’s what Lent is about. It is a season in which we examine our lives and God’s place within our lives. That is what it means to observe a holy Lent; to set aside time for scripture, prayer and reflection. So this morning, I invite you to reflect on your own wilderness experiences and the ways in which God has faithfully provided for you, ministered to you, in your wilderness.
I hope that all of you will be checking out the devotional booklet we created for Lent this year. Some of you got a hard copy. All of you will receive the devotions via email. There is an image for each week and this week’s image is a picture that I took on my sabbatical at Sunset Crater in Arizona. Sunset Crater is the remains from a volcanic eruption in the 11th century. It is mostly ash and gravel. But there are occasional flowers and plants that have somehow come to flourish amidst barren wilderness. On my sabbatical I took tons and tons of pictures there. I couldn’t get enough of it. I wasn’t sure why I was so drawn to it. But, upon reflection, Sunset Crater provides a rich theological lesson. No matter how vast and barren the wilderness seems, it is never empty. There are still signs of life and beauty. We can’t even imagine how they got there. But there they are, taking us by surprise, standing out even more brilliantly against the vast wilderness landscape. When we are in the wilderness, sometimes it is hard for us to be aware of God’s presence. Sometimes, in the thick of it, we might even overlook God’s beautiful messengers. But, if we pause and reflect, we will see them: there in the wilderness, the angels – the messengers – God has sent to minister to our needs and to be vessels of God’s mercy and grace. Take some time this week to reflect on your wilderness and God’s presence with you and share your story with someone else who may be in their own wilderness right now.
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