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Wilderness




Wilderness

Mark 1:9-15

It’s interesting that the Season of Lent begins in the wilderness. Of course, we tend to have a romanticized idea of what the wilderness is, and what it represents… but ultimately, in God’s Word, wilderness, or desert place, is not a very safe or comfortable place to be when left to your own devices…

A few years ago now, Tammy and I had the opportunity to travel to Alaska. We flew into Fairbanks and spent a week visiting Tammy’s sister and teenaged children while her husband was deployed in Afghanistan. And beginning on our second day there, we took a series of day long road trips. We visited and toured Fairbanks and North Pole… we drove to Denali National Park, and to Manley Hot Springs, the furthest point west that can be driven in North America without using a boat or plane to get there. And we set out on the Dalton Highway, which is mainly a dirt road once you get north of Fairbanks, to visit the Yukon River and the Arctic Circle. We were traveling in a Four Runner SUV… but before we set out that morning, we had to pack all necessary survival items, extra gas in cans strapped to the top of the SUV, two extra spare tires, emergency food and blankets, all items suggested by the Alaska DOT. You could literally travel for hundreds of miles before encountering another vehicle – and cell phones were useless, except for taking pictures. So, you were basically on your own. If you had a mechanical issue, and found yourself stranded, it could literally be hours before help arrived. The wilderness isn’t the safest of places.

So, it’s not hard to imagine how easily one could die in such a harsh, unforgiving environment.

Of course, in the Bible, the desert or wilderness is always a sign of danger… physical danger, no doubt… but spiritual danger, too. Before God brought order to his creation—before he hung the planets and starts in place—all was chaos. In fact, the original Hebrew word in the Creation Story (Gen. 1) translated chaos (tohu webohu) literally means formless, shapeless, and dangerous. Life could not exist until God brought order… and established peace from the chaos. God’s order always equals peace.

All throughout the Bible… the wilderness (the same tohu webohu of Genesis 1) became shorthand for the devil’s realm, for temptation, for danger, for evil threats to life, and even the soul.

I say all of this, to say this: if you and I are gonna follow Jesus to the cross in Lent, then we have to start where he started... We have to begin in the wilderness.

John, the forerunner of Jesus, entered the wilderness first... declaring the fulfillment of those prophecies of old... and God’s plan to build a path, a road, a highway - back to order, back to peace - starting right there in that dangerous desert. And as Jesus joined John in the wilderness… no sooner than his baptism, no sooner had God’s voice thundered from heaven, “this is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” – did Jesus find himself violently thrown - quite literally hurled - into a wilderness experience where the wild animals prowled.

Think about that: In Mark, Jesus never says one single word in public, he never preaches a two-minute sermon… before he’s dropped smack in the middle of a wild place of chaos. It’s almost as if Jesus couldn’t credibly say or preach anything until he’d experienced something of the underbelly of life. Jesus had to enter the worst, most chaotic of places before he could reliably declare that the kingdom of God was near. Maybe that’s because the kingdom of God cannot really draw near until the kingdom of darkness - symbolized by the wilderness - is engaged.

It may seem a lame example, but Tammy and I are fans of the old television series M*A*S*H.

Compared to most of the stuff that passes for entertainment today, it’s a pretty good series. In one episode, the unit’s priest, Fr. Mulcahy, tried to talk with a wounded soldier who had been traumatized by what he witnessed on the front lines of the war. But when this soldier realized the Priest had never been anywhere near the actual fighting, he shut Mulcahy’s attempts to help down. The soldier had no interest in hearing from someone who had no idea about what the front lines were like. Of course, later in the episode, after Mulcahy does come under enemy fire - and is forced to perform an emergency medical procedure on a soldier even as shells are exploding all around him, the soldier welcomes the Priest. They found a common frame of reference, in their “front line” experience.

Mark’s basically making the same point about Jesus. Jesus could not say the kingdom was near until he had been to the front lines, until he had engaged the temptations, the chaotic wilderness of life head on. Because after Jesus experienced the desert places, when he spoke words of hope and promise, everyone would know that these were not the sunny, starry-eyed words of an unrealistic optimist. These were the words of someone who’d “been there and done that” - someone who had engaged the jagged edges of real life in a fallen world and had emerged victorious.

And the fact is, Jesus never calls us to do anything he wasn’t willing and able to do himself.

Have you ever been in a wilderness? A chaotic place? An unforgiving place in life. As the Psalmist puts it, have you ever been in a “dry and weary land where there is no water?” There’s a reason we experience such times…

2 Corinthians 4:1… tells us that God allows us to experience chaotic, difficult times in order that He “comfort us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”

Of course, ultimately Jesus goes well beyond just confronting the challenges of the wilderness. He stares down evil itself, and sacrifices himself, taking upon his flesh the sins of all creation… and defeats it… offering life, free and abundant life, to you and me.

Lent begins in the wilderness, in the worst parts of life in a fallen, broken world. It begins there as a reminder that Jesus transforms this world by his very presence.

May the presence of Christ transform each of us this Lent… as we make our way to the cross. Amen.

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