What the Wilderness Reveals

March 12, 2022

Wilderness.   

A harsh place.

An abandoned place.

An uninhabited place.

A neglected place.

Throughout history, people have gone into the wilderness to ‘find themselves,’ to spend undistracted time examining their thoughts, testing their character, attending to those neglected parts of themselves in need of care.  

Wilderness is the place where the ‘who’ and ‘why’ that defines us is revealed – like it or not! 

Wilderness experiences can be either terrifying or empowering, depending on how we respond to what the wilderness reveals.

I think that we are currently in a wilderness.

So many things have happened over the past several years that the above definitions pretty much sum things up in a nutshell! 

Our responses in the wilderness have revealed much about us as a people, a nation, and a world.

Perhaps that is why the lectionary for first Lent, which was all about wilderness and temptation, has stuck with me even as we move deeper into this season of self-revelation, repentance and anticipated renewal.

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In the scripture leading up to Jesus’ time in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11), He heard the divine pronouncement that He is the Beloved Son in Whom God is well pleased.  (Matthew 3:17)

He heard the human pronouncement as well, as John the Baptist declared Jesus to be the Lamb of God. (John 1:29)

Wonderful…but what kind of Messiah would Jesus be? 

This was not a question of identity crisis but of identity clarification. 

A question that could only be answered in the wilderness, exactly where the Spirit led Him!  

Jesus’ time in the wilderness was not about going toe-to-toe with the devil.  

Jesus’ time in the wilderness was about Jesus coming face-to-face with His true self.

What kind of Messiah would He be?

  • Would He be a self-serving Messiah Who could easily feed Himself at will, whether others ate or not?
  • Would He be a domineering Messiah Whose power and prestige could easily overwhelm a strife-ridden and power-hungry world?
  • Would He be a gloating Messiah Who could wield His special status (blessing) as Son of God to remove Himself far from human dangers, human sufferings, and human mortality?  

Without confronting these visceral human temptations concerning issues of self-centeredness, power, and privilege, how would Jesus know the answer to the question regarding His true self?

Funny thing about temptation. Temptation isn’t temptation unless it is actually within the realm of the possible. For Jesus, the Son of God, all the temptations were within His grasp.

Jesus could have turned stones into bread.  

Jesus could have appropriated all worldly power to Himself.  

Jesus could have thrown Himself to from the highest pinnacle with the expectation that the angels would save Him.  

Besides, who would have known?  He was alone in the wilderness! Rationalization is always a sweet topping for temptation!

Still, though He could have done these things, He didn’t.

Jesus responded by rejecting self-interest, power, and privilege and the truth of His messianic calling was revealed. 

Jesus would be an ‘other oriented’ Messiah – sacrificially seeking the good of others – ahead of His own.  (John 15:13)

Jesus would be a humble, compassionate Messiah – offering His love, His life, His truth – always inviting, but never compelling, others to join Him.  (Luke 9:23)

Jesus would be the suffering Messiah – proving through His life, death, and resurrection that nothing can separate us from the love of God. (Romans 8:38-39)

Jesus would be the reconciling, rehabilitating, life-giving Messiah – His death and resurrection confirming that all He said and did is true – we can be forgiven and begin life again. (2 Corinthians 5:17)

He knew Who He was – Who He was called to be – What He was called to do – no matter the cost. This clarity would sustain Him in the challenges that lay ahead.  

There would be other wilderness experiences for Jesus: the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46), His cry of dereliction from the cross (Mark 15:34); each time, our Lord was revealed for Who He is and Why He came.

He is the true Messiah, the first born of the new creation, the Light Who gives light and life to the world – even in the midst of our own wilderness times!

So….what about us?

We have faced so many challenges lately it’s hard to breathe some days:

  • COVID and its remnants
  • Sexuality and its many expressions
  • Racial Inequality
  • Economic disparity
  • CRT
  • Reading materials in schools:who gets to decide for our children
  • Truth and Falsehood in the press
  • War unfolding in a place we never even thought much about until now. 

We’re exhausted. We’re vulnerable to behaviors we never knew were bubbling up within us and around us.  We have be subjected to – or subjected others to – lots of anger, violence, and self-righteous justification. 

We have been tempted to:

  • to lash out/tune out/demonize ‘the other.’  
  • to condemn/close ranks/marginalize any who threaten our status quo.  
  • to remain in ‘echo chambers’ of information that suit our preferred ‘real world’ view
  • play the blame game
  • assume the victim personae

The consequence? The creation of schisms within our families, our communities, our nation, and the world writ large, even within our communities of faith.

But is this who we really are? 

Nope.

Rather it is who we often have allowed ourselves to become when things are particularly challenging

When Jesus emerged from the wilderness He began teaching humanity what it means to follow Him on the path to being truly human: compassionate, merciful, loving, and forgiving.  He reminds us throughout his life that we are:

  • The beloved people of God, named and claimed in the waters of baptism. 
  • The forgiven and renewed people of God fed at the table of His love. 
  • The redeemed people of God worth dying for.  
  • The renewed and empowered people of God filled with the joy-filled light and hope of the empty tomb.
  • The ones who enter the wilderness from time to time, but only lead others through the desolation and into the light of Christ’s love. 

God in Christ wants all of humanity to be reminded that they are the beloved as well! When we forget these truths, God offers human point of light to lead us through the weeds of anger, the cliffs of violence, the swamps of self-righteous justification.  Points of light Mr. Roger’s, one of my personal favorites, calls: “the helpers.”  Helpers who remind us of the kind of people God calls us to be:

Helpers like:

  • Polish women who leave baby carriages at the Polish-Ukraine border stations for refugee mothers
  • Perfect strangers willing to open their homes to war ravaged refugees
  • Medical workers and first responders who put their lives on the line to save patients without asking vaccination status.
  • Volunteers who continue to work food banks and homeless shelters
  • Teachers who lose sleep wondering if ‘their kids’ are getting the education they need to succeed in life
  • Clergy (since I’m retired, I can say this!) who tireless work to care for their parishioners and find creative ways to continue on with worship and service so that Christ’s work in the world continues.

Wilderness times are revealing.  

What has been revealed to us – about us – during our wilderness time?

My prayer is that during these times we will be revealed as the ever-evolving ‘images of God in the world’ – the ‘helpers’ – that the Holy One intended we be, so that so that, through us, God will lead humanity to a new beginning, a new life with hope beyond the wilderness.

And to God be the glory!  AMEN

Published by Pastor Catharine

Retired ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I have a Master's of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry (with an emphasis on Spiritual Transformation of Community) from Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.

One thought on “What the Wilderness Reveals

  1. This is the first time I have had your Preacher Woman come into my email. (Finally … I’m not as computer literate as I’d like to be.
    Thank you!
    I have read it two times now and will surely read it a 3rd time.
    I’m sending this to my mother in law. I do think she’d enjoy it.
    🤟
    Cheryl

    Like

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