The word “wilderness” appears 166 times in the bible and it is usually translated as a desert, a wasteland, or a barren pasture. The wilderness is often described as a dangerous place, a place where wild beasts and the enemies of God dwell. I am thinking about the wilderness because at the beginning of his ministry, immediately following his baptism, Jesus found himself sent or driven to the wilderness to struggle with the power of evil. Now, to be honest, you and I would not normally find ourselves in this kind of wilderness, but I got to thinking about the kinds of wildernesses we find ourselves in. What does the wilderness look like in our lives?
Not too long ago a friend of mine lost her job. She saw it coming, but the blow was still heavy and heard to bear none the less. She was the family provider of health care and benefits, she was the provider stability and with a few months to prepare, she found herself in the unemployment wilderness. This is a wilderness that is often filled with the hard edges and sharp stones of depression, grief and loss. It is a wilderness of self-questioning. It is a wilderness that often includes the process of having to formulate a new sense of self and new goals in life. It is a wilderness that sometimes drives us to make new priorities in life. It is a wilderness that often involves struggle and a sense of the absence of God’s leading in our lives.
I spent a fair amount of time in another wilderness this past week, the wilderness of the Cardiac Intensive Care waiting room. This is not a physically uncomfortable wilderness, but it is an emotionally draining wilderness in which to find oneself. To be in this wilderness means to wrestle with a combination of love and fear for loved ones who are lying on a bed on the other side of large tan double doors. If one is a patient, it is a wilderness that literally involves a life and death struggle. It is a wilderness where hope battles despair and where the anguished question of “why” is often hurled heavenward. This wilderness is often a place of wondering about God’s presence and whether or not God “has left the building.”
Yet another wilderness some of us find ourselves in is what I want to call the relationship wilderness. It is a place where there is turmoil, strain and stress between ourselves and a loved one, or loved ones. This is a tricky wilderness and a particularly devastating one in which to roam around. Dependent as we are on those we love for contributing to our sense of self, when we are at odds, or when a relationship is broken, we lose a part of ourselves and have to go in search of that piece of us as well as going in search of peace of mind. Sometimes there is reconciliation in the wilderness and sometimes brokenness remains and when it does, we sometimes look to others to help us through the wilderness.
Recently I have found myself part of several conversations that people are finding the events of our world, particularly the atrocities committed by the group commonly referred to as ISIS and the senseless murders in our own Lehigh Valley as contributors to a sense of despair and a serious challenge to their faith. This might be called the wilderness of questions or the wilderness of doubt. That age old question of how a “good God” could allow these atrocities to happen seems ever before us. Is God a God of justice or not, when will the evil enemies of God and humanity get what is coming to them as been asked of me. How can we even talk about a loving God when the world seems devoid of ethics and moral behavior, let alone a place where people care for others? This wilderness is a dark place as it has the power to rock and challenge the very foundations of our faith.
There are more wildernesses that are a part of our daily lives, but hopefully we get the sense that living in the wilderness is no easier for us than it was in the folks who lived in Jesus day. The wilderness is a place of challenge, of despair, of struggle and of searching. So isn’t it just a bit odd that immediately following his baptism, Jesus is sent our or driven out to the wilderness? Wouldn’t you think that God would protect us from the wilderness, from the wastelands, trials and hardships in life? Wouldn’t you think that being a Christian would make the wilderness into an oasis, a place of healing, rejoicing and laughter? Mark, out of all the gospels, suggests that the angels (as well as the wild beasts) were with Jesus the whole time that he was in the wilderness. Now the wild beasts are the symbol, we understand, they are the enemies of God. There are also angels, or messengers. Jesus was not alone!
The first lesson we might want to consider today is that we are not alone; even if the normal life is a life spent in the wilderness, and even if God seems absent, we are not left alone. The reality is that no matter what wilderness we find ourselves in, God sends us messengers, angels, companions to journey with us. Do you often stop to consider who the angels, the messengers in your life are or might be? Do we recognize the great company God surrounds us with, or are we so busy battling our way through the wilderness that we don’t even think to look for or to be ministered to by the messengers, the angels God sends our way? No matter what wilderness we might find ourselves in, a wilderness of under or unemployment, a wilderness of relationships, a wilderness of health challenges, a wilderness of fear, doubt and questions, a wilderness of alienation or a wilderness of incredible temptation to give in to the siren calls of an easier life, I am convinced that not only is God with us, God sends us countless angels. he wilderness is the place where we are the farthest from God and yet even when we are going through the wilderness times, this story reminds us that Jesus has been there before us. Our strength for living these days comes from knowing that no matter where we journey in life, God has already been there before us. No matter what our short comings, God is able to transform them. No matter how hard life gets, Jesus understands what it means and offers us a way through.
There is another side of the story I want us to consider as well; who are the messengers of God, who are the angels? Who are the people who will bring a word of comfort, a cup of water, a word of hope, a touch of healing to those who are trapped in the wilderness? So often we like to view ourselves as consumers of faith and of spiritual resources. Jesus gives me the hope and strength I need to go on. What if we looked at ourselves not merely as consumers, but as those charged with bringing the message to the wilderness? What if we are the messengers that God is sending to the world? What if God is sending us to people who are saying they don’t have enough faith to survive the wilderness, to tell them, that’s all right, I have enough faith for both of us. What if God is transforming the wilderness through us? If this is the case, it strikes me that it isn’t just about going through the wilderness, but recognizing that even though it might feel like it, even though we might believe it, even though we can see no other being around, God is with us all the time. It might just be that we need to walk into the wilderness of our own lives, our families, our work environment, our community and our world and minister to those who are in distress, to those who have lost hope, to those who believe violence is the only answer. What if God is urging us to join a movement, to say no to terror and violence, to shout no to escalating retaliation for wrongs inflicted on the people of the world? What if God wants us to seriously explore ways of peace that address grievances and hurts? What if God wants us to give up the role of judging others and to assume the role of ministering to them? What if we are the angels, the messengers of God? The wilderness might indeed be a place where people experience the absence of God, but our journey into the wilderness as messengers is to be agents of transformation and change. Our job in the wilderness is to bring light, comfort and strength, to be company for those who journey through the wilderness. We are the company and we are in good company.