The word “wilderness” appears all over the Bible. It usually implies desolate, abandoned, and deserted places beyond settled areas, beyond the law and social controls. It can also refer to pastoral land with plenty of water and vegetation, but without permanent settlements or villages. In fact, the Hebrew word for wilderness originally meant “place of herding.” Finally, wilderness can even be a wooded area, or have a river, like the wilderness where John baptized Jesus.
My understanding of what Biblical wilderness looks like was radically changed after my trip to Israel. I used to think that wilderness meant only dry, dusty places like we see in all the Jesus movies. There is little or no water and everyone looks parched and exhausted. However, this is not a complete picture of the place the Bible calls wilderness.
For example, during the rainy season, which happens in the spring, our tour guide told us that the mountains, are filled with beautiful wildflowers and desert grasses. Furthermore, there are wadis all over the wilderness which have streams that flow all year round. They are green with lots of vegetation nearby. Bedouin shepherds lead their animals to these wadis during the dry seasons so they can find nourishment. Shepherds and travelers also use these wadis as places of rest to escape the hot desert heat.
The final image of wilderness I saw comes from our gospel lesson where John baptizes Jesus in the wilderness. I’ve been to both locations where this could have possibly taken place. Both of them have the Jordan River flowing through them. There are trees and other vegetation that grow close to the river banks.
So when the Bible talks about wilderness i can mean several types of locations, geographically. Yes, each of these locations has lots of sand. But they also have places that are green as well. So we have to adjust our mental picture of what wilderness looks like in the Bible.
The reason why I bring this up is that the one things the Bible agrees on when it’s speaking of wilderness is that it’s a place of spiritual and personal transformation. We see this, not only in the story of Jesus’ baptism, and the temptation story which followed. The wilderness serves the same purpose in the Exodus story where the Israelites lived in the wilderness for 40 years before they entered the Promised Land.
As a side note, this is why the number 40 is used in the story of Jesus’ temptation. This is his own personal exodus story. He emerges from the desert to begin his ministry. Those who are studying Revelation with me might remember that the number 40 in Biblical math is 4 X 10. 4 is the number of the boundaries of the earth and is symbolic of creation and the world. 10 is the number of human completeness, in terms of fullness or power.
Therefore, the Bible is not really giving us a chronological number. It is giving us a spiritual number. 40 tells us that the wilderness is a place where the natural world around us forces us to confront our weaknesses and find our strength. Because resources are limited, and living is difficult, the wilderness is where we confront our demons, be they literal, spiritual or mental.
In the Bible, it’s the place where the Devil appears to Jesus, and the Golden Calf is worshipped as a god. It’s the place where Elijah deals with his depression and exhaustion, and Moses receives his calling through a burning bush. Biblical wilderness is always the place where we discover our destiny and deepen our relationship with God. It is, perhaps, the most important geographical location in the Bible, because of its transformative potential.
It is this understanding of the wilderness that we bring into our modern world with its harsh living conditions and challenges that often seem overwhelming. This past month we’ve witnessed three devastating hurricanes: Harvey, Irma and Maria. Wildfires have destroyed vast portions of forests and fields. Two earthquakes have shaken our friends in Mexico. It’s a bit overwhelming, to say the least!
We place on top of this the upheaval of our political system, the rise of hate speech and white supremacy, the continuing disappearance of the middle class, along with the real possibility that people my generation and younger will not be able to afford to retire nor have adequate healthcare!
Friends in Christ, we are living in wilderness times! And I haven’t even gotten to all the personal crises and challenges we and our loved ones face. I’m sure it leaves you feeling the same way it leaves me feeling some days: overwhelmed, depressed and exhausted.
As I thought about the state of our world this week, I came to the conclusion that we have two responses to living in wilderness times: The first is that we can give up in despair and begin a continual litany of whining and lamenting. The second is that we can focus on the small graces that God provides for us while living in wilderness times. These graces give us the strength we need to endure whatever harsh living conditions we are facing.
Let me tell you a story to illustrate what I’m talking about. It’s the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 19. For reasons I won’t get into, Elijah is at the end of his rope. Queen Jezebel issues a death threat against him. He fears for his life, flees into the wilderness, and plops himself down under a solitary broom tree. You’ll appreciate this imagery even further if you know that a broom tree is a scraggly plant. It’s a bit like an umbrella without its covering.
So, Elijah is in the hot desert. He’s scared and exhausted. And like the Caribbean islands and Florida Keys that were stripped of all their trees during the recent hurricanes, there is no shelter to be found. It’s a pitiful sight and Elijah is at the end of his rope. “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life,” he says to God. I’m sure that God was listening but the Almighty was not content to leave Elijah in this place of suffering and lament.
After Elijah falls asleep from sheer exhaustion an angel taps him on the shoulder and offers him freshly baked bread and a jar of water. He ate the bread and drank the water, and immediately went back to sleep. The angel woke him up a second time, offering more bread and water. “Get up and eat,” the angel said. “Otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”
The story ends with the observation that Elijah “Went in the strength of that food for 40 days and 40 nights” [There’s that number 40 again!] until he reached Mount Horeb. It is there that he encounters God who appears not as wind, earthquake or fire, but as the sound of sheer silence. It is a powerful story, indeed, I encourage you to go home and read it for yourself.
Clearly, we see the two responses to living in wilderness times: At first Elijah gives up in despair, and begins a litany of whining and complaining. But then God offer Elijah grace upon grace. Even though Elijah is still in the wilderness, God gives him the gift of rest and nourishment. Friends in Christ, there is so much we can learn from this story.
First of all, lamenting has its place. Before the grace comes, there is usually a time for lamenting everything that we’ve lost. We see one of these laments in our First Lesson from Joel 1: “To you, Lord, I cry, for fire has completely destroyed the pastures of the wilderness; and flames have burned all the trees of the field.” It is a lament that we’ve literally heard from our friends on the West Coast who are facing devastating wildfires.
It’s important for all of us to understand that lament has its place and serves a purpose. Tears wash away some of the grime that clings to our souls. Expressing our pain to others has a way of lessening it. Lament does not come from a lack of faith. In fact, the opposite is true. Lament comes from the conviction that God cares enough to hear our cries and embraces us in our sorrow.
Otherwise, what is the point of it all? If no one is there to hear us or care about us, our laments does little good. Lament is something that needs to be shared. It is most effective if it is done as a communal event. If there is no community to hear our cries, than at least we have the faith that God is there to hear them.
The second thing we learn is that God is not content to leave us in a state of lamentation. We see this not only in the story of Elijah as an angel brings him fresh bread and water. We see this all over the Bible:
When the Israelites whined and complained in the wilderness after they escaped Egypt, God provided them with water, manna and quail. God also gave them a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, to help them navigate their time in the wilderness.
As the time of Israel’s exile in Babylon was coming to an end, Isaiah speaks, on behalf of God, a word of grace and hope: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’S hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.'” [Is 40]
Finally, in our gospel lesson, Mark ends with the observation that Jesus “was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” [NRSV]
These stories remind us that God is not content to leave us in a state of lamentation. God is always, always working behind the scenes to bring new life to dry bones, to construct a holy highway to lead us out of the wilderness, to bring new life where there once was death, and to make new beginnings out of dead ends.
The final thing we learn is that when we find ourselves wandering in the wilderness, we must always keep our eyes focused on the small graces that God sends our way. I think it’s profound in Elijah’s story that he hears the voice of God not in the windstorm, nor the earthquake, nor the fire. Elijah hears God’s voice in the sound of sheer silence.
This reminds us that as we make our way through the wilderness, it’s tempting to ask God for lots of big things. “God, give us a sign that you are there for us! Demonstrate your power! Show us that you care for us!” While God sometimes honors this request, it has been my experience that God shows up in lots of little ways that we just might miss if we’re only looking for big signs and miracles.
God shows up as Susan Bolick, and other Red Cross volunteers who are serving meals and tending to the needs of those recovering from Hurricane Irma. God shows up as the gift of homemade soup and phone calls of support, to our friend Joe Langley while he was dying of cancer.
God shows up, in families that are reunited after a natural disaster has devastated their island. God shows up, in donations to Lutheran Disaster Response and people who invited friends and strangers to stay with them until they could return home.
God shows up in all these ways, and so many more, again and again, grace upon grace. The challenge is that we have to trust that when we find ourselves living in the wilderness, this is God’s nature and God will be faithful to us, in ways that we don’t always see nor perceive. The wilderness is a place of spiritual and personal transformation. May the stories from the Bible I’ve share with you this morning, be a source of encouragement and comfort as you make your way through the wilderness. AMEN.
Copyright ©2017 David Ec