Preached at my sending parish, Grace Episcopal Church in Siloam Springs AR, on February 18th, 2018; Lent 1B. Gospel reading: Mark 1:9-13.
Last week, your preacher talked to you about mountaintop experiences. Today, as we transition from the revelation and excitement of Epiphany to the introspection of Lent, I would like to ponder what often happens after we descend from the mountain.
Our Gospel reading begins with Jesus being baptized by John in the Jordan river. Mark’s account is characteristically brief and rough with few of the details contained in other accounts, filled with a sense of urgency and immediacy and a focus on disciples of Jesus who are called to heavy responsibility but often bewildered as to what it all means. As we work through the immense series of events contained in these brief, staccato verses, let us see if the Spirit may speak through our imaginations as we are first introduced to the Christ as yet another poor first- century Jewish man being submerged in the waters of a border river in Roman Palestine by yet another crazy-sounding, disheveled, insect-eating, charismatic prophet preaching reformation and the coming of a messiah figure at some unspecified but soon-to-arrive time.
As Jesus reemerged from the turbulent, muddy flow, roughly wiping water and hair out of his eyes, suddenly the sky was rent across, a deep tear ripping across the azure blue. The darkness of the cosmos poured through and he felt the fingering movements of the Ru’ach, the Breath, the Spirit, settle upon him just as it had brooded over the face of the deep on the first day of creation. The plea of the prophet Isaiah, “Oh that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down!” (Is 64:1) was being answered. What had long been sealed was being flung open!
A voice echoed out of the heavens, whispering into Jesus’ ears alone, “You are my Son, the beloved, in you I have delighted.” The language of the commissioning of a Jewish king or anointed deliverer from bondage was being applied to a Galilean peasant from Nazareth!
“And immediately”—everything in Mark’s Gospel happens with great urgency—and immediately the same force which had enveloped him with presence and words of love in the water seemed to turn against him. Described with the same language of forceful motion that depicted Jesus’ later exorcism of demons, it pulled him out of the Jordan and cast him out into the wilderness.
What does that word evoke in your imagination? Do you see cool sunlit forests, craggy mountains, or windswept landscapes of sand, rock, and cactus?
What do you feel when you hear this word, when you swish the syllables around in your mouth? Are you excited, or are you nervous? Do you yearn for it, or fear it?
Wilderness is the place of the wild ones. Here the great beasts of the prophets Daniel and Isaiah roam, the lion and the adder, which the Jewish exegetes understood as the embodiment of demons—haunting the tumbled stones of the condemned Jerusalem during the Exile. The Hebrew midbar describes land outside civilization, where the environment is inhospitable to humanity. In Greek, the word eremos describes a deserted place, empty, abandoned, lonely; originating in separation and division. Here is where the residue of the primeval pre-creation chaos that threatens human life can still be found. The wilderness is where we are not in control any more, where we are separated from community and loved ones, subject to greater forces which seem at best dismissive of our existence and at worst set toward our destruction.
Into this vast alienation Jesus stumbled and roamed, beset by the voice of the Accuser, the Adversary, h’Shatan of the steppes of the soul, surrounded by the howls of the great beasts, for forty days. Mark tells us only of the simultaneous isolation from human community and overabundance of spectral forces: Spirit, Shatan, beasts, and angels. He gives us no details other than the mention of a “test” that Jesus is put to by the Adversary.
Why does the Spirit take Jesus from the momentary peak high of the baptism so immediately to let him linger so long in the barrenness and alienation of the wilderness? While I can only imagine what might have been Mark’s longer explanation, I can also draw on my own experiences in response. After a year and a half of intense academic study, formation, and exegetical papers, I can give you my own word for “wilderness” . . . “seminary.”
I experienced my first year at Virginia Theological Seminary as truly being cast out into the wilderness. I had come off of the mountain-top experience of worship at Grace, being mentored by Stan, and finally appointed as postulant by the bishop in a process I had been pursuing for several years at that point. I was ready for the hard work of questions and discernment and doubts to be over so that I could fully engage in the joy of the theological education I had been looking forward to for so long. Yet by a few weeks into my first semester I felt like I had fallen off the side of a cliff rather than being set free to soar.
My faith, formation, and calling were repeatedly challenged both directly and indirectly. All the theology and Biblical studies I had worked so hard to rebuild in previous years seemed at odds with where my fellow students seemed to be and the sources from which my first professors taught. The Accuser in my head whispered, “You’re not enough. You don’t belong. They don’t like you. You wouldn’t last here anyway. You don’t have anything to offer—who are you to think you could be a priest?”
And I listened. I withdrew even further from community, isolating myself in an attempt to shield myself from future hurt. I kept myself distant and internally mocking as my classmates planned and discussed. In the second semester I switched degree problems from the Master of Divinity to the academic-focused MA and withdrew from the ordination process with the Bishop. Nothing helped. Not looking for design jobs, not picking up my passion project of translating the book of Amos with a favorite professor, nothing. I was lost, seemingly irretrievably, in the wilderness of my soul.
Many Christian theologians, from Saint Augustine to Saint John of the Cross, have described this wilderness experience in various terms. Philosophers and psychologists have described the journey as “stages of faith,” as moving toward a “second naïveté,” as Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey,” or in theories of spiral dynamics. The Franciscan Father Richard Rohr calls it liminality—the place between no-longer and not-yet, a transitional place of great power. In Everything Belongs he wrote: “We have to allow ourselves to be drawn into sacred space, into liminality. All transformation takes place there...where we are betwixt and between. There the old world is left behind, but we’re not sure of the new one.”
He continues, “This pattern of falling apart precedes every transition to a new level of faith. If one is not prepared to live in that temporary chaos, to hold the necessary anxiety that chaos entails, one never moves to deeper levels of faith or prayer or relationship with God.”
While it seems wrong, twisted, and incomprehensible to the one in the midst of the wilderness, these wise guides tell us that there is something intentional about God casting us into the wilderness. While the events which often make up or shove us into wilderness remain tragic and legitimately painful and often destructive, the path through these experiences can teach us something about ourselves and our calling, can break down and rebuild us in new forms. The Bible scholar and pastor Walter Brueggemann writes: “If we do not experience the pain, rage, and disease that goes with such disequilibrium, we may be missing out on our call.”
What about you? Can you see wilderness in your past, or are you in wilderness now? Are you living in a time of between-ness, where sometimes God feels absent, where darkness is a more faithful friend than the light?
What I can promise you is that every authentic human journey toward maturity goes through wilderness. Our entry into it goes by many names other than “desert”—maybe university, or illness, or tragic loss, or job transition, or depression. Maybe you have or will experience it as a complete loss of your religious faith or an abandonment by God. But we can also have confidence that not only is it an inevitable and “normal” part of the human experience, but it is something our savior and guide Jesus the Christ entered into and continues to lead us into and then out of. That even, and maybe especially, in the midst of wilderness and darkness God is with us.
The great 20th century Catholic monk and spiritual writer Henri Nouwen wrote of this wilderness experience: “It is in the lonely place, where Jesus enters into intimacy with the Father, that his ministry is born.”
In our Gospel Jesus had an amazing mountain-top-style encounter with God, only to be immediately thrown out of that encounter, out of the fellowship of John and the Baptizer’s disciples, out of civilization, out of the promised land itself, into a sense of the absence of God in the dwelling place of forces hostile to humanity. In the end, as Mark tells us, it is out of this experience of the wilderness following revelation that Jesus emerged with his proclamation of the Gospel—that the kingdom of God is already present if only we have eyes to see!
It is out of my seminary wilderness that my calling has been broken, refined, and clarified. It took a combination of medication for depression, therapy, wise voices outside my own head, and simply the process of time to eventually lead me back into both the MDiv and postulancy. Now as we collectively pass from Epiphany to Lent, let us always remember God is found in the darkness as well as the light, in the seeming absences as deeply as in the euphoric moments of presence. Amen.
Photo: "Ojito Twilight" from John Fowler.