IN THE WILDERNESS.
Our text says: 'At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert, and he was in the desert 40 days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him'. (Mark 1: 12 + 13).
The Greek word that we translate as ‘sent him out’ has a very definite sense of urgency about it. There is a pushing; a driving; a thrusting forth, out into the desert. Why was there a ‘thrusting forth’ of Jesus, in that way?
The ‘wilderness’ was long recognised as a place of testing inner resources; of seeking, and finding, strength for what lies ahead – and Christ had to undergo such a testing.
In spiritual terms, the wilderness offers retreat from the mundane things of life, where; in the quietness; the deeper things of God and man, can be sought, and discovered. It is a place to return from, in order to undertake particular tasks; and a place to return to, when further resource is needed.
The gospels indicate that our Lord Jesus, often returned to the desert places, in order to re-charge his inner, and spiritual, self; and they imply that he invites us to follow his example.
In both old and New Testaments, the Greek noun (Eremia) is sometimes translated 'desert' and, just as often, translated as 'wilderness'. Neither 'desert’, nor ‘wilderness’ is to be seen as an empty waste of burning-hot sand, like the Sahara, and similar places. Instead, the noun, and the adjective, relate to largely uninhabited areas, well outside of towns and villages.
In such places, there can be loneliness and desolation; in the sense of being completely, or mainly, bereft of the society of fellow beings; but, there is plenty, in terms of basic provision.
Many of the Bible images of spiritual struggle and progress, take that physical place, the ‘wilderness’, and set the human life ... the human soul ... within it.
Bible Stories about people in the 'wilderness', almost always show that they were there for a particular time, and for a constructive purpose.
They had to manage with what they had got, until they discovered that they were in a place of spiritual resource. Then, they not only utilised what they already had, but received more, from the resource.
As the way opened up for them to receive yet more, so the 'what-they-had-got’ store increased; and the provision became less basic; more sharply defined, and pertinent to their needs.
Because the store increased, and became less basic: those in the 'wilderness', were enabled to move nearer to becoming their true selves. Each 'moving nearer' was an encouragement, born of experience. Enabled in that way, they returned from the 'wilderness', in the spiritual power that had been given, until there was a need to return, for further resource.
In the Bible stories, spiritual truths are set within quite ordinary contexts, and we sometimes have to search, and think carefully, if we are to discover and understand a particular teaching.
Spiritual wildernesses, like physical ones, can be places of danger; but scripture tells us not to be afraid, and invites us to explore, and to discover that the 'wilderness' is the place where deeper levels of life may be found; and the place to which there must often be a returning; if what is received is to develop and grow.
With few exceptions: the ‘great names' of the Bible were 'wilderness’ people. Though born in the small city of Ur, Abraham spent his middle years, and old age, in the ‘wilderness’ into which God had pushed and driven him, and thrust him forth.
There, in the 'wilderness', Abraham learned the will of God; and discovered how to obey it. There he received much love and grace, and all things needful to become, and to be, the Founding Father of the new people of God.
In Bible terms, the 'wilderness' is always a place of both physical and spiritual journeying and discovery. Abraham wandered there for more than half of his life; and he discovered, and undertook, his true vocation. Isaac and Jacob wandered there; and Jacob, in particular, discovered his true self, and became a changed man.
Moses wandered in the 'wilderness', during the later years of his life. He discovered much of the power of God, and, to his surprise, became the appointed channel of the Lord’s declared will, both to the people of that day, and to all generations since.
For, as our Lord Jesus said, he did not come to cancel the law, as given through Moses: but to fulfil it, generation by generation.
The nation of Israel, wandered with Moses, and discovered something, at least, of what it meant to be the 'People of God'.
Elijah the prophet, wandered in the 'wilderness' for three years; waiting for the Lord's further word. There, he discovered that the promises of God are true; and that all his needs would be provided for, until the day came for him to return to Israel, and help restore true faith and practice to the nation.
John the Baptist lived many years in the 'wilderness'. There he discovered much of self, of his mission and purpose, as God spoke to him. Luke 3: 2+3., says: ‘The word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’.
In so doing, John became the forerunner of Christ
Paul, in his 'Letter to the Galatians', says that he did not receive the gospel from the hands, and teaching, of men; but that, in the wilderness areas of Arabia, he was personally taught, by Christ.
We know; from the gospel stories; that Jesus lived in the 'wilderness' for a while; driven there, thrust out into that place, where he was greatly tempted, but overcame.
We must also note that Jesus; more than anyone else named in scripture; made it a policy, and a discipline, to return to the ‘wilderness', whenever there was a need for spiritual resource and refreshment.
At Mark 1:35, we read: ‘Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed’. There are enough similar texts, to show that the Lord made a regular practice of going back to the ‘wilderness' (Matt.14: 23. + Luke 5:16. + 6:12.+ 9:28).
However, on those returns to the ‘wilderness’, there was a 'driving' of a different order; the yearning of his soul, toward all that God is; and of Jesus responding to his need of spiritual refreshment, and enabling.
The Bible shows that, whether of short duration or long, all true 'wilderness' experiences, are a journeying to, and a returning from, to a set purpose, within the divine will. And so it must be with us.
In the spiritual journey of our lives, it does not take us very long to find our personal wilderness. What do we discover there; and how do we respond to what we find?
Are we more than a little afraid? Is our wilderness, for us, a place that is parched and barren? Is it lonely; a bit desolate and sad? Do we wander alone, bereft of contact, even with God, and out of communion with our true self?
Or is it, for us, like the great ones of old, and ever since, a place of new life and direction: of new discovery, and experience, both of God, and of ourselves. Is it a place of purpose given, and grace received: so that our lives may be fulfilled?
But, from the story of Jesus, and from our own experience, we know that the 'wilderness' can also be a place of trial and temptation. This is not the moment to look too closely at the individual temptations of Jesus, in the 'wilderness’, but we can consider the basic nature of them.
Jesus was tempted to value himself for the wrong reasons. But he refused to do so. His mind was set on keeping within the will and purpose of God, and that is where he stayed as he refuted and overcame the temptations.
In refuting, and overcoming, Jesus clearly demonstrated the enabling power of the true 'wilderness' experience; particularly when he returned from that place, and commenced his ministry.
And so it can be with us, as our lives demonstrate benefits received from the best aspects of any personal 'wilderness' experiences; that we may have had.
As the Bible, and our own experiences, teach us: the best 'wilderness times’ are those where there has been a constructive waiting, and a recognizable, positive outcome.
To be constructive ... definite ... positive ... the waiting must not be passive, until a certain amount of time has passed, but active. Here is an illustration, which shows the negative aspect of a situation, in order to highlight the positive alternative.
A man visited a long-term psychiatric hospital, and asked to see a particular patient. The receptionist said: 'I will send for him'. After a while, she called out: ‘He’s waiting for you, in the room at the end of the corridor'.
Later, the man said: ‘He wasn't really waiting; for me, or for anyone else; he was just 'there'. He looked at me with the same disinterested stare, with which he looked at the window; or the vase of flowers; the floor, or the notice-board on the opposite wall. He wasn't really waiting; he was just 'there'.
Our waiting, during any ‘wilderness' time, must be of a different order.
It must be positive; expectant; alive and alert. It must be the kind of waiting, where there is watching, and seeing; with a learning response, to whatever is given during the wait…
... so that, when the time of waiting is over, there can be a going forth in the power of that which has been given.
How do the psalmists encourage us? ‘I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope. My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen wait for the morning’ (Psalm 130: 5+6) ... alert ... expectant...ready!
‘God, you are my God, I seek You. My soul thirsts for you, as in a dry and weary land, where no water is’ (Psalm 63: I). a desiring and seeking, there, in the 'wilderness' experience.
And how does God respond, to you and to me?
Through the mouth of the prophet Isaiah, he says this: 'In that day nothing will be lacking. It is the mouth of the Lord that has spoken, and it is the Spirit of the Lord that will act. The wilderness and the parched places will be glad, for the wilderness will rejoice, and blossom, like the rose" (Psalm 35: 1).
The positive, expectant, anticipatory waiting, that is alive and alert, is, by the sure promise of God, a time that will produce a due reward.
And the reward given is never an end in itself: but a further enabling, towards a yet greater end.
We may enjoy the 'peak' experiences of our lives of faith, because these bring their own refreshment, and encouragement; but, according to the images of the Bible, true spiritual growth and development, is, often, to be found elsewhere; in the 'wilderness' that we have sometimes feared.
In a true 'wilderness' experience: there is new life, and refreshment. In that place, we, too, are attended, just as Christ was: but, in our case, not by angels, but by Jesus himself.
The ministering Jesus gives us life and strength: and guides us towards the fulfilment of his will of us.
Occasionally, when necessary: wilderness experiences can help to refresh our spiritual vision, and restore our sense of direction and purpose, as we seek to follow where Christ leads. Amen.