Sunday, February 26, 2012

Finding Ourselves in the Wilderness

“Into the Wild”
Mark 1:9-15
February 26, 2012
First Sunday of Lent

            Word of advice.  If you’re about to go camping in Yellowstone National Park, do not read a book called “Death in Yellowstone.” 
            When I was expecting Phoebe, Matt and I went on a three week trip out west from our home in Albany, New York.  I had never been to Yellowstone or the Tetons, and Matt, who is a national park enthusiast to put it mildly, wanted me to see them. 
            We made it to Yellowstone, our first and primary destination, and were staying with some good friends of his, both Yellowstone employees, who were living in an employee trailer.  The plan was to stay one night with Mike and Christine and the next night we would spend in our tent at one of the many campsites in Yellowstone.  And we almost did just that.
            While we were at Mike and Christine’s, she showed me the book “Death in Yellowstone.”  I skimmed the table of contents and decided to read the death by bear chapter.  Grizzly bears that is.  To this day I don’t know what possessed me to do that because I am scared to death of grizzlies.  They rate right along with snakes in my list of creatures I don’t want to meet – ever. 
            Still I read all about death by bears.    
            The second night arrived.  Mike and Christine followed us to the campsite Matt reserved.  I found out as we made our way to the campground that this particular camping destination is the last to open to the public because the grizzly bears feed there the longest when they come out of hibernation in the spring.  The nice man who checked us in to the campground gave us a long list of bear not-to-do’s, and it seemed that everywhere we looked there were signs up about bear safety.  Bear safety is what you practice if you don’t want to wake up in the morning and engage in pillow talk with a hungry grizzly.
            So I’m taking all this in while still processing the chapter on bear related deaths that I’d just read.  And I’m getting a little nervous.  But I persevere.  We set up camp.  Mike and Christine help us put up our tent.  We build a campfire.  We cook dinner over the campfire.  We make smores, sing some campfire tunes and then it is time to say goodnight.  As Mike and Christine are saying their goodbyes and preparing to leave, I look at the tent, look at the campground, think about the bear chapter and say, “I can’t stay here.” 
            Not only was I freaked out about bears in general, I was pretty sure that since I was expecting a baby, I would be a doubly delicious treat for any bear who wandered by.  I convinced myself that a bear would be able to sense me over and above other human treats, so I just couldn’t do it.  I was pretty sure that me in a tent equaled a grizzly bear goody bag, so I could not tent camp in bear country.
            Being the expectant momma does carry some weight, no pun intended.  I was to be appeased, so when I said I couldn’t sleep in that tent, they took me seriously.  We packed up and headed back to Mike and Christine’s where I spent another peaceful bear free evening. 
            I’m sure you’ll be glad to know that since that time I have managed to tent camp in Yellowstone with no bears involved.  That trip yields its own set of stories, but those will be for other sermons. 
            In spite of the bears and other wild beasts, I am grateful that I’ve gotten to experience some of the wilderness places still left in our country.  I’m grateful that some visionary, far-thinking people over the course of our nation’s history realized that those wilderness places needed to be saved, conserved, left wild.  That’s why national parks came to be, to keep the wilderness wild. 
            It’s funny how on one hand I can laud our country’s national parks, while on the other hand I come to this day – the first Sunday of Lent, the day when the lectionary turns to Jesus’ time in the wilderness – and the wilderness takes on very different meaning. 
            When Jesus goes into the wild, he’s not going on vacation is he?  This isn’t just a camping trip with friends and a time to check out his working knowledge of bear safety.  Jesus goes into the wilderness and is tested.  He is tempted.  In some ways, he relives in 40 days and nights what the Israelites endured for forty years. 
            As we should expect at this point in our year with Mark’s gospel, Mark’s version of the temptation story is much sparser, much sparer than the other gospel accounts.  I’ve said before that Mark’s gospel is an urgent one.  He doesn’t have time to waste on a lot of detail.  It’s as though Mark’s saying, “Look folks, here’s the deal.  This is the gospel of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God.  So we need to get moving because Jesus is moving.” 
            But even with as few details as Mark provides, there is still much to learn, much to ponder about Jesus’ wilderness experience.  According to the Greek, what is translated as driven by the Spirit is better read as picked up and thrown.  Jesus is tossed into the wilderness.  Immediately.  Immediately upon Jesus being baptized and hearing God’s confirmation from the heavens, he is thrown into the wilderness for 40 days.  He is tempted by Satan.  He’s there with the wild beasts and angels wait on him. 
            Those are the extent of our details.  But even in this brief description, we can come up with one picture of the wilderness that is terrifying.  Just the thought of Satan sounds scary.  Wild beasts?!  Yikes!  I couldn’t tent camp one night at the mere thought of a bear, Jesus was with wild animals for over a month. 
            One of the theological conclusions that we draw from the wilderness stories is that Jesus was tempted just like us, but he doesn’t sin in response to temptation.  This helps us establish him as both human and divine.  He faced temptations.  They were real.  In his humanness he may have wanted to give in, but his divine nature resisted.  He overcame. 
            This is a stark contrast to what we think of when the Israelites are wandering around the wilderness.  The surface conclusion to their time in the wilderness is that God left them out there because they wouldn’t learn to listen to God.  They were rebellious and difficult and murmured against God all the time.  Thinking about it in parental terms, God grounded them to the wilderness until they could come out with a better attitude.  It’s just that the attitude adjustment took 40 years.
            It seems logical then that we speak of our wilderness times as the times we’ve had to endure – hardships, sacrifice, temptation, struggles.  Endure seems to be the key word here.  We have to endure the wilderness.  We have to go into those wilderness places because Jesus went there.  We’re like the Israelites, always complaining, never fully grateful for what we have, for what God has done for us, so we are sent into the wilderness, whether it’s spiritual, physical, emotional or all three and more.  We endure the wilderness until finally we can work our way out breathing a sigh of relief that we survived.  The grizzlies were fended off, the rain flap held, the tent didn’t collapse in the night, we survived. 
            Yet as we make our way into this new Lenten season, I wonder if this is just one side of the wilderness.  Maybe this is too one dimensional of an understanding of what the wilderness is and what happens to us while we’re in it. 
            Think again about the wild places in our country, national parks or otherwise.  Why have people raised their voices over the years to preserve them, to keep them?  I think in particular of John Muir, who so passionately worked for the conservation of Yosemite.  Why did he dedicate his life to activism on behalf of a wild place?  What I know of Muir is this – he understood that in nature, in the wild, he was able to come back to himself.  The wild helped form his identity. It taught him about who he was in relation to God’s creation. Being in the wild shaped him.  And when Muir was too long gone from the wilderness, he would sense a need to return, because in the wild he found a restfulness, a peace, a sense of identity that he did not find anywhere else.
            Muir understood who he was in the context of the wild.  Maybe that’s the other side of the wilderness that we overlook.  The Israelites became the Israelites in the wilderness.  That time shaped their identity as a nation, as the people of God.  They didn’t go through it gracefully, far from it, but that didn’t take away the power that the wilderness had in their formation. 
            Maybe Jesus is thrown into the wild for the same reason.  It is there, in the wilderness, in the midst of the wild beasts, the temptations, the struggle that he comes fully into himself as God’s Son, the Beloved.  Perhaps going into the wild was the true confirmation of his baptism.  Jesus came into himself in the wild.  When he emerged on the other side, the course of his ministry was set, and he did not veer from that path. 
            Perhaps rather than seeing Lent as a season to endure until we arrive at last at the bright colored eggs of Easter, we should see this time as a call.  It’s a call to go into the wild and embrace it.  Let it test us.  Let it shape us and form us.  Our mettle will be tested and temptation is everywhere, in Lent and out, it’s true.  But I don’t see going into the wild as a test to see if we will break or not.  I don’t think God is trying to break us down by calling us into the wilderness.  I see the wilderness as the place where we come into ourselves, the true fullness of our identity as the children of God.  Let us go into the wild.  Amen.

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