Lent 1, Year B: Genesis 9:8-17, Psalm 25:1-10, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-15
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ (Mark 1:9-15)
There are some years when in order to enter the Lenten wilderness, we have to work a bit to discern what wilderness looks like and feels like. These 40 days and 40 nights can require some imagination on our part or some digging to get in to them, as we go about our daily quite civilized and comparably comfortable lives.
But I don’t think that’s the case this year. We as a people are indisputably already in one, a wilderness that is. And I don’t think too many people would argue that. One dictionary definition describes wilderness as “an inhospitable place devoid of paths or lacking in civilization; a neglected area; or a bewildering situation.” Sound familiar? Too familiar? Parkland. Chicago. Sandy Hook. San Bernadino. Orlando. Las Vegas. Virginia Tech. Sutherland Springs. Charleston – to name, sadly, only a few.
Wilderness, we are here.
And since we’re here, there are some things we should acknowledge about the wilderness.
Directions can be hard to come by out here. True wilderness doesn’t come with a map. That’s part of why it can be scary. The wilderness is an easy place in which to get disoriented, lost even, as the GPS we’ve come to depend on, fails us. And so in the wilderness we have to work to find our way, we have to work together to find our way. And that’s hard but not all bad, because even in the wilderness, the way is findable. And we can’t forget that. According to the gospel angels come to these places. And the Spirit is here too. The wilderness itself will teach us, if only we’re willing to learn. Part of the discipline this season calls us to is a willingness to learn, to repent, and to change.
Now in the wilderness sustenance can be a little tricky too. It’s important to know what to ingest and what not to. Be aware of your sources while we’re out here searching for food and be discerning about what you take in. Also, trust that manna will come. And it will come often at surprising, eye opening times. Watch for it, take it in, and be sure to share it. Because there will be more.
Another thing about the wilderness is that sometimes you have to shout to help your voice carry here, and other times you have to talk quietly so as not to cause further disruption. The wilderness can be a place of extremes. Either way, being articulate when you are called to be and listening always, are critical wilderness skills. We can work on lessons of voice.
Now in this wilderness, what we hear will make us weep. I’d worry if it doesn’t. It already has. What we hear will make us angry, speechless or speech-full. What we hear, if we really listen, will lead us to lament, to passionately express our sorrow and those painful words and tears are some of we can uncover together as we offer an appropriately thoughtful, prayerful response to the lists of names we hear, and the faces we see, and the longing we feel.
It’s also true that some of what we hear will give us hope, hard-fought, bravely-claimed, gracefully and courageously offered, hope. There are those voices are out here too and they are sort of the manna of sound. We need them. I heard some this week, maybe you did too. Individuals. Groups. Some mourning. Some proposing options. Some educating. Some calling out. I heard students. Law enforcement officers. Parents. Teachers. “These are my beloveds,” God says.
According to the gospel, angels come to these places. And the Spirit is here too.
There can be an intense and humbling beauty that comes through an experience of being in the wilderness and this season offers us that, this liturgical season but maybe this season we are in as a people too. It won’t be a shiny beauty that comes of this, but there is potential for a holy and redemptive one.
That beauty comes to be when we approach the wilderness with respect for it, when we work together through it to find our way, when we allow time and tools for lament, when we stand up and resist temptation, when we listen, deeply listen to the voices that cry out and ultimately birth hope for us all.
Now if you look around out here, you’ll see that we’re not alone, nor are we the first to arrive. The wilderness can feel new, if you’ve been privileged with distance from it which most of us, if we’re honest, have been. As we acknowledge the painful reality of blatant and mass violence in our streets, in our schools, and in our lives, there are other truths being spoken out here too. And this just might be a moment in time in which related truths from different corners of the wilderness can guide and sustain each other. This might just be how we find our way.
There are young people out here who aren’t sure where home is because we as a nation have failed to provide them a path to citizenship. They are lost in what I referenced earlier to be an “inhospitable place devoid of paths.” But it doesn’t need to be so. We have home to offer them and it’s not that hard to do. There are people of color out here reminding us that black lives matter too, and we can say with our words and actions reflective of repentance and change that of course they do! And we are so very sorry it took this long for that proclamation to be lived.
There are women crying out, “Me Too!” And we can listen to those stories, that pain, the brave work of healing, and together, male and female, we can be redeemed. Out here there is Mothers Against Gun Violence, Bishops Against Gun Violence, Republicans and Democrats against gun violence! We can beat swords into plowshares. We can make and distribute fewer swords. Out here in the wilderness, there are law enforcement officers seeking support and working at reform and with them we can vision and help create a society in which all people are protected and people in need are served. If “beloved community” is going to happen this side of heaven, maybe this time in the wilderness can help it be so. Maybe the wilderness is where beloved community comes to be.
According to the gospel, angels come to these places. And the Spirit is here too.
The wilderness is a hard place to be, but there is holiness to be had here. We are not alone. Besides angels and the Spirit, the family of God is out here, a broad and gifted and diverse people! A people with whom to gather and with whom listen and to speak; there is a family here with whom to eat and children and elders to be led by. This wilderness is full of hope and full of a redemptive kind of beauty that God longs for us to embrace and to be embraced by. Such is our work this season.
On Ash Wednesday we heard from the prophet Isaiah that our light can shine again “breaking forth like the dawn,” the prophet cried. “The healing of the people can spring up quickly!” he proclaimed. In fact he said, “You shall be like a watered garden.” Which not coincidentally is the opposite of a wilderness. “Your … ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations,” many generations, he said. And so we hold our children, all of God’s differently, lovingly, and well.
“You shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in,” said Isaiah. ‘Tis the season for sure. The restorer of streets to live in. Of schools to learn in. Of churches to pray in. The restorer of concert venues to sing in. Clubs to dance in. Parks to play in. Neighborhoods to grow old in. Homes to reside in.
Angels come to these places. The Spirit is here too. “The kingdom of God has come near,” Jesus said in the gospel today, “Repent, and believe in the good news.”