Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock
beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of
the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing,
yet it was not consumed.
--Exodus 3:1-2 NRSV
Last night we began the season of Lent together. Some were in the sanctuary and many more joined online. We couldn’t feel the touch of ashes on our foreheads this year, but ashes were still present. On Ash Wednesday, we begin our journey into the wilderness.
The first Sunday in Lent always focuses on the stories told in Matthew, Mark and Luke about Jesus being tempted in the wilderness for 40 days. This time of discomfort, denial and temptation comes immediately after Jesus’ baptism when the voice from heaven declares, “You are my beloved son.” One might think a beloved child of God might have an easier time of it, but a wilderness journey seems like a prerequisite for all that comes afterward.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone who skims through the Bible that Jesus ended up in the wilderness. The Bible is full of these wilderness experiences. Abraham’s slave Hagar is sent into the wilderness. Joseph’s brothers throw him into a pit in the wilderness. Moses flees into the wilderness and finds the burning bush. The Israelites spend forty years in the wilderness. David hides out in the wilderness. The prophet Elijah spends 40 days running for his life in the wilderness. The Psalms and the Prophets talk non-stop about the miracles God does in the wilderness. What would have been surprising is if Jesus had somehow avoided the wilderness, given that so many other big names of scripture end up there at one time or another.
Wilderness in scripture becomes a shorthand for a space where it seems God is absent but, in reality people more vividly experience God. Peculiarly, our times of struggle, deprivation and feeling lost turn out to be the times when God shows up in unexpected ways. Writer, scholar and Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor writes that we don’t have to go into the desert to have a wilderness experience:
Wildernesses come in so many shapes and sizes that the only way you can really tell you are in one is to look around for what you normally count on to save your life and come up empty....
this is not a situation many of us seek. Most of us, in fact, spend a lot of time and money trying to stay out of it; but I don't know anyone who succeeds at that entirely or forever. Sooner or later, every one of us will get to take our own wilderness exam, our own trip to the desert to discover who we really are and what our lives are really about. I guess that could sound like bad news, but I don't think it is. I think it is good news — because even if no one ever wants to go there, and even if those of us who end up there want out again as soon as possible, the wilderness is still one of the most reality-based, spirit-filled, life-changing places a person can be.
As we approach a year living with the COVID-19 pandemic, many people may feel like they are experiencing wilderness moments—isolation, separation, lost jobs, lost school, lost celebrations, financial anxiety, and one heck of a winter cold spell all may leave us wondering how much more we can take. Yet, these moments when we feel most out of control can be transformative, if we allow them to be. We are confronted with how little control we have in life, and how most of the things that matter most were grace rather than things we earned or purchased. We can discover what we really need to live and how much of what we hold on to is not only unnecessary but preventing us from experiencing true life.
The same con be said for churches. I’ve been ordained almost twenty years and my entire career has been spent in churches that were in wilderness moments, whether they realized it or not. The statistics on declining and dying churches are sobering, and levels of commitment, financial giving and attendance have been in freefall from decades ago. This seems like a time when churches look around to find all the things they used to depend upon are no longer present—a time of wilderness. Yet, if the message of scripture about wildernesses is true, then this is the kind of moment when God shows up in unexpected ways.
In our individual lives and in the lives of congregations, when we can no longer depend upon the things we used to depend upon is when we learn to truly depend upon God. We learn to let go of things that no longer work and are shown new ways of living and being in a different environment. For those up for it, the uncomfortable and frightening time in the wilderness can be a time of renewal, rediscovery, and replenishment. The wilderness may feel painful to us who are used to easier conditions, but what we discover about God, our churches and ourselves promises to be richer and more blessed than we would have experienced without it.
Be on the lookout for God to show up in new ways as we journey through the wilderness of Lent.
Grace and Peace,
We're Park Hill Christian Church in KC MO. We seek to follow Jesus by praising God, loving those we meet and serving the vulnerable.
6601 Northwest 72nd Street, Kansas City, MO 64151 | 816-741-1851