‘At once the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness, and there he remained for forty days tempted by Satan. He was among the wild beasts; and angels attended to his needs.’ Mark 1:12-13
I wonder whether, like me, you sometimes come across a verse of the Bible that you hadn’t really noticed before. It wasn’t very long ago that I realised that Mark’s account of Jesus’ time in the wilderness is so different from Matthew’s and Luke’s. There is nothing of those long stories about the temptations, about turning stones into bread or being offered all the kingdoms of the world by the devil – nothing like that. It just says that he was there for 40 days, being tempted. And then it says that he was among the wild beasts and the angels. That’s the bit I hadn’t really noticed properly until a little while ago. But I’ve come to see that this tiny verse might be really rather important. And that if Lent is a time when we follow Jesus into the wilderness, in some kind of way, then perhaps for us too it may be that we need to face up to an encounter with both wild things and angels. And that in that encounter we might somehow come to find ourselves closer to God.
Some sermons come out of reading and reflection and some come out of pretty raw experience. And this sermon, I think, is one of the second of those. Reading about Jesus being in the wilderness strikes me powerfully this week, because I think I’ve been in something of a wilderness of my own. And I know that many of you will have your own wilderness stories to tell too. Perhaps what we mean when we talk about going into the wilderness, into a wild place, is not necessarily that it’s a bad place, a place of evil or anything like that, but more like a place that we cannot tame, that we cannot control, a place that doesn’t belong to us, that isn’t in our power. And sometimes we find that life becomes something that happens to us rather than something that we plan or shape for ourselves. In the wilderness spaces or the wilderness experiences we find that all our usual strategies for coping and managing things somehow break down, all our ususal ways of shaping our lives seem to disappear, and that the things we normal hold on to for survival aren’t there. And we find that we meet things and experiences that are unexpected, not what we planned. And we meet there both terrifying things and hugely surprisingly comforting things.. Perhaps I can explain a bit better by unpacking my own example, briefly..
Three weeks ago today I was in Canada, giving the final presentation of series of lectures and seminars and sermons for people from many churches and colleges in a small Canadian city, but one that is hugely committed to the unity of the church. They had paid for me to come half way round the world to talk to them and received me like a long expected celebrity. In my days there I realised that I was becoming ill, but decided just to keep going, getting rest where I could and willing myself on. I almost made it until the few lines of the final sermon, when one moment I was feeling a little strange and the next moment I was lying on the floor with a bump on my head and people all around me trying to cool me down and checking I was OK. It was one of the most embarassing moments of my life.. I was in one of the few countries of the world to have anything like real wilderness left, but I hadn’t expected that something more wild than I could control was somehow rushing round my body and bringing me to my knees. Even my best efforts to fight on couldn’t resist whatever bug it was that was defeating my body. I had to give in. But it was not only the wildness that I met. I also met some angels, some people who took care of me, took me to the medi-clinic, got me the anti-biotics I needed and re-booked my flight so that I could travel home, even part of the way in business class so that it was easier. I was struggling for breath, but there were those who attended to my needs. And part of me found this even harder than the illness, and wanted to fight being looked after. ‘How will I ever repay you?’ I wanted to say. And one kind and wise person said, ‘You can’t repay me, but you can look after someone else when they need it’. ‘You can pass it up the line!’ she said. And I will. But I learned a lot about myself – that I like to be the one in control, the one who is taming the environment, not being subject to the wildness of life nor becoming indebted to the kindness of others. I want neither wild beasts nor angels, but just to make my own way. Seeing that this was what I was doing, I now see how important it can be to recognise that the wilderness and the angels are real and that they too have a part to play in my life, that sometimes I just have to be with them, give in and let things happen to me, even for a quite a long time, even for forty days. At the same time as I was ill and coming to terms with my carefully planned life being disrupted for a while, and coming to terms with my sense of my own power over life being take away, we were also, in our family, learning another kind of lesson about wilderness and indeed about angels. Both of Ruth’s parents have died since the end of October, within three months of each other. And of course death has come to some of our congregation too. Death comes not at times we plan. Grief can take us by surprise with what it causes to rise in us. And it shows us, as convincingly as anything, that we are creatures who do not yet inhabit paradise – that we are still the descendants of Adam and Eve, who have to make our way in the wilderness, in a world that is not tamed, in a world where bad and painful things happen. But it is also a world where, even in the wilderness, we encounter those who, like angels, bring us good news and comfort and hope, who show us that life is worthwhile, that God loves us and that even in the emptiest of days there are blessings to count beyond measure. This year, I think, in our little world in the Manse, Lent seems to have come early and we have found ourselves in a wilderness, in days when our world has been disrupted, when we’ve felt and been much more vulnerable, when we’ve been in the wilder places of life.
But this has been, and still is, also a time of great and unexpected blessing. When you find yourself in a place where you finally ‘let go’ of trying to fix everything and do your duty and keep going, then it can feel amazingly liberating. When you do allow yourself to rest and receive support, it can allow you time to meet with God and to wait to see what will happen. It can offer a time to reflect on what’s really important in life and what, within the wild, uncontrolllable world we all have to inhabit, you might yet be able to contribute – and to recognise what you can’t. It can be wonderful to see that the wildness of the world, and the uncontrollable grace of God, may not be so scary after all, and that life without the familiar markers can be even better. I may have discovered that a life without some of the things I have hoped to achieve, a wilder life, a freer life, might even be better than I thought. And perhaps that some of the things I’ve been most scared of, might not be so bad after all.
You may have read a children’s book called Where the wild things are, by Maurice Sendak. It’s won lots of awards. It tells the story of a boy called Max who, after dressing in his wolf costume, makes such a mess in the house that he is sent to bed without any supper. Then his bedroom becomes mysteriously transformed into a jungle, and he sails to an island inhabited by beasts called the ‘wild things’. He manages to become king of the wild things and plays with them. But he start to feel lonely and he goes home, where he finds a hot supper waiting for him. Children love this book and there are lots of clever theories about why. Psychoanalysts will says that Max visits his wild side, but is pulled back to reality by parental love, symbolised in the hot supper. And there is certainly something here about how children, how all of us, can handle the wildness, the untamed rage and pain, inside each of us.
But perhaps the story of Jesus in the wilderness and the idea that in Lent we might also go into the wilderness, is another kind of version of the children’s book. Except that it might say that the wilderness, the wildness, the untamed experiences, the bits of human life that we can’t aways control, are places where angels also lurk with promises of blessing. We ignore, or think we can ignore, the wilderness, at our peril. Far better to walk there bravely and wisely and to trust that though there will be challenges and temptations, there will also be angels and blessings.
It’s fascinating to me that the Christian tradition keeps inviting us to go into the wilderness and encourages us to believe that it may be important not only to embrace it when it comes to us, but even sometimes to seek it out – as we might in Lent. In the very early centuries of the church’s life, when the church was becoming compromised with state power, there were those who were called ‘desert fathers’ and ‘desert mothers’ who left the life of the cities to set up communities in the wilderness. They believed that they would find God again in the wild places. There are also those Christians who will tell us that if we want to follow Christ, then we have to ask ‘Where is he likely to be?’ and to recognise that he will be with those very people in our communities who are already facing the wilderness, who are living in bleak and lonely places, who are overwhelmed by life. We are called as Christians to follow Christ into that wilderness and to find the courage to stay there, with him and to recognise that he went there for 40 days – which is biblical code for ‘as long as it needed’. Christianity is most definitely not a way of taming life to make it sweet and comfortable, but it is a way of finding the courage to live courageously in the wilderness, trusting that there are angels there too. When we have a physical illness, or a disability, or when grief and loss come, we can hold on no more to the sense that life is ours to shape as we wish, or that we can have anything we want if only we dream hard enough. Human life is to be lived in the wild places, the places we can’t always control, and yet still, still places of blessing, where we receive things that we might not have earned or wrought for ourselves, but things nonetheless that come from God’s good hand.
Mark’s Gospel tells us in just two verses what other Gospels dwell on in much greater length – that Jesus went into the wilderness and that he was there for forty days. But it may be that this short verse or two is in its way a more truthful account of what Jesus went through. It was an empty time, but a time more full than all the years it takes to get a degree or to have a career or to raise a child or whatever it is that has marked the times of your life.
Jesus stayed there in the desert, in the place of wildness and of the angels. He stayed in the place of hunger and boredom, of loneliness and emptiness. He remained with the thin fabric of the real world – refusing the temptations of magic, spectacle and miracle. He was committed to the places where this world feels to be at its hardest and its most ordinary and least spectacular. Jesus is present with us then when the church feels to be most empty and unyielding and lacking in wows and wonders. He’s with us when we don’t know what to say in the face of a sorrow or struggle or illness. He’s with us when life just feels empty and a struggle and unexciting.
The great promise and hope of this story is that Jesus came out of the desert – not saying ‘Thank God that’s over’ or ‘I’m never going back there again!’ or even ‘You’ll never believe the size of the teeth on those wild beasts!’ He came out of the desert and he said, ‘The time has arrived, the Kingdom of God is upon you.’ He came out of the desert – where he had refused to escape hunger, boredom and beasts – and he said ‘there were angels there!’. Amen.