When I was 20 years old, I decided to take a year away from university and move from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Calgary, Alberta, where I hoped to find work as a stagehand. I arranged to rent a room in a house, I sent my resume to every theatre company in the phone book, and I said goodbye to my friends. Stepping away from school was a hard decision. And it was a decision about which my folks weren’t especially enthusiastic: they felt pretty strongly that I should earn my undergraduate degree before going off on any adventures.
But somehow, that journey away from school and towards another city was something that I felt that I had to do. I wasn’t a Christian back then, so talking about a calling or the pull of the Holy Spirit would have struck me as foreign and maybe even ridiculous. But something – someone? – was calling me. It was saying: Go.
And so I packed everything that I needed into the back of my 1983 Toyota Tercel: my CD collection, a box full of books, a suitcase full of clothes, my Amiga 500 (that’s a computer – state of the art, 1989), a couple of posters, a pillow and a rolled-up foam mattress. And then I drove away from my parents home and into the mountains. Into the wilderness.
Vancouver and Calgary are about 12 hours apart. Some of those 12 hours takes a young man in an old car through towns, but much of the path is uninhabited and wild. This is something that folks from densely populated countries – for instance, pretty much anywhere in Europe – struggle to understand. Tell a person from Germany or France that, starting a couple of hours East of Vancouver there is nothing but forest, and she will generally assume that what you mean by “nothing” is that there is a small town every five minutes separated by some trees and a bunch of farmland, just like at home. But, starting two hours East of Vancouver, there is nothing, genuinely nothing but forest. Sometimes you are counting in hours between towns.
The mountain roads climbed and fell as I went East, and the wind was often cold at the summits, even though it was late summer. For a while, I could listen to the radio, but as the mountains increased in height and frequency, the radio stations decreased in power and in number. Pretty soon I was down to a choice between twangy country music and one of those preachers who sounds strangely furious while talking about how much God loves you.
And then, I rounded a pass and the radio was suddenly, entirely:
White noise. In that uninvited silence, loneliness rushed into the car like cold water. The full, desolate reality of leaving home was upon me. I had never before ached with such intensity for my childhood home, for my parents, for the places and people that I knew and I loved. I suppose that I had legally been an adult for a year or two, depending on which milestone you choose. But, in my memory, that day in the Tercel with the enormity of the radio’s silence and the wilderness all around feels like the end of my childhood.
It felt like the end.
One of the enduring themes in scripture is that of wilderness. And one of the enduring questions of scripture is whether our time in the wilderness is awful or wonderful, whether it is limiting or freeing, whether it is the best of times or the worst of times. And as near as I can figure, the answer that scripture gives to those questions is, “Yes.”
Jesus’ time in the wilderness is recounted in all three synoptic Gospels – so Matthew, Mark, and the Gospel that we hear today, Luke. It takes place near the beginning of all three books; it’s very nearly the first thing that happens in Mark. I’d like to wonder with you about the Son of God in the wilderness this morning. And I’d like to think about what Jesus’ time in that wild place might mean for you and for me.
We may roll our eyes at those plastic wristbands that read, “WWJD?”: What would Jesus Do? But actually, WWJD? is one of the core questions of discipleship. For those of us who have said “yes” to following Jesus, for those of us who, imperfect though we may be, are doing our best to imitate Christ, meditating on the question of how Jesus responds to life – including life in the wilderness – matters.
The first thing I’d like to pay attention to is where Jesus’ trip into the wilderness occurs within the wider story of Jesus’ life. Matthew, Mark, and Luke alike tell us that Jesus ends up in the wilderness immediately after his baptism. (There are a lot of great things about the lectionary, about the schedule of readings that we follow from one Sunday to the next. But one of its downsides is that we don’t necessarily read scripture in order. Last week, for instance, we heard about the Transfiguration of Jesus rather than his baptism.)
What the synoptic Gospels tell us that the wilderness, this place of searching, of lostness: Jesus comes to it immediately after stepping into the Jordan, immediately after being in John’s arms, immediately after the Spirit descends on him and a voice from the heavens says You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. What this story tells us, in other words, is that following Christ doesn’t mean skipping suffering or getting everything that you want – the Prosperity Gospel is heresy, it a gross distortion of Jesus’ teachings. What this parable tells us is that, even as we experience loss and grief and loneliness, God is with is.
Second, the thing that takes Jesus into the wilderness, that leads him there, is the Holy Spirit. So, yes, the wilderness is a place of danger and disorientation. But it isn’t a place that Jesus ends up in by accident when his GPS malfunctions. It is a place to which he is called. As alone as he may feel, as much as he may wish for a map that is going to lead him home, somewhere the wilderness is where he needs to be, where he is supposed to be.
I suspect that many you – all of you, if you have lived any life – have had the experience of looking back on a wilderness experience – the loss of a job, the end of a marriage, the breaking of your heart, the dying of a friend, a time of deep loneliness or deep disappointment, the examples keep on coming – and you have surprised yourself by remembering that experience and saying, “thanks.” In a way that you can’t quite name, that time of lostness drew you nearer to God and yourself, it made you a little freer, more who you are supposed to be. That doesn’t mean that you are glad that the wilderness time happened. It does mean that, somehow, your time in the wilderness was necessary. Somehow you were called to it.
Third, notice the wilderness is a place of temptation. There is something, or someone, waiting there. The tempter, the one whom scripture calls the devil, is there. The one who waits is our shadow side. He invites us to wander off the path and do what? Stay in the wilderness forever? Or return while denying its lessons? Or make it into a place of selfishness? Each of the temptations that the devil offers is one of comfort and power and status. They are a temptation to Jesus to use his gifts selfishly, something that he never does. If you are hungry, make bread. If you are a King, then rule the world. If you are the Son of God, then defy death.
Now, when faced with temptation, Jesus defends himself against it not by rhetorical brilliance or by karate moves. He defends himself by quoting scripture. Absolutely everything that he says is taken directly from Deuteronomy. I wonder. I wonder if one of the things that is story is telling us is that, when we go into the wilderness, we already have what we need to survive. We think that we are going to have to discover some miracle, some secret weapon dropped out of the sky on a parachute like in the Hunger Games. But actually, we are already ready. We already have our faith in God, we already have our rock and our redeemer. What if that really is everything that we need.
Last of all (and this, assuredly, is not the last theme that there is to uncover – it is just the last element that I will name this morning), notice that the time that Jesus spends in the wilderness is very nearly too long. 40 days may be a mystical number in the Jewish tradition – assuredly it is an echo of the 40 years that Moses and the rest of Jesus’ ancestors spend in their own wilderness. But it is also something plainer than that. 40 days is near the limit of how long a human being can live without food. When a group of political prisoners go on a hunger strike, it is around day 45 that the first of them begins to die.
I want to underline this element because, when we find ourselves lost in the wilderness, the duration of our time there can feel unbearably long, longer than anyone could hope to manage: This grief has gone on too long, this illness has gone on too long, this time of unemployment has gone on too long. I want to hold up the example of Jesus at the very limits of where a human being can go, not as a way of saying that the wilderness is no big deal – God save us from Hallmark theology in which we proclaim that “Jesus did it, so you can too” – but as a way of saying that, even in our most lost moments, we may turn to Jesus with confidence and say, “Lord, you know what I’m going through. You know what this is like.”
Once I actually arrived in Calgary, my homesickness, my sense of lostness subsided – there was a new city to encounter, new people to meet, a new job to start. All of this newness allowed me to turn my attention to something other than loss. In Calgary, I suppose, there was a kind of resurrection.
In that car in the mountains, however, with its suddenly silent radio, Calgary was still an abstraction. My mind’s eye had nothing to rest upon other than the home which I had, inexplicably, foolishly, volunteered to abandon. In that moment, I came as close as I ever have to giving up. I though about turning around, about driving home. But I did not. Something called me on.
And so I drove. Further into the wilderness.