In the wilderness – March 2015

Every year in Lent we vicariously follow Jesus into the wilderness to learn from his forty days of testing and temptation…

Each gospel tells the Jesus story in its own way. Matthew and Luke in their telling of the wilderness story say Jesus fasted the whole forty days and experienced three temptations from Satan. But St Mark, most succinct of gospel writers, takes only two short verses (1:12-13) to tell the whole wilderness story, omitting all specifics of the testings and never even mentioning fasting…

Yet Mark adds a detail neither Matthew nor Luke includes – telling us Jesus was with the wild animals in the wilderness. And – in Mark the Holy Spirit actually drives Jesus out into the wilderness (the Spirit leads him in Matthew and Luke) – and angels are there all along, waiting on Jesus – with the wild beasts, and Satan the tempter and tester, and most of all with the Holy Spirit – all together in the wilderness…

Which is how I remember my wilderness days. Wilderness time always seems to be an all-of-the-above-and-all-of-the-below-experience. I’m seldom sure when it’s the Spirit driving me out into the wilderness and when it’s just my heart longing for wilderness time… But for many years I’ve sought out wilderness… Which wasn’t hard to do when I lived in Vermont on the edge of wilderness – on a dirt road, heating with wood, at the intersection of a class 4 dirt road (unplowed in winter) where I’d walk, every morning, often seeing deer, flushing partridges from their woodland cover, glimpsing fox or rabbit, skunk or porcupine (at least noticing their tracks)…

In season, I’d take my fly rod and walk the forested banks of small brooks, catching wild brook trout… Wade northern rivers far from the nearest road…Paddle a canoe around remote ponds and lakes, fishing early and late in the day when few if any were out on the waters… Often I’d journey farther into the wilderness for days at a time, in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, and beyond to the upper Connecticut River in New Hampshire and the rivers of the Rangely Lakes area of Maine, where I’d virtually always see moose…standing majestic in the boggy end of a pond…or crossing roads unexpectedly at night…

Wild beasts are always there in the wilderness. And certainly Jesus is never afraid of wild beasts – nor are they afraid of him. And whenever I remember I’m in the wilderness mainly to be with Jesus, I’m not afraid either. Even when huge but not-very-bright moose jump out in front of my car… If I’m praying properly my foot’s always ready to hit the brakes… Even that time in northern Minnesota, winding my way through brushy fields after dark, after exploring an unknown trout stream, trying to find the road and the car by compass and star light..And that brown bear suddenly running across the field a hundred yards ahead of me in the light of the full moon…I didn’t have time to be afraid, it happened so fast. But silent prayer always – and all was well… And another five minutes and there was the road… and the car, just around a corner… And probably the angels were helping me navigate all the while… As I prayed… Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me… Lord Jesus have mercy… and Thank you Jesus… Amen…

Wilderness is a real place in real time. And wilderness is a metaphor for Lent.

Temptations and testings (the same word in New Testament Greek means both) are always there also, in the wilderness, along with the beauty of nature and the pleasures of fishing and the simplicity of breathing fresh clean air… (Aren’t temptations and testings with us wherever we are?) The main difference in the wilderness is that’s where I have time to notice. In the wilderness I’m much more aware of my distractions, temptations, testings, and areas where I need to keep growing…

But the wilderness for me is mostly where I’m most aware of the presence of God, and how graciously God is always blessing…

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Wilderness is a metaphor for Lent. Every year in Lent we follow Jesus into the wilderness to learn from his forty days of testing and temptation… Jesus himself was metaphorically recapitulating Israel’s forty years in the wilderness. A time when Israel often put God to the test, and God put Israel to the test also. And few among the multitudes of Israel proved up to the test and ready for the promised land…But now in his primal Lent, Jesus passes all the tests on our behalf – and fulfills and summarizes all the law and prophets before him – saying – ‘Repent and believe in the good news.’ Repent means turn – believe means put all your faith in the good news of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom, which, Jesus now says, is close at hand…

So my Lenten plan is to not make lists of things I’m going to try to give up, but instead to just make more time to be with Jesus, in the presence of God. (A group of us are reading and discussing a short book, The Practice of the Presence of God – if you can join us I’ll get you a copy.) Because all the time Jesus spends in the wilderness is all for us, all for our joy in believing. Jesus teaches us by example how to break loose of all routines that bind us to desolations and blind us to the presence of God.

The root of all lenten spiritual practice is to recognize ourselves as always in the presence of God. “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). The real point of Lent is about imitating Jesus in practicing the presence of God. Something even Jesus, who is God, makes plenty of time for.

Lent is meant to be a means of grace. A time for taking time for renewal of life. We all need renewing, because we all get stuck in routines that obscure the daily miracles of life…

This is why we need time set apart, time to just be with God – slowing down, refocusing, centering and re-centering our lives in God. Which just doesn’t happen as part of our regular routines… till we make it happen. Rather, till we ask God to make it happen…Since we know we don’t get this done on our own. We have to ask God to let the Spirit drive us into the wilderness, metaphorically. Ask God to help us get the time with God we need…

And thanks be to God, God wants, more than anything, just to be close to us, and closer-still. And God knows we’re all made in the image of God, yet no two of us are alike… So the specifics of our wilderness time with God will differ. A few may be able to get away often to practice the presence of God in the natural wilderness. Most of us have to do our wilderness on the installment plan. A few days away with a bible, a book on prayer, a journal or whatever as a down payment…Followed up with installments of regular daily times in prayer and listening… Taking a walk outside…Or sitting indoors in a quiet uncluttered place looking out the window at the birds and squirrels of winter… Whatever it takes to still our souls and find rest in God’s presence… Here’s our wilderness. Here’s where we regain strength for the journey… Hanging out with Jesus… Listening to him… Watching what he’s up to…Doing our best to follow.

The grace and peace of Jesus be ever with you in this wilderness journey,

Pastor Tim