Sunday, March 05, 2006

1 Lent B

Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:3-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-13

I had just finished 7th grade when my family went to stay at Kanuga, an Episcopal retreat center near Ashville, NC, for a summer guest period. Our cabin was nestled with others at the foot of a steep hill, along a pathway of pine needles and pebbles and the twisted roots of trees whose green branches twisted overhead. Late every afternoon, about an hour before the dinner bell sounded, it would rain. No, not rain – it would pour. It was a perfect time for sitting out on the screen porch, talking and laughing, shivering just slightly in the damp breeze, counting the long seconds it took for thunder to rumble across the mountaintops.

One afternoon, as it poured, we heard the sound of heavy footsteps crunching through wet pine needles and pebbles and twisted roots. Moments later, a line of young people appeared, trudging along the pathway in front of our cabin, each carrying a large backpack with a sleeping bag tied above or below, each wearing what looked like a clear garbage bag over their heads and packs, with dripping holes for their faces and arms, each singing a song loud enough to rival the pounding of rain on the leaves above.

We watched the strange procession round a corner that continued uphill and out of sight. We figured they must have been from Camp Kanuga, just a mile down the road. And as the sound of their singing faded, I remember very clearly saying to my mom and dad, “They will be wet forever. That will never, ever be me.”

I didn’t think about that day again, until one afternoon, seven years later. It rained – no, it poured, the afternoon I led my first campout as a Camp Kanuga counselor, trudging along the same pathway, catching the eye of a little girl dry on the front porch of her cabin. We were indeed wet forever, or at least all summer.

It didn’t seem at first that I was going to be very good at wilderness living. I had never been on a campout before – the knots and the tarps and the trail-following (straight uphill with your backpack and the backpacks of three wild beasts – I mean, campers – who are crying because there might have been a bee back there) the fire-starting (in the rain) and the stew-cooking…it was all new to me. I was pretty miserable those first few campouts, out there in the wilderness, wet.

I wonder how miserable Noah was, forty days and nights of nothing but wet. We know how miserable the Israelites were, forty years of wandering through the desert wilderness. I wonder if Jesus was ever miserable, even once, forty days in the wilderness, driven by the Spirit, tested by the devil, surrounded by wild beasts, waited on by angels. Mark’s account is so brief he doesn’t even mention that Jesus was fasting. Maybe Jesus couldn’t light a fire in the rain, either. Maybe he didn’t like stew.

Over and over again in our scriptures, the wilderness is a place of testing and temptation, of wild beasts and wrong turns, of too much water or not enough. The wilderness is unfamiliar, unfriendly, and uncomfortable. And forty days or forty years – no matter, forty was simply used to signify a long time, with wilderness stretching as far as the eye could see.

If you looked back, you might see as a tiny speck on the horizon the place where you stood when God called you into the wilderness. Noah and the Israelites and Jesus didn’t just stumble off a pathway of pine straw and pebbles – God called them there. Sent them there. In Mark’s gospel, the Spirit drove Jesus there, drove him out into the wilderness.

I wonder if Jesus looked back, back to the moment when he was still dripping with Jordan River water, when God had said, You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. It had quite possibly been a moment of revelation, or at least deep affirmation, for Jesus. You are my Son, the Beloved. But then immediately, Mark tells us, immediately the Spirit drove him out…was God’s voice still echoing over the water as the wild beasts closed in and the devil began dreaming up temptations?

We know the longer story so well, the words that Satan whispered those forty days – Jesus, you could break your fast, you could control the world, you could command the cosmos. And we know how Jesus resisted, wrenching his very human eyes and ears and heart away from what tempted him, and repeating over and over that God was all he needed.

The wilderness was a test. The Greek word, in fact, that we heard translated “to tempt” also means “to test,” and there is an important difference between those two meanings. Temptation tries to make us fail in our conviction that God is all we need. But a test tries to find out just how far and against what odds we can keep our conviction that God is all we need.

Mark’s account doesn’t tell us in so many words, as Matthew and Luke do, whether Jesus passed the test. But in the very next verse, nearly as immediately as he was driven into the wilderness, Jesus is striding right back out of it, proclaiming the good news of God and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.’

In the gospel of Mark, the wilderness only appears to go as far as the eye can see. Forty does not mean forever. It may rain the whole time you’re there, but there is a rainbow at the far end. And though it looks for all the world like God shows Jesus into the wilderness by the front gate, then walks around to the rainbow-lit back gate to wait with the angels for Jesus to make it through, Mark’s spare words suggest that the angels Matthew puts at the back gate were actually present with Jesus throughout his test. God was in the wilderness with him. Indeed, Jesus himself was God in the wilderness with us.

The thing is, I don’t think Jesus so much left the wilderness as he just exchanged one wilderness for another. The cities of Galilee would, in the end, be no safer than the sands of the desert. There were still wild beasts – I mean, religious leaders, skeptics, even, sometimes, friends – on the prowl. Jesus would face temptation again, in the beautiful garden of Gethsemane that was for one anxious night a wilderness. Jesus would pass that test, too, even though it looked to the beasts and to the best like he had failed.

The wilderness tested Jesus, as it had tested the Israelites, as it continues to test us. In the wilderness, we are stripped down to the very essentials. And the essentials are these: God made us, God loves us, and God keeps us. That is enough for us as we go about the work we were called to do back at the front gate, when we were dripping with baptismal waters. God is all that we need. Nothing else. Everything else is a temptation.

It’s a jungle out there, the saying goes. We live all the time in the wilderness, full of temptations and tests, wild beasts and wrong turns, too much water or not enough. Because we fear we won’t survive, we pack on as much gear as we possibly can – not just the backpack, the sleeping bag, the clear garbage bag for when it rains, but the tent, and the grill, and the cooler, and the GPS,….all proof that we can make it just fine on our own.

The season of Lent offers us an opportunity to be stripped down to the essentials. Forty days of wilderness living, not without God but rather in an intentional effort to understand just how near to us God is each and every day. The Israelites discovered that nearness in their wilderness living, convinced as they were that they had been left to die among the wild beasts. They encountered God in wild and strange and unexpected ways – water from a rock, bread from heaven. It took forty years for them to understand that all they needed was God, and suddenly the rainbow-lit back gate opened up into the Promised Land.

We don’t need all that gear. We are more able than we think we are to live out who are called to be. I certainly learned that in the wilderness of the mountains of North Carolina. I may never win on Survivor, but I can light a fire in the rain. I may never win the Nobel Peace Prize, but I can comfort a homesick camper and carry her backpack for her.

So are we more able than we think we are to live out who we are called to be in our baptism. It’s a jungle out there, but God is with us in the wilderness, ready to meet us in wild and strange and unexpected ways as we go. Jesus himself is the food and drink that nourishes us. And the only thing that is forever, as the psalmist says, are God’s compassion and love, which are from everlasting. Amen.

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