Many a February on the first Sunday in Lent, I have found myself speaking of ‘wilderness.’ And while there have certainly been other seasons which deepened my understanding of ‘untamed places’ and ‘wild beasts which threaten,’ I can think of no other season quite like this where the experience of ‘wilderness’ has been quite as prolonged or powerfully challenging.
I looked it up again this time —- the meaning of ‘wilderness’ and surely this rings true:
‘Wilderness is an uncultivated, uninhabited, and inhospitable region…’
It was into ‘an uncultivated, uninhabited, and inhospitable region’ that Jesus was driven by the Spirit which possessed him.
And it has surely been ‘an uncultivated, uninhabited and inhospitable’ region in which we have found ourselves these last many months.
I sat on a panel with a group of nurses last week. I was the ‘local pastor’ offering what I could to a discussion about ‘end of life conversations…’ That ground was well covered in the hour we shared. And yet, it could not help but be so, it seemed, that a handful also spoke of what it had been for them to live so close to death in these many last months, in a way they never had before. It nearly broke them, it seemed, as they watched more individuals breathe their last than ever before. As they, more than once, found themselves the only one in the room, refusing to leave the side of a dying one when loved ones were not allowed to be present.
Oh, it has been an ‘uncultivated, uninhabited, inhospitable’ time and place, to be sure.
And yes, this has always been so, that ‘wilderness’ is where death is near.
It was so for Hagar and Ishmael when they were banished to the wilderness near Beersheba. Having finished off the meager provisions Abraham had provided, Hagar put her child under a bush and walked away to sit at a distance, knowing that death was near, but unable to watch her beloved child die. (Genesis 21:8-21)
It was so for David who fled the threat of death by the hand of King Saul, into the wilderness, taking shelter there. (1 Samuel 23:13-17)
It was so for Elijah, escaping the wrath of Jezebel, sitting under a tree in the wilderness and in his despair, in his case begging for death to come. (1 Kings 19:1-15)
And, of course it was so for the people of Israel, wandering in the wilderness, who lived on the edge of death (or thought they did) for 40 years. (The whole of Exodus)
Over and over again, we are reminded as we hear this week’s account of ‘wilderness, that countless times before we have heard the stories of people who spent time in ‘uncultivated, uninhabited, inhospitable’ places and times where death was near.
And over and over again we hear that they were provided for, nurtured, rescued. Sustained through it all by the voice and the gifts of God. Again and again. And again.
Without a doubt, this most recent ‘wilderness’ time has taken a toll on those who have followed their call to be healers.
As it has on all of us.
Indeed, I sat with a small group on Zoom last week and I wondered with them if this time seems ‘harder than most.’ More ‘uncultivated, more uninhabited, more inhospitable,’ if you will. We were sitting heavy with the news that morning of the illness of dear ones. We were taking in the reality that another one of ours had died. And yes, we have been through these times before. Even so, the group nodded as one, agreeing that it surely feels different now when we cannot be and do what we always did in such times. It seems more ‘wilderness’ than ever before.
And this is so. When one is living in ‘uncultivated, uninhabited, in hospitable’ times and places one is always ‘tempted’ as we hear Jesus was today. And as I sit with the stories of the ancestors, I am reminded that the temptations in the wilderness are always the same:
To lay blame, perhaps.
And yes, to seek to put our trust in something, anything, other than God.
Those temptations are articulated in the the other Gospel accounts of Jesus’ time in the wilderness, but not here in Mark. Perhaps this time through we are left to fill in the blank, maybe with our own experience of this wilderness time today.
And yet, none of the stories we turn to now end with despair. Nor with the death which may have seemed inevitable. Rather, every single one experiences the voice of God speaking into those ‘uncultivated, uninhabited, inhospitable places’ with words of promise and hope. Some even have God backing up those words with a meal (or countless meals) to keep them going, providing the means for life itself!
One of those nurses I shared a panel with this week spoke of how this was so for her as she kept vigil with one who was otherwise dying alone. In particular, she talked about her fellow staff who, without asking, picked up the rest of her work so that she could be where she was called to spend that shift.
Without a doubt, she would rather have been anywhere else.
Without question, it would have been better if the one dying could have been held by those who knew and loved them best.
But in the absence of that, at least this one was able to be true to her own humanity. If she could no longer be a conduit for physical healing, she could be a loving presence. And as she was, perhaps she was the bearer of the only healing that really mattered.
Surely those who passed meds and answered call lights in her behalf while she did so were the presence of God’s own angels then, who so often appear in such times and places. Surely they were…
As for what this means for you and me as we continue to navigate this wilderness: this ‘uncultivated, uninhabited, inhospitable time,’ the promise today is that there is this:
God is in this wilderness. Right here and right now.
- In our homes and home offices,
- In hospital corridors and at lonely hospital bedsides,
- On frozen city sidewalks,
- Beside us for yet another meeting on line,
- In classrooms with children distanced and masked,
- In lines standing six feet apart
- And on and on…
And surely, God’s angels are tending even now.
May we have the eyes to see, to sense, to recognize them.
And oh, God’s voice is speaking even now.
Promising what God has always promised:
- God’s nearness.
- God’s love.
- God’s provision.
- God’s hope.
I pray that that I, that we, might have ears to hear, eyes to see, senses to receive what God intends for us in this ‘uncultivated, uninhabited, inhospitable’ time and place.
For as we do so, all of these places become holy, don’t they, infused as they are with the presence of God? Indeed, as God comes near, aren’t they at least as holy as the places we always counted on meeting God before?
At least that’s what came to me as I sat and witnessed a healer speak of the nearness of death and the gifts of God lived out in her coworkers as she stepped into and through that ‘wilderness’ time, living to speak of it and to strengthen the rest of us with her telling.
At least so it seems to me.
- How have you experienced this most recent time as ‘uncultivated, uninhabited, inhospitable?’ Has death seemed particularly near for you?
- How have you been tempted to despair? How have you found yourselves turning to other gods?
- Where and when have you heard the voice of God in this ‘wilderness?’ When and where have you known the tending of angels?