February 21, 2021
Each year on the first Sunday in Lent we hear about Jesus heading out into the wilderness. I say Jesus “headed out” into the wilderness, but that’s not really accurate. We’re told the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness. The Greek means “threw him out,” as if the Holy Spirit hurled Jesus out there like a fastball thrown when the pitcher is really getting warmed up.
We get the feeling that this time in the wilderness is not going to be a spa retreat for Jesus. And it isn’t. He’s out there for 40 days, where he has the delightful experience of being tempted by Satan. The other gospel accounts go into greater detail about what the specific temptations that Satan serves up, but the Gospel of Mark is brief and to the point, leaving us to imagine how Satan taunted Jesus throughout those long days. What did Satan try to offer that would be better than being the Son of God?
This year I kept thinking about two details: that Jesus was out there in the wilderness with the wild beats, and that the angels waited on him. What was it like for him to face – in addition to Satan – the snarls and pacing of those wild animals who might have looked at him like he was a juicy morsel served up exclusively for their dinner? What was it like for Jesus, as he struggled with all kinds of dangers, to receive the tender mercies of the angels who cared for him?
When we read this story on the first Sunday in Lent each year, I always think about my internship in southern Arizona. My own year in the high desert offers up some very particular images of wild beasts. I think immediately of the javelina, those medium-sized animals that look like wild pigs. They’re not technically pigs, but they have some sharp-looking teeth and always look at you as if they’d like to tear you to shreds. And they usually travel in groups, so when you’re staring at eight to ten of them at the same time, they can be pretty intimidating.
Truth be told, the javelina aren’t really that dangerous. They mostly eat plants – agave, mesquite beans, prickly pear. While they have been known to go after dogs, that’s most likely a response to years of being hunted by coyotes. Usually if a javelina gets aggressive, it’s because it thinks that someone or something is a threat to their young. The same could be said for many of you. So for all the time I spent worrying about the javelina, I probably should have been more worried about the rattlesnakes and the scorpions.
My angels that year were many. A supervisor who spent countless hours showing me what it means to be a pastor. All the parishioners who enthusiastically participated in the different endeavors I cooked up as an intern that year – and helped me figure out which ones worked and which ones didn’t. The colleagues in town who shared their wisdom. No matter how overwhelmed I felt or how impossible a situation seemed, there was someone – usually several someones – ready with a word of encouragement, a prayer, or a baked good.
That’s how the wilderness works, I think. In the wilderness times we don’t have any expectation that life will be safe or easy. We know from experience that it won’t. Sometimes we feel the threats breathing down our necks, and at other times we feel a constant hum of anxiety like a low-grade fever. It’s hard to feel calm and safe in the wilderness.
Each Lent we enter a figurative wilderness. We commit to spending some time over these forty days really grappling with how much we need God – how much we need God’s sustenance in the difficult times, how much we need God’s forgiveness for all that we have done and left undone, how much we need God’s resurrection hope.
In many ways the Lenten wilderness doesn’t feel so figurative this year. We’re coming up on a full year of pandemic disruption in our lives, and even though we technically finished the season of Lent last year, it kind of feels like we just stayed in it – stayed in that place of fear and vulnerability that is like gasping for water in the desert.
I want you to think about what your wild beasts are in the wilderness of this year. What’s got you scared? What’s scratching at your door? What do you wish you could chase away so it would just leave you alone? Or what feels like Satan whispering in your ear, trying to persuade you that you are not worthy of love just as you are?
Some of our wild beasts are like the javelina. They look more threatening than they actually are. But some of them are like a scorpion that hides in a shoe. You don’t see them coming until the pain radiates through you.
When the pain comes, we need our angels. So what about yours? Who or what are your sources of support when you are feeling gripped by fear or worry or anger or despair? To whom might you need to reach out right now to hear a word of encouragement? To ask for a prayer? To be heard without interruption? The angels are all around. They don’t all have wings, but they are waiting to care for us. Sometimes receiving help from the angels can seem harder than fending off the wild beasts, but it is necessary for our survival.
Remember what happens right before Jesus finds himself in the wilderness. He is baptized. He’s baptized by John right there in the river. And then Jesus is hurled straight from that baptismal river into the desert. There was barely a moment to catch his breath from being underwater before he finds himself surrounded by danger and desolation.
That’s how our baptism works too. We should probably be more clear about that during the Service of Holy Baptism. We might say: “Let your light so shine before others that they will see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. And by the way, life is going to be wonderful and terrible. It’s going to make you laugh until your sides hurt and then turn around and break your heart. But you will be held by God in all of it. You will never be alone.”
Baptism is what saves us from the wild beasts. We can face them down with confidence because God has torn open the heavens to be with us and tells us again and again, “You are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased. I have claimed your life, and no matter what happens, I will not let the wild beasts win.”
At University Lutheran Chapel in Berkeley, California, there are some words from a former pastor, the Rev. Gustav H. Schultz, inscribed on the window above the baptismal font. Rev. Schultz said: “Baptism is intended to acquaint us with a ‘brush with death’ so that following baptism we know that we can live out the risk of being faithful.”[i]
I love that. Baptism as a brush with death. We can live out the risk of being faithful, not because we are extraordinarily brave, but because we are extraordinarily loved. Loved by a God who has also known wilderness and will not leave us to face the wild beasts alone. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i] Thank you to the Rev. Jeff Johnson for reminding me about that detail in “Preaching Helps” found in Currents in Theology and Mission 48:1 (January 2021)