Scripture for this Sunday (first Sunday of Lent):
Genesis 9.8–17; Psalm 25.1–9; 1 Peter 3.18–22; Mark 1.9–15
I do remember once going off for a walk on my own on a mountain near our home in British Columbia. There were trails marked on the mountain, but if one was not paying close attention, it was easy to get lost. And I did just that. I found myself in an unfamiliar part of the forest, and the difficulty was compounded because one part of a hilly forest can look rather like another. I did eventually find my way to a landmark that I recognised, an old, abandoned set of wooden ski huts, and I was able to work out how to get back on track.
That’s my wilderness experience – well, one of them. When I read a couple of years ago the story of a lady – an experienced hiker – who wandered just a little way from the trail in the Appalachians, and ended up dying before she was found, it did send just a little shiver down my spine. She was just a 10-minute walk from a trail that turns into a road. She died from a lack of food and environmental exposure.
That’s what it can mean to be lost in the wilderness, and anyone who has been lost in some sort of wilderness will know that it can be unnerving and disorienting – even dangerous or fatal. As for temptation – well, the biggest temptation is to panic – and panic is usually at best dangerous and at times fatal. Actually the lady in the Appalachians didn’t panic, and survived for about 26 days. But she still died
Mark’s gospel begins abruptly with Jesus’ baptism – and then he’s off into the wilderness. Was he lost? Well, he might have been. 40 days is a long time to spend in strange surroundings – 14 days longer than the lady in the Appalachians. And being fully human, even for the son of God, doesn’t mean having a God-endowed GPS, like some sort of divine homing pigeon. It seems more than likely that Mark’s understanding is that Jesus was at best wandering, and more than likely lost.
Being in wilderness – especially being lost – forces us to draw upon resources of wit and intelligence, to prioritise what we do and how we do it – and to resist the temptation to panic.
What about being lost in another sense? Although the wilderness where Jesus went was a physical place, he was wandering spiritually, too. And that is a much more fearful place than a physical wilderness. Angels and demons can be hard to distinguish. How much did Jesus know of his fate? Scholars don’t agree, but he must have realised that he was facing a serious challenge, testing his will, resolve and faithfulness.
It’s telling that before that time would come, he went away for 40 days and he got lost. In fact, in an ironic way, being lost physically actually helps to deal with being lost spiritually. It forces us to confront our vulnerability and our dependence, especially our dependence upon God. That may well have inspired Jesus through his ministry.
Sometimes we have to get lost before we find the beauty that surrounds us. At times difficulty, desolation and pain can lead us to find joy. And often we can only begin to be found when we admit that we are lost. Sometimes wilderness experience can do more than challenge us; they can change us. Sometimes it is only when we are truly able to admit that we are lost that we can begin to be found.
In reality, we spend a lot of our lives being lost, facing temptation, confronting our demons. Jesus knew what this can be like. Anyone who has faced challenges of faith, difficult decisions, grief, or anxiety can find comfort, relief, solace and strength in the knowledge that Jesus shared those experiences.
I’m convinced that when we go through these wilderness times, God looks at us with nothing but compassion and love. After all, God watched God’s own child go through such a time, too.
Lent is a time to remind ourselves that wherever and whenever we find ourselves in the wilderness, Jesus has been there, too. And is there, with us, inviting us to confront and acknowledge our vulnerability, inviting us to share with him our dependence upon God.