This week’s lectionary Gospel passage is the Markan account of Jesus’ Baptism, followed by his 40-day time in the wilderness as he prepared for his ministry. Now for most of us, conjuring up images of a wilderness takes some thought as we sit in the midst of skyscrapers, paved roads, and fenced lawns. So we try to imagine thick, wooded landscapes with hanging vines obstructing our way and our view. But, think about it, the wilderness that Jesus knew was probably desert–unobstructed, yes, but with nothing to mark your way, nothing to “hang on to” when you felt like you were getting lost. And what about the pathway? Rather than being merely difficult to tread, it was changing all the time, as the winds and sands continually blew over it, marring its very existence. And then…the temptations…so much more evident in the wilderness–the temptation to take control, the temptation to take the easy way out, the temptation to turn back. So, why in the world would Jesus spend time in this seemingly God-forsaken wilderness?
Jesus, rather than depriving himself, was emptying himself. Without paved pathways and landscapes marking our way, we are vulnerable. And it is when we are the most vulnerable that we realize that we need God. When the temptations are staring us in the face, we need God more than ever. And that is also when we realize that the wilderness is far from being God-forsaken. God is always there but, finally, the fact that we are empty makes us acutely aware of God’s Presence in a way that we’ve never known. In fact, the wilderness is God-bearing and by emptying ourselves, by entering the wilderness, we finally make room to become God-bearing too.
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Hampton Court, near London, which probably has some of the most beautiful gardens in the world. As we walked through the gardens, we were struck by row upon row of colorful blooms—a horticulturist’s dream. There were roses and camellias and daffodils of all sizes and colors and just the fact that they were all so perfect was utterly amazing. The beauty of Creation was at its most picturesque. As we walked through the gardens, there was one area that looked extremely odd among the perfectly manicured plats. It looked forgotten and overgrown, full of weeds and not a flower in sight. It reminded me of those “open for adoption” litter signs where you know that the next mile or so will be littered with trash as a symptom of the “forgotten child”. I thought it was very odd in this plethora of perfection to see something so forgotten, so fallow, and so hopeless. There was even a chain across the entrance barring any more investigation. Someone, I thought, ought to take control here and do something! But as I was about to leave, I noticed a sign. According to the sign, in order for these gardens to bloom throughout the season with continual colors, there is a system of “rolling fallow”—a crop rotation of sorts. This wilderness-looking area was just that—a fallow, resting wilderness—an intentional wilderness in order that it might be nurtured and fed. It was not dead—it was allowing God to work on it.
Maybe that’s what we’re called to do in this season of Lent–to create an intentional wilderness, a place stripped of those things on which we rely, a place where we become the most vulnerable, a place where we have no control, a place where we can meet God, a place where, finally, we can become a God-bearer. Maybe Lent is the time when we finally let go and allow God to work on us that we might burst forth on Easter morning in radiant bloom.
So go forth this season into the wilderness that you might finally be prepared to know God!
Grace and Peace,