The wilderness is terrifying, dark, unknown, thick with ominous possibilities. John the Baptist knew wilderness. His father Zechariah promised God he would raise him in the wilderness. The dry, desert area around the Jordan as it nears its mouth at the Sea of Galilee, was home for twenty something year old John. John the Baptist was overtaken by the wilderness, wearing not the common robe of his day but an animal hide, and eating food fit for an animal, honey and insects. This frightening depiction of John is the cloak of wilderness that seemed a part of his DNA.
The wilderness is terrifying, dark, unknown, thick with ominous possibilities. Jesus knew wilderness. After his baptism, when the heavens opened and God spoke, Jesus headed out to the wilderness. I have always thought of this as a brave act if not foolhardy. If I were Jesus, I would have headed instead to Jerusalem, the big city, to the temple of the God who called him beloved. Instead, he headed to a place of aloneness and scarcity where the devil was waiting for him.
The wilderness is terrifying, dark, unknown, thick with ominous possibilities. Denise knew wilderness. She was twelve when her mother died of breast cancer. She had just had her second son when a doctor found a small lump on her breast. She immediately decided to have both breasts removed, even though it was not warranted by the cancer. Prophylactic was the fancy medical term for this procedure done as a precaution for high risk breast cancer patients. Before her youngest son entered kindergarten, she found out the tiny lump treated immediately had spread cancer to her entire body. It was hard for me to breathe when she shared this unexpected news, the wilderness seemed thick around her.
God’s challenges us to see the wilderness not as a place of desolation but as a place of hope. From the wilderness, John the Baptist hears the word of God. It is a reminder that God speaks to us in the wilderness and gives us vision so we can keep our eyes on God. Calling our name so we are led to God down the narrowest of paths. Lowering mountains so we can see God clearly. The wilderness formed John the Baptist. He was home in the wilderness and his vision was clear when Jesus came into focus.
God’s challenges us to see the wilderness not as a place of desolation but as a place of hope. Jesus trusted God in the wilderness as evil tempted him in the moon like landscape around the Jordan. The temptations of the devil are always to give into our fear and to save ourselves. Trusting God is believing that we don’t need to save ourselves because God has already saved us. In the wilderness, Jesus laid flat the mountains, and straight the road by trusting God and saying no to the vision of kingship Satan dangled in front of him. It was a kingship that wouldn’t have led to the cross, but it wouldn’t have led to God either. This could not be the path for his life.
God’s challenges us to see the wilderness not as a place of desolation but as a place of hope. At 38, Denise plunged into the wilderness of stage four cancer. She had a clear vision of God in the midst of this tragedy. She was realistic about her slim chances of survival but thankful that was healthy enough to keep working and loving her kids and husband. While her wilderness terrified me, it didn’t seem to terrify her. I think she was open to the new, unexpected ways to minister. Denise was naturally quiet, but now people would come up to her and engage her in conversation, asking about her cancer, bringing her out of her shell. At her funeral, a friend shared that when she called to find out how Denise was doing, she would end up talking about some illness she was fighting or child she was worried about. She would hang up the phone then slap her forehead because Denise had found a way to love and minister her when she had called to do the same. She didn’t want to die, to leave her young sons or husband. She worried how this grief might break her dad who still grieved her mother. Yet, she had a confidence in heaven that moved me, built up my faith. When she died at 41, it seemed she had tamed the wilderness. Like John the Baptist, Denise found her voice in the wilderness. The mountains were laid low and the paths were made straight so that God was clearly in focus. Like our Lord, she trusted God had this one.
The wilderness is terrifying, dark, unknown, thick with ominous possibilities. God’s challenges us to see the wilderness not as a place of desolation but as a place of hope. May you hear the voice of the Lord when you find yourself in the wilderness. May that voice lead you to Jesus, as it did John. And may you trust that there is no danger in those thick woods, no need to save yourself. God has already saved you. Amen