Chaplain Mel Baars
February 26, 2012
“Welcome to the Wilderness”
Have you ever noticed that most airports have a “welcome” sign which greets passengers after they have deplaned and made their way to the baggage terminal? Most of the time, these welcome banners highlight the slogan of the host city or tout some main attraction which encapsulates just what is so special and unique about arriving at said destination. No matter what airport I go to, I always look to see just how I am being welcomed, hoping to learn a little more about what is in store for me during my stay. Over this past week, I have decided that here, at BAF, we, too, need a “welcome,” banner. I doubt the powers-that-be would allow me to spearhead this banner campaign, but if I had any say, I think it would say something like this: Welcome to the Wilderness.
Lent couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time this week as many of us have faced the stark realities of this desert. Lent is, after all, a season that prepares us for Jesus’ suffering on the cross. It is modeled after the forty days which Jesus spent in the wilderness. Admittedly, Mark’s account of these forty days is rather minimalistic. Two verses to be exact. Both Matthew's and Luke’s accounts include considerably more detail about what exactly happened in the wilderness. For instance, during these forty days, Jesus ate nothing, perhaps an origin of fasting or giving up something during Lent. During this time, Jesus and Satan had three series of “exchanges” or temptations through which Jesus continually demonstrated faithfulness to the one, true God.
Mark, on the other hand, tells us very little. He says, “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” That’s it. This is all we have to understand the wilderness according to Mark-- just these few sparse details. When there is only so much to go by, what IS stated is that much more notable. In particular the sequence of events here is important. Directly before the verses, a voice calls from heaven saying, “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And, immediately following these words, Jesus is driven into the wilderness by the “Spirit.” In my translation, Spirit or in the Greek, pneuma, is capitalized, indicating that this is God’s Spirit. This is the Holy Spirit. God wants Jesus in the wilderness. Jesus doesn’t go there on his own accord. Satan doesn’t bring Jesus to this place of temptation. But, it is God who leads him into the desert. If God is the impetus for these forty days in the wilderness, there must have been a real purpose.
In the next verse, we learn about the wilderness by discovering whose company Jesus shares while he is there: Satan, wild beasts and angels. Certainly not my first pick of company. But, as one commentator points out, “The Beloved Son accepted the company God gave him in the desert- Satan, wild angels, ministering angels- with no drama of preferring one to the other.” Jesus embraces both equally, not try to avoid those who are challenging. You see, this is a detail I never picked up before. Yet surely it is significant since it is one of the only two details Mark provides. In the wilderness, we don’t get to choose our company. Or perhaps it is the other way around. We find ourselves in a wilderness when we have come to a place that we have not picked with company that we don’t choose. Maybe this is why “Welcome to the wilderness,” is the slogan I would choose for the Bagram’s airport. By Mark’s definition, this is the wilderness. We didn’t choose this place nor did we choose the people, but this is where God has brought us. There must be a reason.
I assume that many of us have been to an actual desert before, in Iraq or Egypt, perhaps. My first encounter with the desert was in Israel when I was on a trip though my university’s campus ministry program. We got to spend a night in a Bedouin community in the Judean desert with camel rides, Bedouin food and music and even an authentic night in a Bedouin style tent. I was SO excited. Upon arrival, however, we were each given an hour to wander away from the oasis into the desert to pray. Equipped with my journal and my Bible, I was ready for a real desert experience. I boldly strode into the distance with the secret goal of going further from camp than everyone else. After all, I was an ROTC advanced camp graduate. I figured I could handle the desert much better than my civilian peers. When I felt that I had gone far enough away from the life I knew, I found a rock to sit on. I remind you the assignment was one hour, just one. There was utter silence. Not even the wind made a noise. It was a bit eerie. Not even five minutes of this silence had passed before my mind started to play tricks on me. Would I be able to find my way back or had I gone too far? Were there scorpions in the Judean desert, perhaps under the rock I chose as my seat? Was that a coyote off in the distance? Were they carnivorous? If I got eaten, would my friends be able to find my remains and get me, albeit half-eaten, home again?
I am pretty sure that I was one of the first people back to camp. The desert was not an easy place. Between the deafening silence and wild animals as company, there were any number of good reasons to pack it all up and head to safety. Because that’s just the thing, the desert just isn’t safe. It is a place of isolation where it is hard to know if it is a wild animal or an angel that will show up to bring succor or terror. It is a place where we can no longer hide from the problems that we have been able to bury in life’s usual clutter. It is a place where existence is harsh. It is a place where there is no sense of control. It is a place where none of us really want to go, but somehow it is exactly where God leads us.
If Jesus teaches us anything during his forty day stay in the wilderness, it is simply that he trusts God, for it is God that drives him there. He trusts God in the silence. He trusts God as he is tempted. When it appears that God is no longer interested or involved in him at all, Jesus continues to trust that everything, even the things he would rather not face, still somehow come from God.
Jesus trusted God, beyond the desert, throughout his public ministry, all the way to the cross. He didn’t want to be there. In fact, in the garden of Gethsemane, when everyone that Jesus hoped would have had his back fell asleep or betrayed him, Jesus asked if this cup of death might be removed from him. But he followed up this desperate prayer with these words, “Not what I want, but what you want.” It was his trust in God, his complete faithfulness, that allowed him to go all the way. Even on the cross, when it couldn’t get any worse, Jesus still trusted that God was at work.
For some of us this week, it may have felt like it can’t possibly get any worse. From the riots and protesters mobbing our gates to the death toll of both soldiers and civilians that has continued to rise throughout the week, connected to our disposal of Islamic religious materials. Every single person involved, from the lowest ranking soldier to the highest ranking commander, has second guessed his or her actions, has gone over and over in his or her head what could have been done differently to prevent this from happening. Even now, we don’t know what the total fall out will be. But despite how difficult it seems, I can’t help but ask this question. Do we trust that God is still at work? Do we trust that God is here, even when we can’t seem to see God at all?
In late 2007, a collection of Mother Teresa’s private writings was published posthumously. To the surprise of many, this compilation of her writing over most of her life did not paint a picture of doubtless faith. In fact, for the latter half of her life Mother Teresa felt like God was completely absent. She wrote this to one of her spiritual mentors, “Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.” This sense of distance from God began around the same time that she started her ministry in Calcutta with the poor and dying and with the exception of a few weeks in 1959, never let up during her whole lifetime. One might argue that Mother Teresa’s entire ministry was a wilderness of sorts, where she saw and experienced some of the most difficult situations imaginable. Her company was a never ending stream of lepers and starving children. It was about as dark as this world can be. It’s no wonder that she couldn’t see or feel God. Nonetheless, this was where God led her. Into this place of suffering, into this life of wilderness, God called her specifically. Though she couldn’t feel God, she continued to trust God anyway. Though she may have lost sight of God, God never lost sight of her.
This is what we catch a glimpse of in Lent, this lonely way of the wilderness. Over these weeks we may find ourselves in a place that we don’t want to be, surrounded with company that we don’t choose. We may even lose sight of God. We may even feel that God has lost sight of us. But, we can’t forget that God has called us here to this place to learn and struggle and grow so that when we are shrouded in darkness, we might continue to trust that God is still at work, making something out of nothing, making life out of death, even here, even now. Amen.
 Barbara Brown Taylor. “Mark 1:9-15: Homiletical Perspective” Feasting on the Word, p. 47
 David Van Biema, “Mother Teresa’s Crisis of Faith.” TIME. Thursday, Aug. 23, 2007