In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.
And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.
He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
I admit to a certain fascination with the idea of wilderness. Several years ago, I spent a few days hiking through the Three Sisters Wilderness in central Oregon, a volcanic landscape that really has to be seen to be believed. Three years ago, Sarah and I discovered another wilderness in western Wyoming, a magical place nestled in the Wind River Mountains called Ring Lake Ranch.
Wilderness carries different connotations for different people. It is often a place seemingly barren of life. Spiritually, we will often speak of circumstances we find ourselves in that are bereft of hope. But with the various wildernesses we’ve discovered over the past few years – both physical and spiritual – our family has come to cherish them. They may appear barren at first glance, but with time they reveal a deeper life – and promise a more resilient and durable existence.
The biblical commentator Walter Brueggemann speaks of the wilderness as the place where God’s best work is done. ‘Barrenness,’ he writes, is not ‘only the condition of hopeless humanity; it the principle arena of God’s life-giving action.’
Over and over again in the biblical story, God’s future begins its life in a situation of irreparable hopelessness.
‘This is the ground of Good News,’ Brueggemann continues, ‘God does not require evident human potential to enact promise. The speech of God presumes nothing of human potential; but carries with it all that is necessary to begin a new history.’
So much of scripture is shaped by this sensibility. I can think of no other landscape more central to the narrative of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament than the “wilderness.” In the Hebrew tradition, it is a place of preparation and refinement; a place where the people of Israel encounter God and are shaped by God’s presence in their wandering.
In the New Testament, the wilderness is again a place of formation, the landscape of preparation in which Jesus encounters and overcomes temptation. Wallace Stegner understood it to be the ‘challenge upon which human character is formed.’
In my own experience, wilderness has always been that physical space that forces me to relinquish my hold on easy certainties and the comfort they tend to bring. For me, the wilderness has always been that place that shocks me out of my sense of complacency and forces me to see the through the world from a perspective other than my own.
Wilderness may also be that place where we reach for that understanding or anticipate that revelation that always seems to lie just beyond our grasp, the vision just beyond the reach of our imagination. Edward Abbey wrote something like that about the wilderness; that it represented the hunger that just couldn’t be fully satisfied.
I imagine the life of faith as very like a hunger that we yearn to satisfy, but whatever satisfaction or fulfillment we enjoy may rest in the hands of something greater than ourselves. Out of this experience comes an understanding of God that continues to shape a future for God’s people. It may not look like the future we envision for ourselves; but it is there nonetheless. In the embrace of that future lies the blessing of biblical hope.
Peace be with you.