Mark 1: 9-15


Today I am glad to examine Mark’s version of Jesus’ being in the wilderness. Instead of going into extensive discussions brought on by Matthew’s version, regarding the tempter, and bread, and the temple, or Luke’s version that has similar details, today we are told that the Spirit—that means God, by the way—drove Jesus into the wilderness where he faced certain darkness, hunger, and images or voices that sounded evil.

If that is the case, could it be that God also drives us, or allows us, to enter places that seem like a wilderness compared to the life we had been living? Could the wilderness be a way to refine and harden our mettle—m-e-t-t-l-e, which is “a person’s ability to cope well with difficulties or face demanding situations in a spirited and resilient way?”  Could God actually be intending to strengthen us for what is ahead in life, instead of trying to break us down? Jesus did not just stumble into the wilderness; he was made to go into it by the Spirit. His initiation into ministry, almost still dripping from his baptism, included being dropped by God into the deep end of the pool.  It was his wilderness, and today we’ll explore ours.


As the world was watching the Olympics this past week, stories of valor and strength have abounded, but so have stories of struggle and testing. Olympic skater Scott Hamilton told the story of being diagnosed with testicular cancer, and then being treated for 4 cancerous tumors in his brain. When he learned the news, he was reminded of his own mother’s struggle with cancer 20 years earlier, and he said his fear of it was unbelievable. But then he said, “You know, it’s a really weird thing, my fear was replaced with a sense of determination, like I wanted back on the ice and I didn’t want this to be the end, but the beginning of something else.” And so it was. Because of cancer, Scott met the woman who would become his wife in 2002.  “Because of cancer,” he said joyfully, I met my wife, I became a father, and it’s like none of that would have happened without cancer. I look at every one of these things and say there’s always something on the other side if we choose for that.” Over time, Scott and Tracy made another choice: While Traci was helping out in Haiti after the hurricanes, she fell in love with two Haitian children and she and Scott decide to adopt them: 11 year old Evelyne, and her 13 year old brother, John Paul. They brought them to their home in Nashville, Tennessee. And it all was started by a time in the wilderness with cancer. What a test. Scott concluded in his interview: I think we are designed for struggle; we’re more in touch with who we are as individuals in the struggle more than in the good fortune.”


What might your wilderness be?  Here’s another one. In his book The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, writer and professor Belden C. Lane wrote about his wilderness. With all the geography described in the book, his wilderness was a mother’s diagnosed illness. He put it this way:

First, you weep. The starting point for many things in grief, at the place where endings seem so absolute….When my mother was diagnosed with bone cancer, she was given six months to live.  It seemed like such a sudden and abrupt ending, so inarguable. But she was eighty years old and signs of Alzheimer’s disease had already begun to appear….In the coming weeks I would travel with her through surgery, radiation treatments, and the painful experience of being uprooted from her house and placed in a nursing home. Roles were reversed, as I (am only child, the last of my family) became mother to my mother, wondering at midlife who would be left to mother me. It was an experience of discovering an unlikely grace in a grotesque landscape of feeding tubes and bed restraints, wheelchairs and diapers, nausea and incontinence.  [Oxford University Press, NY, 1998, p. 25]


That wilderness was made up of beeping monitors, tubes and a mother who wets her pants. It seemed heinous, wrong, and testing. It is so foreign to the pulled-together and otherwise obliviously grace filled people we were before the wilderness. In that wilderness, grooming gets done sporadically; eating is often from vending machines, with bad coffee, and public restrooms. What a wilderness. What is yours? Surely, instead of thinking of the desert outside of Jerusalem as the wilderness you can think of your own. Some wildernesses will surprise you, test you, and if you will let them, teach you.


Here’s another: Award winning author Karen Armstrong, who wrote more than a dozen books including The History of God, and Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths, says her wilderness was, surprisingly, in a convent. She left her wilderness and wrote about it in a book called The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness. Listen to her words:

[I’m telling] the story of my seven years as a Roman Catholic nun. I entered my convent in 1962 when I was seventeen years old. It was entirely my own decision. My family was not particularly devout, and my parents were horrified when I told them I had a religious vocation. They thought, quite correctly it turned out, that I was far too young to make such a momentous choice…. I wanted to find God….And because I was seventeen, I imagined this would happen pretty quickly. Very soon I would become a wise and enlightened woman, all passion spent. God would no longer be a remote, shadowy reality but a vibrant presence in my life….At the end of nine months, we receive the habit and began two years [as a noviate.] This was a particularly testing time, and we were often told that if we did not find it almost unbearable, we were not trying hard enough. [Anchor Books, NY, 2004, pp. vii, viii, xiii.]

She cried almost daily over three of those years. Later she left her place of testing. One commentator put it this way: “After 7 brutally unhappy years as a nun, she left her order to pursue English Literature at Oxford. But convent life had profoundly altered her….Her deep solitude and a terrifying illness—diagnosed only years later as epilepsy—marked her forever as an outsider….What she found, in learning, thinking, and in writing about other religions was an ecstasy and a transcendence she had never felt [before.]” [Back cover of the book.]  She had come through what she said was a wilderness of testing, and when she came out if it, she was different. She became the gifted writer who is still changing the world with her words.


How would you word your story about a wilderness time? Or might God be preparing you for such a time? Wilderness places mold us in a cauldron of testing. The wilderness of testing may be a casino to a gambler, a shopping mall to an obsessive spender, or a school to one being bullied or feeling isolated. What are the events that have tested you, ones that have made you who you are today? And what might still be in store for you ahead? Remember the story I said at the beginning, of the Spirit taking Jesus, practically dripping wet from his baptism, and dropping him in the deep end of the pool Mark calls “the wilderness?” It was a desert outside of Jerusalem. Remember this: in that pool God was the lifeguard, nearby and watching. In that desert, God sent angels to assist Jesus as he can do for us. God is not far away or absent in our trials; God is with us in all the dangers and temptations of life. Perhaps today you will join me in now believing that tests and wilderness times are to strengthen us, not to break us. May God’s angels minister to you as you endure your wilderness times.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           February 18, 2018