Ever found yourself in the wilderness? And which wilderness? For each expression of wilderness can often a different vista.
The notion of wilderness or desert; midbar in Hebrew, eremos in Greek, would conjure up vivid pictures for people in the past and now. Perhaps, the Desert of Sinai and ‘the Sahara’ in the Middle east with sand, heat, rocks, and hidden waterholes. In Australia, the desert or outback stretches for kilometres and kilometres, where you can travel without meeting another human being.
In our folk stories of Australia, we hear stories of the wilderness and the outback which can emphasise the harsh conditions, yet also might emphasise those who live there, who often help the stranger who is lost. You might also know indigenous stories of connection to land where our indigenous brothers and sisters know where to find water and bush tucker to sustain them. These stories remind us that there can be sustenance and life in the desert, though this may seem hidden to untrained eyes. For the desert is not necessarily deserted, yet it can challenge our creaturely limits in its scope, its temperature, its beyondness.
In the devastation and lament of our reading from Joel chapter one, the prophet talks of a fire that has devoured the pastures of the wilderness and even the wild animals cry out to God because the water courses have dried up. In verse ten the fields are devastated, and the ground mourns. This experience of dryness and destruction becomes a call to prayer, and in the coming chapters leads to a promise of hope for the future. This promise is for ‘the day of the Lord’ to appear where the Holy spirit will be poured out on all flesh.
In Australia, and California in these past months and years we might empathise with the cry to God, when fires have ravaged through large areas of land and join in the prayers and longings for a new day where life and community will be restored after deep grief and loss.
The story of Jesus being led into the wilderness by the Spirit, in Mark’s gospel would remind the Jewish communities of entering the wilderness as part of their heritage – out of Egypt and into the wilderness to wander for 40 years under the tribal leadership of Moses and the new leader Joshua who led them into the promised land. Some may know that the Aramaic translation of Jesus is ‘Joshua’ or ‘Yeshua’ (and he would have been addressed as Yeshua ben/bar Yoseph). So as Jesus is said to enter the wilderness, we have this continuity with the past and we see the Spirit of God leading and guiding Jesus. Yet for Jesus we are told this would be a time of testing and confirming his call, a time of fasting and stripping away everyday necessities to get to the core of who he is and is to become.
The desert places today, still appear to have ways of stripping away what is superfluous, and we might gain a sharper focus on what is essential for life. I know of a Uniting Church in Australia minister Rev. Ian Robinson who used to take groups of people on desert retreats to commune with God, where usual comforts were absent, and they might find they have space and can listen to God. And it seems like many people who go out into the desert, they did find and meet God in new experiences, of awe, silence, and mystery.
The wilderness and desert are metaphors for how we might feel at times, when our normal routines and communities have been taken away. We will all go through desert experiences in life to a greater or lesser degree. How to be faithful in these times can be challenging! when all around us is stripped away, when we feel alone and fragmented, not sure of what is ahead or whether we will be able to take the path of least resistance. Perhaps this Covid-19 lockdown time has some wilderness qualities for us in Victoria? Certainly, for people trying to navigate life when the familiar landmarks are no longer there, such as job or financial security, or with increasing health concerns.
In the wilderness times will we like Jesus in the gospel narratives remember God? in our words, our actions, will we too draw from what we know in scripture and life that says God is there present with us? even if we can’t see God, even though the ‘adversaries’ of life may test us. We too are called to focus back on what will sustain life for us and others and listen to the voice that God speaks to our hearts and says that ‘you are beloved’, ‘I am with you’ and ‘Do not be afraid’.
So, in faith we too might listen and find God in the wilderness and in the familiar places we live in. And like the ancient Hebrew people learn to give back to God from what God has showered us with – blessings of the harvest of life. So that we can learn, as we go through life that whatever we have been given is only temporary, and there are fruits to be shared that are spiritual – love joy, peace, patience, kindness, perseverance, generosity and self-control. From these fruits shared will flow the justice and compassion of Christ who knew God was present in the desert, and the mountain and the valleys of life and invited us to trust God in the present, and into the future.
Rev Lynette Dungan