Flourishing Creation: Wilderness

Flourishing Creation  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  20:10
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God calls us out into the wild places to discern our purpose, hear God's voice, and take the next steps in our journey with God.

The New Revised Standard Version The Temptation of Jesus

The Temptation of Jesus

(Mt 4:1–11; Mk 1:12–13)

4 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’ ”

5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 Jesus answered him, “It is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God,

and serve only him.’ ”

9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written,

‘He will command his angels concerning you,

to protect you,’

11 and

‘On their hands they will bear you up,

so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ”

12 Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” 13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

How many of you have read or are familiar with John Krakauer’s book, “Into the Wild”? This story of a young man’s journey in the wilderness was immensely popular when I was a young adult. The tragic story of Christopher McCandless and his hitchhiking journey across the US, leading to a life out in the wilds of Alaska in an old bus, captivated so many folks. The wanderlust of many a Gen Xer and Millenial was captured in this narrative. It does not end with hope, but rather highlights a decline of a man disconnected from the world.
This story taps into something deep in us that feels the call to journey out into the wild to find something. What do we seek? Solitude? Quiet? God? In the Wild, there is a sense that we may discover what we’ve been hungering for, when all the trappings of life as usual are stripped away.
While there is tragedy in a story like this, where the young man ultimately starved to death in isolation, we are drawn to it still and wonder at the power of the wilderness to transform us, to open our eyes, to enter a place of discovery and clarity.
In the biblical narrative, we have numerous examples of similar experiences, where people are led out into the wilderness. The wild is a holy place, a place set aside from the regular bustle of life, a place of potential danger and great awakening.
When I think of my own life, I realize how important wilderness experiences have been in my formation.
I think of high school and driving 10 hours north into British Columbia with my father, his oldest brother, and my grandfather for a week long canoe trip in Bowron Lake Provinicial Park. The chain of lakes, boarded by tall mountain peaks, is located in a very remote part of BC, deep in the Cariboo Mountains. This was back before everyone had cell phones and we were certainly in one of the deepest wild places I had ever been.
Or I recall my freshmen year of college, on a mission trip with the INN University Ministries to Juneau, Alaska. Part of our week was spent at a remote summer camp, cleaning up winter debris and prepping the cabins for the coming year. This camp was so remote that visitors could only arrive by boat. We hiked in, ourselves, driving north to the very end of the Juneau highway, then hoofing our packs along the beach at low tide to reach the sequestered camp. In the wildness of those dark, cold nights and beautifully bright winter days, we experienced life outside of the normal, in the wild of God’s good earth.
Nowadays, I love to discover the wilderness in our area, either by venturing up trails on Galbraith Mountain or along the Chuckanut Ridge. Admittedly, these trails are far from wilderness, as they are well trafficked by hikers and bikers, but the experience is similar — a disconnect, a stepping outside of the normal patterns of city life.
For us in the Great Pacific Northwest, it is easy to think of wilderness only as dense forests and remote mountains. But if we step back and look a bit more broadly than Whatcom County, we can also discover wilderness in the brush highlands of Eastern Washington. Or in the uninhabited wilds of the San Juan Islands or the great wilderness of the Salish Sea and Pacific Ocean. Or perhaps, consider the wilderness that is the night sky and stars. Perhaps you don’t have ready access to trail hiking nearby — but we all have the night sky, the vast wild of unexplored wonders that are a part of God’s good creation.
Where is your wilderness? Where do you go, where do you venture to when you need this space of restoration and solitude?
As we journey through this series on God’s flourishing creation, we are invited to discover these places in our world that call us out — call us out to explore, to be renewed, to discover something of who we are. This is what Jesus models for us, in the passage today. This is the way of the prophets and the journeying masses of people throughout God’s story. We are called to the wild, the places where we can witness the grandeur of God and how small we truly are amidst it.
Before looking at Jesus’ experience in the wilderness, let’s remind ourselves of the many other times God invited God’s people out into the wild places to be changed, to be transformed, to be called anew.
Think of Abram and Sarai, venturing out into the unknown lands of the Sinai peninsula, called out by God from the land of Ur to find a place where a new nation of people could find a home.
Think of Hagar and Ishmael, wandering in the desert after being cast out by Sarah. Think of how God comforted and protected them. Think of Jacob and Esau and their rendevous in the desert — all life was buffered by wilderness for these people. There was the relative safety of their camps and land they lived upon, but all around was wild desert, brush, hills, and the unknown.
Think of the Israelites, wandering 40 years in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land.
Think of Moses on the mountaintop for 40 days, waiting for God to show him the way to lead his people.
Think of the prophet Elijah, holed up in a cave a day’s journey into the wilderness of Judea, afraid for his life at the threats of the wicked queen Jezebel. It is there that Elijah hears the voice of God — not in the wind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire, but in the still small voice of presence that one finds in the solitude of the wild.
Think of Jesus’ ministry and the many times he gathers people on a hillside, out away from city life, to preach and teach and baptize. Think of the wild upon the sea of Galilee, tossing and turning in the storm. Think of the wild places Jesus enters to heal people, like the tombs of Geneseret, where he meets a demon possessed man. Think, even, of the wild that is the hill called Golgotha, in the rough outskirts of Jerusalem.
God invites God’s people into the wilderness again and again to experience presence, calling, and transformation.
Let’s look at our passage from today.
This is a familiar text, the calling of Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. He is offered three different temptations, opportunities to forsake his calling as savior to bow to the devil. He is tempted by hunger, by power, and tempted to test God’s care for him. Each temptation echoes a fear that we experience in the wilderness and speaks to why such places should be entered into with caution and preparation. The wilderness will change you and you must be prepared to lose something of who you are as you discover something of who you are meant to be.
There is also something about the way the devil’s temptations call Jesus to rely on something external, something tangible, while in the wilderness, to sustain him. Bread or power or safety — these are things outside of us that we can use to feel secure and in control. But in the wilderness, the work is not to rely upon what is external, but to actually go deeply internal, to discover the stillness of God’s presence that is deep within us, written into our DNA. It is the space to discover that God is with us…not out there to be found, but near and imminent and inviting us to be close.
For Jesus, it is from this wilderness experience that he is able to enter then fully into his ministry of spreading the Good News with the rest of his life. Jesus enters the wilderness not to stay there, but to be prepared and sent out to do what he was meant to do.
Again, I want to ask you to recall places of wilderness that you have experienced. Sometimes, a wild space can be particularly disorienting — perhaps we get lost or turned around, we get hungry or exhausted. What has it been like to be in a wild place and find the inner resolve and presence of God you need to emerge safely and with newness of life?
The wild spaces are what Joseph Campbell would describe as thresholds where we enter into death and rebirth, necessary moments along the Hero’s Journey, which leads to a transformed being and a renewed sense of direction in life. For Christ, the journey to the wilderness prepares him for the road ahead.
About a year ago, we collectively entered into the wilderness as our world shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. We have been in a place of wandering and remaking that has challenged us to evaluate what is important and set our sights on where God is leading us through it. This has been a time of great isolation, a time where we are offered space to reflect and reconsider our priorities and realign with the work God calls us to.
The Meaning of the Wilderness
The wilderness is not the ultimate destination. It’s not a destination at all. Rather, the wilderness is the sight of change, of transformation. We are called to times in the wilderness to be prepared, challenged, and renewed unto a purpose that is beyond that journey.
In the context of considering creation, the wilderness invites us to see the world with fewer distractions of the material, more space for stillness. We care for the wild places because they are necessary for our world in which we often want to control every single square acre of our life — you cannot control the wild places.
We, like Jesus, need the wild places to call us out of ourselves.
So, this week, I want to invite you to spend time in the wilderness.
I know the weather was better last week, but what would it be like to venture out on a beloved trail into the wilderness this week? Perhaps there’s a favorite lookout nearby you want to visit. Perhaps you have a favorite spot by the creek in Whatcom Falls park or a place you sit along Chuckanut drive.
Perhaps it is difficult to consider hiking up a mountain — so take this opportunity: Once it’s dark, go outside and stare up at the night sky. Consider the vast wilderness of God’s creation that we see as we gaze out upon the Milky Way. A couple of years ago I was listening to an NPR story about stargazing that totally changed my perspective on the wilds of space. Instead of standing and craning our necks to the sky, like we most often do, the commentator invited listeners to lay down flat on their backs and to not look up at the sky, but to look OUT at the sky, as if the earth were a wall at our backs and the vast expanse was in front of us, spreading out above, below, and even behind us (on the other side of Earth). The wild is immense.
This week — venture into the wild if you can. And send me photos of what you discover there.
As you stand in the wild, breathe, listen, and wait for the presence of God. Turn off your cell phone for a moment. Be still. And listen. What is God inviting you into, what change and growth and newness of purpose do you discover there?
The wild is not the destination. But it is the road, the liminal space, the in between, that invites us to find our true self and discern God’s movement and direction for our lives.
Venture out, alone, or with a friend, and discover. Where is God calling you? Let’s find out.
There was a lot about that canoe trip around the Bowron Lake circuit that changed me. It was something of a coming of age time — I returned home to continue with high school and emerge as a young adult. It was time when I saw the limitations of my once strong grandfather. It was a time I wrestled with the fear of the unknown as we navigated rivers and deep glacial lakes. The time in the wilderness served as God’s invitation to me to step forward, to grow, and to continue to become who I am today.
May we find God in the wild places, savor that Presence, and be sent forward as stewards of Creation who share this good news of the wild with others.
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