A summer day on Pickerel Lake in the Quetico wilderness. I’ll never forget the peace of that day, the way the surface of the lake lay utterly still, like green glass, in the fresh morning hours and throughout the long afternoon. The absence of wind in those typically restless hours at day’s end was a presence unto itself. A sense of eternity came over me as the sun arced slowly from one horizon to the other. We paddled the lake’s entire length, traversing some fifteen miles in quiet communion with sandy beaches, rocky, pine-laden islands, and weedy inlets accompanied by beavers and loons and baby eagles crying for their food.
Another day on Saganaga Lake in the Boundary Waters. As we emerged from the mouth of a smaller channel onto the big water, we heard the howling of the wind and saw the menacing whitecaps. We landed the canoe on shore and held an intensive conference. Should we risk crossing the bay in this weather? We made our decision and launched the canoe, which almost broke into pieces right then and there with the force of the waves pounding it into the rocks. We dug our paddles into the water hard and fast, pulling and stabilizing the canoe with as much muscle as we could summon. The bow rode high on each wave and then plunged down into its trough. Water slowly began to puddle in the bottom of the canoe. I could hardly breathe, I was so scared. I knew we had made a mistake by heading out in this wind, but by now we were so far from land that turning around wouldn’t put us any closer to safety.
As these two experiences illustrate, the wilderness is a place of peace and turbulence, beauty and danger. Being in the wilderness can make us profoundly uncomfortable and also offer us deep refreshment. It can humble us and empower us. Mark’s short, sparing account of Jesus’ wilderness time captures this same sense of ambiguity and contradiction. “And the Spirit immediately drove Jesus 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.” What I notice first in these verses is that this adventure was not Jesus’ idea. He didn’t go skipping into the desert with happy feet and a carefree heart. According to Mark, the Spirit of God drove him there. More literally, the Greek verb implies that he was forcibly “thrown out” beyond the boundaries of human society and into a lonely land of hunger and thirst, extreme temperatures, and dangerous predators. This verb, ekballo, is the same one that Mark used to describe Jesus’ expulsion of harmful spirits from the sick and demon-possessed. Perhaps Mark was implying that before Jesus could heal others, he first needed to gain mastery over his own demons.
Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, is also driven into the wilderness—by grief. Following her mother’s death, her life falls apart. Her marriage ends. Her siblings and stepfather grow distant. She medicates her pain with drugs and alcohol. Strayed writes: “Nothing could ever bring my mother back or make it okay that she was gone. . . . It broke me up. It cut me off. It tumbled me end over end.” (Wild, p. 27) Strayed decides that she will seek herself again by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. On the fifth day of her solo hike, a large animal with horns charges her—it turns out to be a Texas Longhorn bull.
“The thing about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the thing that was so profound to me that summer—and yet also, like most things, so very simple—was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do. How there was no escape or denial. No numbing it down with a martini or covering it up with a roll in the hay. As I clung to the chaparral that day…terrified by every sound that the bull was coming back, I considered my options. There were only two and they were essentially the same. I could go back in the direction I had come from, or I could go forward in the direction I intended to go.” (p. 69)
Mark writes: “He was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” The wilderness Jesus enters is a place of testing and trial, danger and pain. AND it is the setting in which he encounters the grace of God and learns the power of God to heal and transform. Mark’s description of Jesus “with the wild beasts” implies that Jesus was able, somehow, to coexist peacefully with the animals that would naturally have threatened him. This small comment hints at the possibility of a much bigger, far-reaching change. Is Jesus restored to a state of harmony with the rest of creation? Is it a return to the Garden of Eden, which he experiences in the wilderness? We also hear that in a rocky desert that had absolutely no capacity to sustain human life, divine angels waited on Jesus. I imagine them bringing him food and water, sheltering him from the noonday sun, warming him in the cold nights, tending his wounds, and comforting his fears. What if God’s spirit also drives us to go out into our own wildernesses and face the wild beasts that we fear? Maybe those beasts are charging longhorn bulls, biting venomous snakes and bloodthirsty mosquitos, but more likely they are things like stress, illness of body or spirit, the loss of a loved one, financial worry, addiction, overwork. What if God can transform our relationship with these things so that they can no longer harm us, so that we begin to live in peace and harmony with ourselves, and the rest of creation? What if God sends angels to nourish us at just the moment when our life seems to be a complete wasteland and our strength is gone?
For Jesus, the wilderness was the first step toward the cross. He emerged from the desert determined to share the amazing grace he encountered in that barren place. He began proclaiming “the good news of God.” He told people that God’s kingdom had come near. He urged them to believe that God was working in them and in the world to heal and nourish, to make peace and bring justice, to restore creation to the garden of life it was meant to be. William Placher, in his commentary on Mark, observes: “What Jesus is beginning is the transformation of this world. That is why those in charge of this world as it was ended up killing him.” (William C. Placher, Mark (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible).
The cross, like the wilderness, is an ambiguous, even self-contradictory symbol. Like the bow laid down in the clouds, the cross is a weapon that becomes a beautiful promise. It is an instrument of violence that is turned into a sign of peace. It is a tool of oppression that becomes a pathway to liberation. It is death, and it is life.
The bulletin cover portrays a Celtic cross—with a circle intersecting the arms of the cross. There’s an apocryphal story about St. Patrick, that when he brought Christianity to Ireland, he merged the Christian cross with an ancient pagan symbol for the sun god, and that’s how the Celtic cross was created. I like this story because it insists that the cross was a sign of energy, life, eternity and grace, before it became a symbol of torture and death. For me, the intertwining knots and patterns of the Celtic cross suggest that the cross itself is not only an event but also a path, a journey, a way of life.
In this Lenten season, the Spirit drives us to go with Jesus—into the wilderness and toward the cross. We may not choose to go there at all, and yet something powerful happens to us and our world when we are willing to be with the wild beasts and to allow angels to wait on us. It’s the beginning of a whole new creation. Since the cross takes a central place in the readings assigned for this year’s Lenten season, our worship planning team decided to take this opportunity to explore the subject of the cross more deeply. Through sermons, music, prayers, and a community art project, we hope that our worship over these weeks can be a space for genuine dialogue, inspiration and transformation.
So please take a moment now to pray and reflect: What is your response to the cross? There is not a right or wrong answer—this is about where you are today, with the cross. On the scrap of paper, share a question, feeling, or interpretation, and then place that paper in the plate at the time of the offering.