Let me tell you a little bit about my last week.
It began with a baptism. At the 11:00 service last week, I had the honor of baptizing one-month-old Trevor. I got to hold this tiny, perfect child, and tell him the good news that God had claimed and called him. I traced a cross on his forehead in oil, speaking to him the words, “Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”
Only three days later, I was again tracing crosses on the forehead of children, but in a very different way. Instead of sweet, clear oil, my thumb was dark with ashes. Using the same motion as at that baptism, I drew my thumb across the clean, smooth foreheads of children, telling them the woeful words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
What a stark contrast from the beginning of the week until now. Only one week ago, we were in Epiphany, the season of light, marveling at the ways that Christ reveals his glory to us. And today, we are now in the season of Lent, a quieter and darker season when we come face-to-face with our sin and our mortality, coming to grips with the reality of the forces of sin and death that brought Christ to the cross for our sake.
This stark contrast is mirrored in our gospel reading today. Christ has just been baptized at the Jordan. The voice of God has just spoken through the parted clouds, proclaiming “This is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” We read that immediately following Christ’s baptism, the Spirit leads him out into the wilderness, where he fasts and struggles and banters with the devil. He is far away from the waters of the Jordan, far from other people, far from food and town and home. He is far from the temple and from the community of faith. And out there in the wilderness, with all else stripped away, he is asked to give an account of his faith.
This is, for what it’s worth, what the life of faith is all about. We rejoice that we are called and claimed by God in our baptisms, but no matter how much we wish we could hover forever at the font, God has greater plans for us. The Spirit sends us out into the world, to live in and among God’s beautiful, but broken, messy, unpredictable creation. And there, out in the wilderness, with all else stripped away, we are asked to give and live an account of our faith.
In our personal lives, the wilderness can take on many shapes and forms. The wilderness can be as tragic of a space as chronic illness or family tragedy. It can be as personal as depression or despair. It can be as habitual as dealing with stressful work or stressful people. What is your wilderness space? What is that place in your life where it feels like all of your comforts have been stripped away? What is that place in your life where you see most clearly the forces that seek to challenge your faith? What is that place in your life where the ashes on your forehead are more easily accessed than the anointing of your baptism?
A year from now, there will be a group from St. Timothy that joins with members from St. Paul Lutheran Church in Villa Park, to embark on a two-week long trip to Tanzania. While we are there, we will be partnering with Steve and Bethany Friberg, ELCA missionaries who operate a medical mission there. But in addition to our service work, we will also have time to see and explore the landscape of Tanzania.
When we go on safari, we will pile into vehicles and drive out of town into the wilderness. The asphalt road will give way to a dirt road, which will finally give way to no road whatsoever. Our guides will look for markers such as particular mountains and trees to take us safely into the wilderness. When you look out any window here in Naperville, you can see other houses and businesses and buildings and people. There is always a connection and a sense of direction. Even when you go on vacation and drive through endless cornfields in Iowa, you have road and street signs. You know that if you get lost, you’re still on a road going somewhere, and people can find you.
Imagine being out in the wilderness, with no roads leading home, with no signs, with nothing other than the sun and wind to give you a sense of where you are or what direction you’re going. The emptiness, frankly, scares me a little bit. I’m a person who likes knowing where I am, knowing where I’m going, knowing that I’m not far away from people and provision. I don’t like the idea of relying on something as nondescript as a bush or tree or rock for direction. It’s hard not to think about the Israelites wandering, lost, in the desert for forty years, and fearing that my journey into the African wilderness might end up the same way! I’m terrified about the sheer expanse of empty, open, wild space.
Is this how you feel in your own wilderness space? That the openness makes you vulnerable and the directionless space makes you anxious?
But I know something. I know that when I’m over there in Tanzania, if I’m willing to put my trust in the hands of the guides, and if I’m willing to stare down my fears of the wilderness, I will experience beautiful and remarkable things that I’d never be able to experience otherwise. Out there in the absolute disconnected wilderness, I’ll be able to see lions. I’ll see flamingos and elephants and wildebeests. I will see plants and flowers and sunsets that will be beautiful beyond anything I could imagine. I will experience a sense of wonder at God’s creation that could never be evoked from photographs in a National Geographic magazine.
Are not our own wilderness experiences like this? When we find ourselves in wilderness spaces, with only our faith and our hope to cling to, God shows us beauty beyond anything we could imagine. In the wilderness, when we cannot rely on other people, when we cannot bolster ourselves with our possessions or power, when we cannot protect our weaknesses or hide our tears, we cling instead to the Spirit of God and all of the hope that our faith gives us. Joan Sauro, in Whole Earth Meditation, says
The Spirit of God breathes everywhere within you, just as in the beginning, filling light place and dark…green earth and dry. Thus does God renew the face of the earth. God always breaks through at your weakest point, where you least resist. God’s love grows, fullness upon fullness, where you crumble enough to give what is most dear.
When we are in the wilderness, feeling the most vulnerable, feeling weak or tired or uncertain, God breaks through. When the dust of the wilderness crumbles, God emerges from the cracks. In the words of a little-known Advent hymn, “The hills are bare at Bethlehem / no future for the world they show / yet here new life begins to grow / from earth’s old dust, a greenwood stem.” God offers us beauty and renewal in the spaces where all but faith is stripped away. Unexpected moments of peace seem to find us, and unexplained moments of quiet come upon us. People emerge from the shadows to offer us words of comfort and gestures of hope. Sometimes the beauty of God in the wilderness takes the shape of an uninterrupted night of sleep, or a day without pain. We glimpse God’s beauty in the green grass peeking out from beneath the snow, and the rays of sunlight that break through the gray winter sky.
In the wilderness, where it feels like there is so much to be lost, there is actually much beauty to be found. We cling to our faith, and God comes to us as the source of hope and renewal.
Now it is Lent, and we have begun a different sort of wilderness journey together. We are about to wander through the dust of these next forty days, the quiet and honest space where we prepare our hearts for Easter. We join together to take on the Lenten task of clinging to faith and stripping away all else. On this journey, our baptismal crosses will get dusty with the ashes of life, but at the end of this journey, we will find ourselves in a land overflowing with milk and honey. We will find ourselves staring with wonder at the empty cross and the empty tomb, and we will see again the fullness of God’s hopes and dreams for us. In this wilderness, we look with faith to the beauty of the empty cross and the empty tomb that await us at the end of the journey. Whether in the wilderness of Lent or the wilderness of life, the promise of Easter is the joy to which we cling; the beauty of Easter is the majestic lion or breathtaking sunset that we see out on safari, a glimpse of God’s beauty that can be seen best only from the wide open wilderness.
This is your invitation, brothers and sisters: come along on this journey. Come, get dusty and leave the paved road behind. Travel through the wilderness to the foot of the cross, where life and joy and hope emerge from the cracked ground. Come and see, for there is beauty here.