Wilderness Blessings

Proclaim Sermons
July 21, 2024
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: The wilderness, spiritually speaking, is not a place of desolation, but rather a place where we encounter a loving God.

"No Wi-Fi, no cell service, no problem."

That could be the motto for a growing vacation trend known as the digital detox. Some of us are growing so weary of the always-on, always-connected madness of postmodern life that a week or so in a remote, off-the grid retreat sounds mighty nice.

Perched atop an Alaskan glacier 6,000 feet above Denali National Park is a five-bedroom house accessible only by airplane or helicopter. Better remember all your groceries if you book the place: the nearest town is 50 miles away.

An elegant spa hotel in Baden Baden, Germany offers an in-room digital detox switch. Throw the switch on your nightstand and - presto! - no more Internet.

In the middle of Africa's Kalahari desert, in the nation of Botswana, is Jack's Camp. In between wildlife-spotting safari excursions, guests do sleep in tents, but it's more of a glamping experience. The roomy, Moroccan-style tents offer elegant furniture, with Persian rugs on the hardwood floorboards. Each of the 10 tents has a small private swimming pool. The camp's located smack-dab in the middle of a wilderness area the size of Switzerland, but there's electricity from solar panels (although no air conditioning - only electric fans). If you're looking for TV or wi-fi, though, you're flat out of luck - but if you've taken the trouble to get to the Kalahari, you're probably not looking for such amenities anyway.

Turn off a state highway in northern New Mexico and drive 14 miles down a rutted dirt road, and you'll find yourself at Christ in the Desert Monastery. Water comes from a well, and solar panels provide electricity for lighting. Some of the Benedictine brothers work designing web pages - the modern equivalent of manuscript illumination, some say - but their satellite-phone connection to the Internet is off-limits to guests. If you crave a break from your silent retreat, connecting to Spotify is a non-starter, but a short walk from the guest house is the chapel where you can listen to live Gregorian Chant to your heart's content.

Detoxing with Jesus

In today's reading from Mark, Jesus invites his disciples to "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while." He and his disciples have been more than busy. Their little movement has been growing by leaps and bounds, with streams of would-be followers and curiosity-seekers besieging them at every turn.

The word for "deserted place" is the Greek word eremos. A modern-day descendant of that ancient word is the English word "hermit."

Jesus' disciples are craving their own sort of off-the-grid hermit experience. The "grid" for them, on which they feel trapped, isn't electronic, of course. It's a rigid framework of responsibilities that threaten to overwhelm them. They feel more than entitled to a little Sabbath time. And what better place to go, for such an experience, than the wilderness?

The wilderness is, in the Jewish imagination, the place where the deepest of spiritual encounters happen. Where does Moses discover the bush that's burning, yet is not consumed, and receives God's call to go to Pharaoh and tell him, "Let my people go"? The wilderness. Where is Mount Horeb or Mount Sinai (depending on which story you read), on whose summit God gives Moses the Ten Commandments? The wilderness. Where does Jonah flee, to argue with God about his call to preach in Nineveh, and where does God cause a plant to spring up to give him shade, then make it wither away - just to show him who's boss? The wilderness. Where does Elijah flee Jezebel's henchmen who are out to murder him, hiding himself in a cleft of the rock from earthquake, wind and fire, until he hears that "still, small voice" - or that "sound of sheer silence" - that tells him everything's going to be all right? The wilderness. Where does John the Baptist dwell, clothing himself in animal skins and subsisting on locusts and wild honey? The wilderness.

At its very root, Jewish spirituality is a desert spirituality. The people who walk away from the fleshpots of Egypt, straight through the Red Sea waters, aren't exactly going on a glamping vacation. God does open the way for them through the waters, but not so they can relax and take it easy, after years of hard labor building pyramids. No, God leads them from the Red Sea into a daily struggle for survival, where they've got to learn the skills they need to live - or die trying.

And so it's hardly a surprise that, when Jesus invites his closest friends to go on retreat with him, it's to a "deserted place" - the wilderness. When ancient Jewish men wanted to get serious about their faith, what they often did was leave home and family behind and go to live for a time in a cave, or a crude hut, living off the land as John the Baptist did. Day follows day, and each day the struggle is the same: Find something to eat, or go hungry. Through such an experience you learn self-reliance and the mastery of your emotions. Deep in the wilderness, at the last, you encounter the wild, desert God, the one who speaks out of burning bushes and says, "I am that I am."

Jesus began his ministry being tempted by the devil. And where does that take place? The wilderness. The wilderness is Jesus' experience of testing, of trial. It's Messiah boot camp. Mark tells us the angels are there to serve him, but their role is more like drill instructors than pillow-plumping butlers. It's that very sort of experience Jesus is offering to his disciples, with his invitation to the deserted place.

Wilderness experiences

Even today, finding a deserted place has a lot to recommend it, spiritually speaking.

You don't literally need to be in the wilderness to have a wilderness experience. A wilderness experience can be any sort of challenge or testing that takes us out of our comfort zone, that causes us to wonder whether we've got what it takes to live through it.

Live long enough, and you'll discover that life itself serves up wilderness experiences, whether you ask for them or not. In times of personal crisis, the comfortable, childhood certainty that "God's in heaven, and all is right with the world"1 doesn't always match our experience.

The poet T.S. Eliot is aware that there are all sorts of deserts in life, some of them having nothing to do with sandy wastes and scorching sun. In his poem, "Choruses from the Rock," Eliot has this to say:

You neglect and belittle the desert.

The desert is not remote in southern tropics.

The desert is not only around the corner,

The desert is squeezed in the tube-train next to you,

The desert is in the heart of your brother.2

The writer Henry David Thoreau is famous for his book, Walden, a philosophical reflection on some time he spent living in the woods, in a simple cabin. Perhaps the most famous passage from that book is this one, in which Thoreau explains his reasons for leaving civilization behind, and going to live close to nature: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life ....3

There's something about the Christian life that is, at its very best, a matter of "living deliberately," of "living deep and sucking out all the marrow of life." An ideal Christian life is incongruent with the ideal of our consumer culture, which is to live a life of opulent ease, surrounded by material blessings. No, the quintessential Christian disciple - one who has taken to heart the teachings of Jesus - is one who knows how to live simply, close to the earth and strives to be satisfied with whatever life may bring. It's a person who values simplicity, rather than luxury, who knows the joy that comes from sharing with others, who knows the blazing glory of a sunset is far superior to the light shows of Times Square.

Life right now

Is life hard for you right now? Are your days filled with struggles and your nights disturbed by worries? Do you wonder, at the start of some days, if you've got what it takes to make it through to nightfall?

We all have times like that. They're not to be sought out. But if you find yourself in such a time - or when in the future you do find yourself in such a time - think on this: Possibly, the deserted place where you find yourself is not a place of meaninglessness. It just may be the sort of deserted place where God is prepared to mold you and make you into a stronger and more faithful disciple.

You may feel, in such a time, like you're off the grid. But one thing's for sure: you're not off God's grid, and never could be.