Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, those famous private detectives, went on a camping trip. After a good meal, they lay down for the night and went to sleep. Some hours later, Holmes awoke and nudged his faithful friend. Holmes said: “Watson, look up and tell me what you see”. Watson said: “I see a fantastic panorama of countless stars.”
Holmes: “And what does that tell you?” Watson pondered for a moment: “Astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Furthermore, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Theologically, I can see that God is all powerful and that we are small and insignificant. And it will be a beautiful day tomorrow. “Why? – What does it tell you, Holmes?” Holmes was silent for a moment then spoke: “Someone has stolen our tent.”
As a tried and true city dweller, outdoor living never ranked high on my bucket list. The closest we came to roughing it was our annual family camp week at Frost Valley YMCA, where we lived in rustic cabins with electricity and bathrooms, but with no TV or cell phone access, limited internet connection, climbing down to mess hall for meals, in mud, rain or sunshine. In 10 years we never did the ropes course or climbing wall, go fishing or the sunrise hike that required getting up at 4am. At best, we sat around the campfire roasting marshmallows.
It is not easy to step outside our comfort zones. We like our routines. The familiar is soothing to us. It gives us a sense of control and reassurance to predict our daily schedule: up by 6am, shower, dressed and breakfast by 7:30, out the door, at work by 9, back home by 7, bed by 11pm. We all have some structure, with some give or take – meetings, gym, interactions with family, answering emails, returning phone calls, checking Facebook and texts, social events- our days develop a predictable rhythm.
Our readings today describe a disruption to that steady, regular pace of life. In our Hebrew lesson, God is grieved by the continuous evil in the world. So, God decides that the only way to ‘redeem’ the world is to begin again with a small family – Noah and his immediate relatives. After everyone and everything that God commanded were in the ark, the Lord “shut them in.” Then began the wilderness of the floods – forty days and forty nights of rains that destroyed all living things on earth not in the ark. God then makes a promise, in the sign of a rainbow to never again destroy the earth with water.
Imagine being a member of Noah’s family getting off that ark that first day. We are told the Ark landed on Mt. Ararat, considered by some scholars in modern day Turkey. Did Noah’s family have to establish a new home base in a foreign land? They were the sole survivors to a God-ordered holocaust. What did they see as they left the ark, a new world, wiped clean? How did they adjust without their extended family and friends? Think of the stress of building new homes, establishing farms, planting crops, starting over.
Despite God’s reassurance and blessings, they went through a spiritual wilderness, with all the trials that implies. A place where the familiar was gone, the direction was unclear, nothing seemed right, and even a relationship with God was reestablished.
In Mark’s gospel lesson today, we see God has decided that the only way to truly ‘redeem’ the world is by entering into the world in a personal, intimate way – in the person of Jesus. But first, before Jesus’ public ministry begins, a time of preparation – a time in the wilderness for forty days and nights. Jesus’ wilderness time “immediately” followed his baptism, and the text says, literally the Spirit expelled Jesus (not led him politely) out into the bleak, lonely, and dry Judean wilderness for forty days of testing.
Mark is very succinct: he just tells us that Satan tempted Jesus. He leaves a lot to the imagination. What did Satan tempt Jesus with? How did Jesus respond? What we do know is that people for centuries have fled to the wilderness to seek answers and find new directions in life. It is not surprising that the people of Israel would wander for 40 years in the wilderness – not just in response to disobedience and unbelief – but to give time for a new generation to rise up, a new generation familiar with the teachings of the Covenant and leadership of Moses.
So, we can imagine Jesus, living the majority of his years in relative obscurity in Nazareth, as a local carpenter. At around age 30, Jesus made a radical shift. Something stirred in his soul. Something was calling him forth. Something was fully awakening in him, telling Jesus, it is time. Jesus’ routine was about to be upended. Jesus was expelled out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit – away from human contact – exposed to dangerous animals, exposed to the elements – an unsafe place – but a transformative place. It would prepare him for the ministry that would change the course of the world.
Jesus faced all sorts of temptations in the wilderness. I believe Jesus faced a very common temptation that we all face. The temptation to go back. To return to the old life and play it safe. The temptation to say no to God out of the fear of the unknown. To return to the carpenter’s shop and live an ordinary life.
Sometime in our lives we have all faced a wilderness. Not necessarily of the physical elements as much as elements that are social, emotional or spiritual. We are exposed not to elements of heat or cold, but to elements of human greed, anger, envy or jealousy, or pride. We’ve all found ourselves out there. In the wilderness of money problems, of too much debt, of bills piling up and no end in sight. The wilderness of a lump, then an exam, then a test, then a biopsy, then a meeting with the oncologist and a diagnosis and a treatment plan and one drug after another and side effects and the waiting for results and the wishing for another life. Some of us are often found in the wilderness of busyness that keeps us from God and loving well. Or perhaps we know the wilderness of making time for everything and therefore having time for nothing. The wilderness asks us: What important relationships and friendships have I been putting off to some future time? What is God calling me to do with my life and with all the resources God has given me? What in my life right now do I take for granted?
A businessman visiting the pier of a coastal village noticed a small boat with just one fisherman pulling up to the dock. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. He complimented the fisherman on the fish and asked how long it took to catch them. “Only a little while,” the fisherman replied. “Why didn’t you stay out longer and catch more fish?” “I have enough to support my family’s needs.” The businessman then asked, “But what do you do with the rest of your time?” The fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take a siesta with my wife, and stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my friends. I have a full and busy life.”
The businessman scoffed, “You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds buy a bigger boat. Eventually have a whole fleet of boats. You can sell directly to the processor, open your own cannery. You would need to leave this small village and move to Mexico City, then Los Angeles, and eventually New York City to run your expanding enterprise.” The fisherman asked, “But, how long will all this take?” The MBA replied, “Fifteen to twenty years.” “But what then?” the fisherman asked. The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. You can sell your company stock and become very rich; you would make millions.” “Millions?” the fisherman asked. “Then what?”
The American said, “Then you would retire and move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take a siesta with your wife, and stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play guitar with your friends.”
This is what our Lenten wilderness teaches us.
To discover the purpose of life, now.
To appreciate what we have now.
To set our priorities straight - now.
To live the life God wants us to – now.
To love, now.
To repent, now.
To find the Kingdom of God, here, in our hearts, and experience the goods news of Jesus, not somewhere in the future, but now. Thanks be to God!