“The Why of the Wilderness”

Kurt Jacobson
5 min readFeb 18, 2024

--

February 18, 2024

Mark 1: 9–15

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’

Wilderness travel has gained in popularity over the past generation. An increasing number of people are seeking time to get into nature, places untouched by human development. Whether it be the quest for solitude, separation from busy lives or for challenging one’s personal fortitude and tenacity, getting into the wilderness is a popular pursuit for many. Such time in the wilderness can renew the body, mind, and spirit.

Today’s reading has Jesus in the wilderness. Mark’s account of Jesus moves so quickly that one might miss the gravity of a forty-day wilderness sojourn Jesus was sent on immediately after his baptism. A casual reading of this passage could consider this a facile triumph and miss the point entirely. But the Jesus of the wilderness is critically important. In it we learn he wrestled with real demons and dangers during those forty days of temptation.

To be sure, this was not a National Geographic expedition, or a planned desert marathon to prove his fitness. Jesus did not choose the wilderness: “The Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was with the wild beasts, and angels waited on him.”

Mark does not tell us what Satan’s specific temptations were, or how Jesus responded to them. All we know is that the Spirit of God “drove” him, compelled him, forced him, into the desolation of a wild and unsafe place.

Wilderness at some point of life seems to be reality for many people. Most of the time we do not choose to enter the wilderness. We do not volunteer for testing, pain, loss, abandonment or grief. But the wilderness of these dimensions occur anyway. Whether it comes to us in a surprising revelation of infidelity, an estrangement, a change in health, a hurting child, or a loss of faith, the wilderness appears at the doorstep of life, unbidden and unwelcome. And sometimes it is God’s own Spirit who drives us there.

Let me be the first to say this is disconcerting. I can hear the questions: Does this mean that God wills bad things to happen to us? Does God want us to suffer? (No). Does it mean that God is ready to teach, shape, and redeem us even during the most barren periods of our lives? (Yes). In the startling economy of God, even a tortuous or dangerous desert can become holy. Even our wilderness wanderings can reveal the divine. This is not because God takes pleasure in our pain, but because we live in a chaotic, fragile, and broken world that includes deserts, and because God’s modus operandi is to take the things of shadow and death, and wring from them resurrection.

I have never spent forty days in solitude, much less a state of physical deprivation and danger. But I cannot imagine Jesus’ time in the wilderness passed quickly.

For those of us who tend to the impatient and expect the quick fix, this aspect of wilderness is daunting, because we tire and despair quickly. Why, we ask, is this challenge, this pain, this frustration not ending? Why are our prayers going unanswered? Where is God?

Maybe, we need to ask a harder question: why did God believe Jesus needed the wilderness? Why do we?

Let’s back up a bit. Mark begins this account of Jesus with his baptism. When he came out of the Jordan River, the heavens open and God announces Jesus’s identity loud and clear: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.

Jesus heard the absolute truth about who he was. That was the easy part. The much harder part came in the desert, when he had to face down every vicious, mocking assault on that truth. As the memory of God’s voice faded, and the isolation of the wilderness played tricks on Jesus’s heart and mind, he had to learn that his God-given identity would still hold. That God’s deep and unconditional delight for him would never depend on external circumstances.

If those forty days in the wilderness was a time for Jesus to decide who he was and how he would live out his calling, then here is what the Son of God chose: deprivation over power. Vulnerability over rescue. Obscurity over honor. At every instance in his life when he could have reached for the certain, the extraordinary, and the miraculous, he reached instead for the precarious, the quiet, and the ordinary.

No one finds it easy affirming and mirroring Jesus’ choices. How often we prefer miraculous intervention, the dramatic rescue, the long-awaited vindication. How often do our prayers reach right toward such ends?

Sometimes we, like Jesus, need long stints in the wilderness to learn what it really means to be God’s children. Because the unnerving truth is this: we can be loved and uncomfortable at the same time. We can be loved and vulnerable at the same time. In the wilderness, the love that survives is not soft. Salvific, not sentimental. Learning to trust it takes time. A long time.

As we begin our journey into Lent, keep in focus the Jesus of the wilderness whose vulnerability became his strength. When you find yourself in a desert you did not choose or cannot avoid, recall His courage and the claim God announced upon you at your baptism: “You are my child. Loved, no matter what. Forever.”

Image: City of London Corporation; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

--

--

Kurt Jacobson

Author of “Living Hope” & “Welcoming Grace.” Lutheran preacher (retired) but still writing to inspire and aim for a world of mercy, love and respect.