The summit of Mt. Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, where thousands of hikers each year are rewarded with this view – and a reminder.
As a church, we find ourselves in the Lenten wilderness for another year.
I have to confess that I’ve never entirely been sure that things like Lent matter to most people, even church people. I’ve had my doubts over the years that most people have the time or the available brain power to imagine the forty day Lenten journey as anything other than something that happens at church. Naturally, for most people, missing church means missing Lent, and Lord knows that between flu season and busy lives, it’s easy to miss church these days.
It’s for all these reasons and a few of my own that I realize it’s not natural for many of us to have a lot of imagination about Lent; the only reason you might think about it outside of this space is if you’ve given up something or added something for your Lenten discipline. You might think about Lent when you reach for the chocolate or fast food during the week and remember that you can’t have it, but that’s probably about it.
But while we may struggle with Lent, we don’t need any help understanding the concept of wilderness. Literally speaking, even those of us who are non-hikers can imagine life on something like the Long Trail or the Appalachian Trail. Many of us know someone who’s done a thru hike like that, staying in the literal wilderness for days or weeks.
We understand metaphorical wilderness, too, and all of us understand it by experience. By this I mean the countless times in all our lives when we feel ourselves searching and lost. Any number of things can land you there: the illness or death of a loved one. An illness or injury of your own. A vocational crisis. A financial crisis. A broken relationship. A general sense of dread from what you see on the news. Any combination of these factors and countless more can land you in the wilderness.
You know the many feelings of the wilderness, too: sadness and depression, anger and bitterness, relief and gratitude — sometimes by themselves, and sometimes all at once.
You know what it’s like to find yourself in this kind of wilderness, even though it can happen in any number of ways, sudden or gradual. Maybe you’re plunged into the wilderness of loneliness and confusion suddenly when you hear the bad news — you know, that she’s sick or that you’re sick or that he died or that that person doesn’t want to be with you anymore.
Or maybe it happens more gradually, as you slowly find yourself sliding into a general confusion about your life and your identity and what’s happening in the world.
It doesn’t matter how you get to the wilderness, but it’s rarely by choice.
In today’s Gospel story, we get a re-run of Jesus’ baptism before we’re told that the Spirit drove him into the wilderness. Let’s be real: we mainly get that re-run of his baptism because the wilderness story is only two cryptic verses. But sometimes the most relatable stories are the ones without a ton of detail.
What we do know is that Jesus didn’t get there gently. While Matthew and Luke phrase it something like “was led” by the Spirit into the wilderness, Mark is much more forceful in his description. He says that the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness — using the same Greek word that Matthew, Mark, and Luke use to talk about what Jesus driving out demons, and the one that 1 John uses to talk about people wrongfully getting forced out of the church.
So Jesus, not unlike many of us, is driven into the wilderness, and there he meets the three things and entities: temptation, wild beasts, and angels. And so today, we’ll talk about the wilderness in three parts, using the experience of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers to help us along.
Chapter One: Temptation
Because Mark doesn’t do details, we don’t know anything about what Jesus’ temptation was supposed to be like. As for us, though, we usually think about temptation in pretty petty terms, really: temptation to do bad things.
I don’t mean to belittle this kind of temptation; certainly we all have our vices, some more serious than others, that legitimately harm us and others. Most times, though, I think the problem is far more insidious than being about an individual behavior — the biggest temptation that grabs all of us, I think, is hopelessness. That this will never be okay, that we have failed, that we are tired and can’t go on.
Hopelessness. Thru-hikers get it in the literal wilderness, and everyone gets it in the figurative wilderness.
This past Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, there was another shooting. Another school shooting. For those of us who are teachers or students and for the countless more who love such people, this hit us harder than usual.
The photo that impacted a lot of us deeply was the one of a grief-stricken woman with an ash cross on her forehead. For liturgical Christians in particular, this impacted us deeply, churning up not only compassion for this woman, but reminding us that we are all a heartbeat away from utter grief and deep, dark, lasting wilderness.
Temptation for most of us these days is to give up and resign ourselves not just regarding gun violence, but public debate and our ability to solve anything in general. I feel it, that pull into my own uselessness and inability to change anything, ever. To resign myself to living in an entirely different political reality than those I love.
When you hit the temptation to hopelessness phase, you know for sure that you’ve found the wilderness.
Some days, that temptation wins, and I’m reminded that Jesus didn’t give in to temptation, but there’s only one Jesus, and I’m not him.
Chapter Two: Wild Beasts
The funny thing about the wild beasts of Mark’s story about Jesus is that we don’t know exactly what we’re supposed to make of it. Is Jesus up a tree running from coyotes, or is he taming foxes and hanging out with them so that he doesn’t get lonely in the desert? Well, personally, I can’t imagine God in flesh up a tree, and I’m a dog person, so I prefer the latter.
I know animals aren’t for everyone, but those of us who love and appreciate the presence of animals know that their noticing us can lift our day. One of my favorite cartoons is called “The Awkward Yeti” and is often a discussion between organs and other parts of the body either among each other (for example, the brain is analytical, the tongue is demanding, the gut is ornery and embarrasses everyone all the time, and the heart is whimsical and impulsive).
One particular cartoon goes like this: Panel one: the heart is walking alone and sad. Panel two: A cartoon dog walks up to the sad heart and wags its tail. Panel three: The heart walks up to the dog and pats the dog on the head. : pat, pat : Panel Four: the heart bounds away smiling. Pets, whether our own or someone else’s, have a way of lifting our hearts. Diego would like to note that he is usually available after church for doge therapy upon request. His fee can be paid in scritches behind the ear.
But the “wild beasts” can be just that — wild. They can come to you in the form of wild geese over your head or the hawks floating around the mountains or a rabbit or a deer that you see in your yard. This is the part where the real wilderness and the metaphorical wilderness are the same. People wouldn’t undertake thru hikes through ugly places, and what often keeps hikers’ feet moving is the promise of beauty — beautiful creatures and beautiful views.
In the same way, part of what can make the metaphorical wilderness okay is the chance to enjoy the real wilderness, even if it’s just the beauty of the or the snow or the sunlight or the birds outside your window.
St. John of the Cross knew wilderness of his own, and he wrote this poem:
“I was sad one day and went for a walk; I sat in a field.
A rabbit noticed my condition and came near.
It often does not take more than that to help at times –
to just be close to creatures who are so full of knowing,
so full of love; they don’t chat.
They just gaze with their marvelous understanding.”
Final Chapter: Angels
Jesus also meets some angels in the wilderness, whom we are told “attended to him.” Unlike Matthew, Mark doesn’t tell us that the angels show up at the end. In Mark, it looks to me like the temptation and the wild beasts and the angels are with Jesus at different points all along the journey.
On the Appalachian Trail, there’s a whole other culture with its own set of terminology. “Trail magic” is an unexpected thing that lifts a hiker’s spirits. “Trail angels” are people who make trail magic happen, whether it’s a ride into town or a hot shower or a hot meal. At its heart, a trail angel is someone who is not spending all their time in the wilderness taking a moment to help someone who is.
I don’t have to tell you that when you’re in a period of metaphorical wilderness yourself, there are plenty of trail angels along the way. They’re the ones who give you a meal or a smile or a helping hand when you need it most. They can’t take you out of the wilderness, but they can give you what you need along the way.
So the next time you find yourself in the wilderness or if you find yourself in the wilderness today, look for and give thanks for the trail angels along the way, be they family, friends, or strangers.
Learn what thru-hikers know: there is always trail magic to be found.
And while you’re at it, this Lent, consider how you can be a trail angel yourself. Consider who you know that’s in any kind of wilderness right now, and consider whether you’re in a position to help. Relationships are complicated and messy and often broken and you are not capable of helping everyone. But everyone can be a trail angel to someone.
The liturgical Lenten journey isn’t primarily, for most people, about a pious observance. I think Lent is most useful when it helps us understand something about our lives inside and outside of these walls. Whether you’re here for every service held in this place through Pentecost or whether this is your only time to join us, you’ll likely find yourself in some wildernesses on the journey from now to the end of spring. Most of us are settled in some sort of wilderness already.
May you find food for the journey here, because the bread we break is God, the one driven into the wilderness before us, teaching us to withstand the temptation to abandon it all, the one who was with the wild beasts and created the beauty of the wilderness we see, and the one who met and sends us angels along the way.
We don’t usually go into the wilderness by choice, but the Good News is that we also do not go into the wilderness alone.
When hikers reach the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail at the summit of Mt. Katahdin, they are greeted with a plaque with these Ash Wednesday-appropriate words: “Man is born to die. His works are short lived. Buildings crumble, monuments decay, wealth vanishes. But Katahdin in all it’s glory shall forever remain the mountain of the people of Maine.”
Ash Wednesday reminded us that we came from dust and will return there. All of our journeys in the wilderness will not save us, but they can teach us. And sometimes, when we’re lucky, we find the end and a stunning view and a glimpse of a loving God who shall stand far longer even than Katahdin, and we will feel small, humble … and fulfilled. So let us journey this Lent — together. Amen.