In the Wilderness

Many people have been asking what it was like to be in Israel/Palestine for two weeks, and what my most memorable experience was. While both parts of this question are hard to answer in a few words, this Sunday’s Gospel (Mark 1:12-15) brings one memorable moment to mind, and that was the day our group went into the wilderness. The wilderness in this land does not mean lots of foliage growing wild. No, the wilderness in the Holy Land is the barren desert – and what a desert it is! Huge sand mountains as far as the eye could see. Not a speck of green, no drop of water, no sign of life. Just the dry sand, the scorching sun, and the wild beasts who somehow manage to survive in the arid conditions.

The three monotheistic religions which arise from Abraham – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – attribute great spiritual importance  to places of nature and wilderness. Wild and naked places allow us to perceive God and for God to penetrate our spirit.  All three religions consider the wilderness a place where we are stripped down to our naked humanity, a place where God awaits us.

This encounter is not easy or cozy. For the ancient Israelites, the desert/wilderness was a place of repentance inviting renewal. When the Israelites left Egypt, they wandered in hostile territory for a long time before reaching a promised land. Abraham casts the slave woman, Hagar, into the wilderness. God saved her in that wasteland, renewing her spirit and giving her a vision of a great nation. For Muslims, creation is a gift from God and a sign of God’s grace. Similar to Judaic and Christian traditions, in Islam, nature reflects the dominion of God, beyond human control. Similarly, in the New Testament, the Gospels tell of John the Baptist proclaiming God in the wilderness, foretelling the Christ who is to come, and calling for, again, repentance. Jesus had his own time in the wilderness being tested and honed for his mission.

In each of the three monotheistic faiths which sprung from the Middle Eastern deserts, believers throughout time have set themselves apart in monastic communities, often seeking out the wild places in self-imposed exile to allow the voice of God to be heard and understood more clearly. Indeed, we spotted St. George’s Orthodox Monastery, hewn – perched – precariously on the rolling sand dunes. It truly looks like a sand castle. 

There is such a thing as geographical theology, our instructors Richard and Nedal told us. That is, an understanding of God that arises from our experience of the land. In fact, 90% of the entire Bible originated in the desert, in the scarcity of life. The concept of one God arose from the desert, from the hardship and loneliness that confronts us there.

Why the wilderness? Could it be that those naked places of life literally strip us of all supports, all false gods, and all illusions of comfort and control? Could it be that it is only when bare naked, that our spirit cracks open to the God of life in Jesus?  

The wilderness to which the Gospels refer is generally believed to be the rocky, arid and uninhabited area between Jerusalem and Jericho. And yes, that is exactly where our group went. We spent a good chunk of time just being silent, taking in the threatening isolation and deprivation of that arid land, pondering what it was like for Jesus to be tempted in that very wilderness. But when peering into the sandhills long enough, here and there the eye spots tiny specks of green. Oh my, there is life somewhere. God is the green, indicating living water somewhere in this ocean of barrenness.

Now Israel/Palestine is a narrow strip of land, with the wilderness/ desert area located more inland. On the coast life is marked by urban hustle and bustle, abundant agriculture on fertile outstretched fields, along with busy ports and a flourishing tourist business. The coast is the land of plenty while the desert is the land of nothingness. Generally, throughout the history of Israel/Palestine it is on the coast that temptations, false gods, and illusions have easily swayed the human heart into allegiance. Who needs a God of hardship when life is dandy?

Temptations arise more readily from a land of plenty: seducing temptations for power and relevance, for prestige and for control. Each of them disguises as a god, vying for our allegiance. But each one is a false, shallow god. Once we give ourselves to their demand for worship and loyalty, justice and peace, compassion and reconciliation get severely compromised and can even go out the window. Why? Are such virtues simply incompatible with the quest for power and relevance, for prestige and pleasure?

Curiously, Jesus faced these temptations in the desert/ wilderness. Each one presented its attractive features at a time when he was famished and his spirit was weak, a time when he was most vulnerable and prone to cave in. Jesus stared each one down, claiming his total dependence on and allegiance to the one God: the God who can be found in emptiness and pain, the God who comes to us in the wilderness/desert of life, the God who can be trusted in life and in death, the speck of green amidst the barrenness.

Gazing into the threatening emptiness and stunning beauty of the desert, the deafening silence and imposing isolation entered me… Reflecting on Scripture in that desolate place, a new insight dawned: Our entire western culture is a land of plenty …

Is it any wonder that our churches are emptying out …? False gods abound in every land of plenty, and we sell our souls to them without much thought, risking to sacrifice in the process substantial commitments to compassion and reconciliation, to justice and peace. But could it also be that our churches are diminishing because religion, with its institutionalized mazes and structures, has made encountering this desert-God way too complicated?

Life is hard in the desert, just as life was hard on the Canadian prairies. Yet, God can be encountered in that harshness and aridness, much like the trickle of water deep beneath the surface, allowing the fragile greening of life in the midst of … nothing. It is that realization which is at the very heart of our faith.

So I just stood there on the cliff, the ocean of sand stretched out as far as my eye could see. Slowly the desert entered me, teaching its wisdom as it once taught Jesus. In this threatening arid land that my eyes and spirit beheld Jesus rejected a life of plenty, rejected a life packed with shallow promises and false pleasures. In this rejection Jesus gained solid ground under his soul-feet, tapping the trickle of water in this overwhelming wasteland: unwavering trust in the one true God of mercy and compassion. This solid soul-ground helped Jesus to stay close to God right into his dying on the cross.

If we can resist the false gods in the desert of life, if we can turn to God in our weakest moments, find the one true God in our most painful wilderness, the land of plenty will lose its power to buy our allegiance and demand our uncritical worship. What’s more, nothing will frighten us anymore, not even our dying. Contrary to fearing the desert/wilderness, Jesus models how to find the life-giving God-trickle in desert spaces, in ways that can deepen and green … our faith. This is how the kingdom of God arrives in our lives.

Wherever the river goes, every living creature will live
… everything will live where the river goes.

(Ezekiel 47:9)

* To learn more about the programs offered through St. George’s Anglican College in Jerusalem, click here.

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