When I lived in San Diego, I would occasionally go hiking in the desert with a parishioner who happened to be a geologist. We would hike through some of the most unusual rock formations I have ever seen. Some of the landscapes were like Mars or the moon: rugged, difficult to walk, filled with deep crevices and giant boulders. We would hike between narrow corridors of huge stone mountains, and once, I remember, we came across a beautiful oasis of running water surrounded by palm trees.
Over the years I have spent a lot of time in the desert, whether in California or Arizona, and I have come to appreciate how the desert or wilderness impacts our faith. In the wilderness we come to know ourselves in a deeper way and also come to know God. That is what occurs in today’s gospel.
Immediately after Jesus’ baptism, when he heard the voice of his Father say, ‘You are my beloved son with whom I am well pleased…” we read the words: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over he was famished.”
Time spent in the wilderness seems to be a prerequisite for a deep experience of faith. God led the Hebrew people out of Egypt, where they had lived in slavery for 400 years. They headed toward the Promised Land. It was an 11-day journey, but it took forty years to get there. What took so long? Why did God keep them in the wilderness?
Even when Joshua led the people into Canaan, it was many years before they subdued it. And even when they were in the Promised Land and had subdued it, they could not keep it. There came a time when they were carried off into slavery in Babylon where they cried out, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Ps. 137:4).
Biblical faith is a wilderness faith. It is a faith born in struggle and hardship. Why was Jesus driven out into the wilderness before he began his formal ministry? Probably it was so that he could fully experience what it means to be a human being. Authentic faith doesn’t come easily. It is born in the wilderness of testing and temptation.
Some parents are surprised when they make life as easy as possible for their children and then discover that those children do not respond in the way the parents had hoped. Look at that spoiled teen in Texas whose lawyer claimed that “Affluenza” was responsible for his reckless conduct in driving drunk and killing four people. His parents spoiled him rotten but they failed to teach him moral values, self-discipline and personal responsibility. Here is one of life’s most important lessons: There is something about struggle that toughens us, matures us.
Time spent in the wilderness seems to be a prerequisite for a deep faith. If life comes too easily, if there are no challenges to overcome, no mountains to be scaled, then we live on the surface of life with no real understanding of God’s love and sustaining power. This should not surprise us. Wilderness experiences can be moments of personal growth and new insight into our world.
There are some fine films nominated for an Oscar this year, but none better than Brooklyn. Although the settings for the film are Ireland and New York, the story is about one woman’s journey in the wilderness. Eilis (AY-lish) Lacey is a young woman from a small town in County Wexford in Ireland. She lives a difficult and unfulfilling life with her mother and sister, unable to get any meaningful employment, and relegated to working part-time in a bakery for a petty, mean-spirited woman. But thanks to her sister Rose and an Irish priest in Brooklyn, New York, Eilis gets the opportunity to immigrate to the United States and escape the small town mentality that so stifles her spirit.
The journey on the ship to America is harrowing, with Eilis suffering from sea-sickness and food poisoning. She desperately needs to use a shared bathroom connected to her tiny cabin, but she’s locked out of the toilet by her cabin neighbors. The imagery of her sickness and her pleading to use the bathroom is heart-wrenching. Although on the Atlantic Ocean, Eilis is traveling in her own wilderness to a land she knows nothing about and to a city that is larger than the entire population of Ireland. There is hardship, adversity and uncertainty ahead, but a woman in the bunk below her, an experienced traveler, gives her advice and support for Eilis’ entry to the U.S. and life in Brooklyn, the new home of many Irish immigrants.
I won’t tell you the rest of the story if you haven’t yet seen the film, but the movie ends with Eilis returning to Brooklyn on a ship after visiting her mother in Ireland, this time as a strong, confident, assertive woman who now knows who she is and what she wants – and doesn’t want. She turns away from the Irish small town mentality of her past and embraces the new world across the Atlantic in Brooklyn and her Italian husband who has dreams of living on Long Island.
Jesus was driven into the wilderness. There he was tested, as you and I are tested in our daily lives. There seems no other way to do it. No pain, no gain. If you don’t risk and step out in faith, if you don’t move beyond your comfort zone, you stagnate and fail to realize your potential.
Notice that it is the Spirit that drives Jesus into the wilderness. He was not lured into the wilderness by Satan. He was driven there by the Spirit. Evidently the wilderness was exactly where he was supposed to be.
I know…no one wants to be in the wilderness, but the good news is that it need not be permanent. When life takes a sharp turn downward, when we find ourselves in circumstances that challenge our ability to cope, when we experience deep disappointments, or radical change impinges upon our lives, we find through the grace of God the strength to journey through the tough times and rise to a new level of excellence. Like Eilis, we come out of the wilderness a stronger, better person.
Take Peyton Manning, for example. Here he was a 39-year-old quarterback for the Denver Broncos who had been injured the season before and was no longer the great athlete of years past. His performance at the beginning of the football season was so bad that fans started booing him and he was benched to the sidelines. Some sports pundits thought Manning was a has-been who had no business still playing football. Others accused him of using steroids, which he vigorously has denied.
In all the adversity that was thrown at him, Manning took it with grace and humility but also with a fierce resolve to succeed. In the last part of the season and through every playoff game, Manning hung in there and last Sunday led his team to a Super Bowl victory. Here was a man in the wilderness who came through it to the cheers of his fans and the respect of his teammates.
Like Peyton Manning, we all struggle with the inevitable setbacks of life and work. Admittedly, football is only a game but sometimes life can be deadly serious.
Winston Churchill in the 1930s was going through his own wilderness. Entering his late fifties, fattening up, losing his hair, he had been widely blamed for Britain’s financial dislocation in the Depression when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. He had been tagged as the architect of the World War I disaster at Gallipoli which cost 214,000 British casualties for zero gain. The 1929 stock market crash cost him a considerable fortune.
By 1932, Churchill was an outcast from his own party, a has-been, and a man few took seriously. When Joseph Stalin asked about Churchill to Lady Astor, she replied disdainfully, “Oh, he’s finished.”
Eight years later, on June 4, 1940, Churchill stood in front of the British Parliament as Prime Minister, while Hitler’s panzer divisions swept across Europe. Most world leaders including many in Britain saw no choice but to cede Europe to the Nazis. However, Churchill was defiant. Before the House of Commons he issued his famous words: “We shall never surrender.”
Not only would Churchill redeem himself by leading Britain to victory against the Nazi onslaught, but he would go on to win a Nobel Prize in literature, return again as Prime Minister at age seventy-seven, be knighted by the Queen and become a champion of freedom against the communist menace. (1)
How about you? Everyone goes through a wilderness experience at some point. Some people go through the wilderness and give up on life, become bitter, fall into depression, or even lose faith in God. Others move through the wilderness and find intimacy with God, compassion for other people, strength for the journey, and a willingness to sacrifice for a cause greater than themselves.
The Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness where he was tested by Satan. He passed that test. So can you. Time spent in the wilderness is a prerequisite for a deep experience of trusting God, stepping out of your comfort zone, taking risks, and sacrificing for the things that matter.
Are you in the wilderness this day? By the grace of God, you can make it through and enter your promised land.
Dr. Gary Nicolosi
February 14, 2016
Text – Luke 4: 1-13
Lent I, C
1. Jim Collins, How the Mighty Fall (Harper Collins, 2009) 120-123