Again and again in the Gospels we are told that Jesus withdrew to be alone, to be with God, to reflect, to pray. These times of reflection, prayer, and silence teach us something just as important as the words and actions of Jesus himself.
During this season of Lent we are encouraged to step outside the hustle and bustle of this world, and indeed the hustle and bustle of our own thoughts; so that we can open ourselves to God’s voice within our lives.
After all, the prophet Elijah did not find God in the great and powerful wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire. God was found in the gentle whisper; the still small voice of calm.
Where better to encounter God, to reflect, to pray, to discern God’s call upon our lives and to wrestle with that call – than in the wilderness itself – the wilderness of this world, the wilderness of our lives, and the wilderness of our hearts.
Wilderness is not just about futile wandering – it is purposeful, it is about finding direction, it is about plotting and setting out on the right course – a course where we turn away from all that is behind and start afresh with a clear destination in mind.
Within all that the wilderness brings there is longing and desiring – a hopeful expectation. Wilderness encapsulates the very words of St Augustine: “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God.”
Entering into this kind of silence and the vulnerability of the wilderness, requires us to leave those places that are familiar, comfortable, and predictable.
If we are honest with ourselves, we try our best to avoid the wilderness. Things happen in the wilderness and we would rather not have things change. The wilderness is where we are forced to see ourselves as we are, without filter or finery. It is there through our purposeful wandering and waiting that we encounter the holy.
Like Jesus, we are sometimes driven against our will, by the Holy Spirit, to the wild places we would rather not go. But the wilderness is where we as individuals and as community must go, because out of the wild comes new life.
During this Lenten season of fasting and focus, of praying and preparing, we are tempted to simply go through the motions. We are tempted to skirt the wilderness, to turn away from encountering the wild places in our lives and in our world. But as followers of Christ, if we are to be renewed for new possibilities and prepared to hope once more, we must face those wild places.
Throughout the history of God’s people, we see our spiritual ancestors spending their time wrestling with the barren places. From the call of Abraham and Sarah to the wandering of the people of Israel, the wilderness has become a place of refining and self-discovery.
But our forbearers never faced the desert alone – God journeyed with Israel, God watched over Noah, God stood with Jesus. And for our time, God will stand with us.
If we are honest with ourselves, we know deep down inside that we need the wilderness. We know in our bones and deep within our souls that the desert calls, cajoles, and compels us even when we resist. The Church, faith communities, the world—now more than ever—needs the wilderness. We need to spend the time looking at ourselves in order to find new life, new ministry, and new ways of being the people of God.
We long for things to stay the same, for things to be frozen in time. We long for the way things were in the past; but God is calling us, like the people of Israel, to a new future. We cannot get to God’s future if we are not able to let go of the past.
We are called to be agents of change, to be part of God’s redemptive mission in the world and that involvement begins, like it did with Jesus, when we are driven to the wild places of discovery.
We go to the wilderness to discover anew the joy of being beloved. We go to learn once more what it means to be and live as beloved. We go to listen for the voice of God calling us again. We go to see Christ more clearly in the world around us. We go because that is where we encounter God. We go to the wilderness because we can no longer be as we have always been.
God’s work begins with a persistent Holy Spirit sometimes dragging, driving, and drawing us out into the wilderness. Jesus has been there. His footsteps can still be found. The angels are there. Out in the wilderness, we are faced with many temptations. But the biggest temptation is to not enter the wilderness at all.
The wilderness is calling – hear that call – earnestly and purposefully hear it; and then embrace it!