Mark 1: 9-15
As soon as the emotional high of his baptism is over, Jesus is moved by the spirit to go into the wilderness, to be alone. Mark tells the story with characteristic brevity. He stays there 40 days, visited by angels and wild beasts, and tempted by Satan.
The wilderness features at many points in the Hebrew scriptures. It is a place apart, separate from normal life, a place of danger and testing, but also a place of encounter with God.
Wilderness encompasses desert, but also other wild places, away from river or lakeside, where there is neither human habitation nor cultivation. And in Israel those wild places were never far: In Jesus’ time world population was less than 5% of what it is today, very different from our current landscape, where every acre is owned by someone.
Of all the wild places, the Sinai desert has the deepest hold on in the Hebrew imagination. For God led his people out of slavery in Egypt and through what Deuteronomy describes as “the great and terrible wilderness, an arid waste-land with poisonous[b] snakes and scorpions.”
Then in Hosea we read of a terrible East wind which dries up fountains and springs, “rising from the wilderness.” And Isaiah prophecies that Babylon will be overtaken by desert, bringing with it howling creatures, hyenas, jackals and goat-demons. The wilderness is largely empty of water, but it is populated nonetheless, by wild and dangerous things.
But the desert wilderness is also a holy place. Moses and Elijah meet God there. It is a place where God provides when all else fails, bringing forth gushing streams from dry rock. It is a place of wandering, a place of living in tents, which have a special significance, commemorated in the Feast of Tabernacles each year.
So the desert wilderness lived in the Hebrew imagination in a way that it doesn’t for British people. We have nothing remotely resembling a desert here.
I turned this week to Iran for inspiration, where they have two large deserts: Dasht-e-Kavir, the “low plains” in the North and Dasht-e-Lut, the “plain of emptiness” in the South. Dasht-e-Kavir is about 4 times the size of Wales (to which it seems everything is compared these days) and Dasht-e-Lut a bit smaller. They are harsh places – the highest ever recorded temperature on the globe was in Dasht-e-Lut at 68 centigrade. And the variation from day to night can reach 70 degrees. And yet still some plants and creatures manage to survive there: snakes, it seems feed partly on migrating birds, who wander off their courses into the desert air and die of dehydration.
What draws Jesus into the harsh desert environment then? I imagine there is a kind of nakedness, a stripping away of things on the surface, to be found in the desert wilderness. It is a place where we leave behind the infrastructure and routines of everyday life, the web of relationships, duties, distractions of home, family, work, society, our anchors and reference points. Where we are in one sense reduced to our bare humanity. There is something frightening and destabilising in this reduced state, but also, perhaps, in the wide-open spaces, something elevating.
The French aviator and writer Antoine De St Exupery once had to ditch his plane in the Sahara desert and writes of being in the desert at night:
“When I opened my eyes I saw nothing but the pool of nocturnal sky, for I was lying on my back with out-stretched arms, face to face with that hatchery of stars. Only half awake, still unaware that those depths were sky, having no roof between those depths and me, no branches to screen them, no root to cling to, I was seized with vertigo and felt myself as if flung forth and plunging downward like a diver.”
I have never been in the desert, so I struggled to find an experience in any way comparable. Perhaps closest was my period of isolation in hospital 3 years ago – where I did experience that feeling of being stripped back – although without the wide open spaces. And it was also a very concrete bodily experience, as the everyday persona and status fell away, confronted by the unadorned physicality of life.
So perhaps for Jesus, time in the desert allowed him to ponder on who he was, at core, on his physical, incarnated presence.
But this trial at the start of his ministry is only a preliminary encounter: Satan tests him out, finds no obvious weaknesses and then withdraws. The ordeal is time-limited, with a clear end.
I am conscious that in our own time there are some who are tested by loss and desolation which seems without end. I wonder if the experience of asylum in a foreign country can feel like this.
For me, isolation did have a clear ending. I recall the sense of wonder on that first afternoon the day before my release from hospital, when I was allowed to go for a short walk around Whitworth Park – about this time of year. And the beauty of the light and the spring air and the buds on the trees.
So maybe also time apart and deprived, in the wilderness, if we come through it, restores our senses, our noticing of the sacred beauty in the world, and in people.
I pray that when we do all emerge into fuller lives, we will hold for at least a while, that sense of wonder, and be moved by it, and thankful. And let us pray also for those for whom there is no easy ending, that God’s angels may attend them.
Richard Young (Rector)