Today is the first Sunday of Lent. The lectionary reading is the account of Jesus meeting with John the baptizer. Afterwards, we are told, “the spirit drove him out into the wilderness”.
It has become common parlance for people to talk about “the wilderness experience”. Yet I wonder what does that really mean? It has become another catch phrase . . . a sort of Christian-speak for any perceived bad time.
At this point I have to admit that I dislike “Christian-speak”. In certain circles it can become like a secret language, like a sign that a person is in the “Christian” club. Even then, there are many shades to the “club” that can be recognized through a particular phrase or turn of speech. Always there are insiders and outsiders. That is such a horrible concept, yet it is so easy to fall into. It is always something to watch oneself for, to guard against.
This week I was on vacation from school. Yet, it has not been a fun vacation time to do nice holiday-type things and relax. I have had to work every day in a fairly disciplined fashion at writing. This week has been all about hermeneutics (the art of interpretation). I have been consumed by thinking about and writing about how the Bible is (has been) understood and how that effects contemporary practice, not in a general sense, but in my tiny area of study, corporal punishment of children. One of the things it has been quite exciting to discover is how practices claimed as Biblical simply are not. Depending on one’s viewpoint they may be good or bad practices but they simply can’t be claimed as Biblical and, therefore, guiding one’s life.
I wondered if that is what we have in this phrase “the wilderness experience” which is derived mainly from Jesus’ experience in the desert for 40 days (although a glance is sometimes cast at the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years). In fact, one has to wonder if the authors of the synoptic gospels used 40 days to mimic the 40 years . . . but that’s not a thought I want to pursue today.
There are a multitude of books written about the wilderness experience. Many claim it is a Biblical experience, thus having an authority in their lives. Yet, I wonder if this is really Biblical or does it owe more to popular thinking.
The “desert experience” is generally deemed to be a time when one withdraws to a place to be alone. It is a time to seek God and a spiritual experience. There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking time alone. Many people (and not just those who identify as Christian) recognize the necessity of time alone to recharge one’s batteries. It often is a very spiritual experience however one understands that term.
I randomly looked at a few articles on “The Desert Experience”. I quote from three which offer very different perspectives on how they interpret the concept.
The first article I read said that the desert was “a place inhabited by monsters and demonic forces; a scary place; a place of chaos . . .”, (Dr. D. W. Ekstrand)
The second said, “You may be just surviving from day to day financially or materially. You may be waiting for your healing to manifest. It is all totally unpleasant for your flesh. Instead of prosperity there will be trials and pressure. Your peace will be assaulted by all kinds of negative emotions and thoughts, which you will need to resist” (Michael Fackerell)
The third described the experience as “[People] feel alone, spiritually isolated, and they don’t have too many Christian friends that they are experiencing a rich and full fellowship in Christ with.” (Frank Viola)
I don’t want to say any of the people writing these quotes are wrong or what they say is necessarily bad. Some people will disagree with them whilst others will agree. I merely want to point out that there is nothing to say that these experiences are Biblical!
Personally, I don’t think that being ill, or being financially challenged or being lonely or facing a crisis can be attributed to the passage today. They are indeed situations which many of us will have experienced. However, if we equate such things to this so-called “desert experience” then we would have to say that all the poor, all the chronically sick people, all the people who have been lonely for years are spending their whole lives the desert. People experiencing this sort of hardship may feel they are struggling constantly, but it cannot necessarily be claimed as a Biblical, God-ordained spiritual experience.
So back to the text . . . what we have is Jesus on the brink of a change of career. He is about to start of ministry and feels compelled to take some time to prepare. It was a few days of time to be alone. It is so often the negative aspects of this passage and this season that are focused on. Yet, the texts in the various gospels tell us that Jesus was tended by angels, and by non-human friends. In the past, I have talked about the possibility that when the gospel tell us that John the Baptizer came from the wilderness he had been being educated by the Essene community there. Maybe an Essene community looked after Jesus when he was in the wilderness. But that, too, is supposition. Regardless, when we read about Jesus in the wilderness the richness of the experience often passes us by.
Last week at the support group for foster and adoptive parents in our county we talked about the necessity of taking time alone for ourselves. The task is a hard one, the children have suffered the trauma of being removed from home to say nothing of the possible traumas caused by the reasons they had to leave their homes. To do the task well, it is necessary to take time to prepare oneself.
Jesus time in the desert was just that, he was cared for and tended to as he prepared for the next phase of his life. I think it would be good to remain with that thought and ponder all the positives of time alone being ministered to by others this week.