Henry Miller, the author, once wrote, “We live at the edge of the miraculous.”
We live at the edge of the miraculous…
I don’t know about you, but the idea of living on an edge, any edge, sets my heart to rapid beating and not with love. Living on an edge is anxiety-producing, risky, and conjures up ideas of a cliff followed by an abyss of some sort. Maybe because I spent too many years as a kid watching Wile E. Coyote chase the Road Runner off too many clifftops to mention.
One can instead call an “edge” a “threshold,” but the thought still evokes anxiety. There is something to cross over or go beyond and who knows what is on the other side?
To consider that the edge might actually lead us to the miraculous is worth pondering for a moment. It is not the way we customarily think.
In our scripture story, a familiar passage on this first Sunday of Lent, Jesus travels from Nazareth, his hometown, to the edge of the Jordan River where he is baptized by John the Baptizer. It is a threshold moment—he is submitting himself to a particular ritual and teaching of the time. We must not assume that he would have anticipated the Spirit to descend on him, or his presumption of heavenly voices, or Divine affirmation. While standing at the water’s edge, maybe he thoughtfully wondered: “what will John’s movement demand of me?” Maybe he stood, momentarily, with one foot in and one foot out, Hokey-Pokey undecided.
Perhaps he wondered whether or not he was up for the task. Perhaps he could not imagine, with the water still dripping from his clothes what his fullest “yes” would mean to his family, to his mother, and even to himself.
We, too, cross various thresholds in our lives. We, too, come close to various “edges” with our questions and hesitations—sometimes we cross these edges on purpose and sometimes we stumble upon them. Major events like a marriage or the birth of a child, a career change, retirement, or graduation come readily to mind, but there are other thresholds and “edges” in our daily lives when we are forced with a decision whether to move ahead and encounter what lies on the other side, or we decide that a retreat is in order. And with either choice, we pray that we won’t live with regret.
The edge can be a lonely space—what may seem to be a threshold to me, may appear to be a “no-brainer” to you and vice versa. Much has to do with experience. Some edges feel more like brick walls; others feel like a slippery slope, or a swiftly moving river. Sometimes we don’t even know that we’ve reached an edge or a threshold until we look back and see the mountains receding in the distance. Have you ever found yourself on the other side of something and wondered how you made it through or made it home?
There is another “edge” in Mark’s gospel, the shortest and earliest version of our scripture story. The Spirit “drives” Jesus into the wilderness just after his watery baptismal ritual is complete. An adult Jesus is driven into the wilderness- another name for the desert– a place that, upon first glance, would seem uninhabited –except for the wild beasts and the mysterious Satan who decides to pay a visit.
While some may take this passage quite literally—imagining a Devil with pitchfork confronting Jesus around a campfire, I am more likely to consider the challenges, obstacles, and relentless “what if’s” that can besiege us after we have made a pivotal decision to go a certain way or do a certain thing. When we stand at the edge of something or other, if we overcome our inertia and decide to move forward, we are then often immediately beset with worries and anxiety. Challenges begin to appear larger and more foreboding; numerous obstacles often assert themselves, and problems seem to attack from all sides. The Devil asserts itself in the details, many which can seem like wild beasts.
While Jesus is in the wilderness, Satan –the Adversary– tempts him. We are not told the temptations here, but other gospel writers will elucidate further. Suffice it to say that Jesus is tempted by an Adversary that knows his weaknesses, knows his fears, knows what will cause him to second-guess his watery immersion into the Baptizer’s movement, and knows just how to get him to question his aspirations and dreams in ways that make his head, heart, and very bones ache. He becomes aware of the costs of change, as well as the costs of inertia. Have you ever considered the cost of not listening to your soul? When we fail to listen to our bodies, they break down. When we fail to listen to our soul, we can become depressed, embittered, and unstable.
Have you ever suffered from inertia? Often, our inability to move ahead or to take the next step is because we lack the information that would better help us to see the edge as a launch pad rather than a resting spot. Sometimes we need to contend with the Devils in our brains and in our past experiences before we can spot the angels just waiting to assist us.
And what about those wild beasts? Sometimes they are only “wild” because they are unknown to us and we assume they are bigger, badder, and more hazardous than the ones we do know and are more comfortable accepting as the status quo in our lives. In any case, Jesus is tempted and living among the beasts for forty days— a nice round number in the bible—as we remember that it rained 40 days and 40 nights for Noah.
The great celloist, Yo-Yo Ma, once said, “Things can fall apart, or threaten to, for many reasons, and then there’s got to be a leap of faith. Ultimately, when you’re at the edge, you have to go forward or backward; if you go forward, you have to jump together.” Perhaps we falsely assume that we meet the “edges” in our lives alone, but our story reminds us that there are others out there on those thresholds too—some who have already taken steps that we now face; some who are ready to lend a hand and perhaps a heart, and some who seek to care for us in our soul-searching.
Remember the angels that “waited upon” Jesus? They likely knew from personal experience what it was like to be contending with questions of the soul, questions that touched on life purpose and possibility.
By the end of this short passage, Jesus has emerged not simply from the baptismal waters, but from the experience of being tested and tempted. He is stronger for having spent time in wilderness contending with his doubts, worries, and an Adversary that knew his weaknesses, and was all too ready to exploit them. Jesus emerges willing to break the inertia that would try to entrap him by showing him only his fears and not the constant anchor of God’s love. It is notable that when his mentor, John, is arrested, Jesus is ready to undertake the ministry and movement, saying “The time is fulfilled…” After his hardship in the wilderness, he is more than ready to proclaim the good news in John’s stead.
And what about you, friends? To what edge have you come? What threshold awaits you? Can you see that you might just be on the edge of the miraculous rather than a yawning abyss? Can you trust that the wild beasts are not as awful as you imagine and that your Adversary is simply your fears personified and amplified to the nth degree? If so, remember others have encountered similar places of wilderness and threshold. Seek the company of angels and remember God’s care for you while you discern. The edge can be a holy space too. Remember this when you are combatting inertia and the Spirit seems to drive you toward a future you cannot yet see. Amen.