While I was growing up, a small woods stretched from our backyard to the parking lot of the clothing factory which jutted against the railroad tracks. The woods existed for several years until one day, when contractors demolished it to make way for a new housing development. In the days of the woods, there was a well-worn path that the neighborhood children and some adults took through the green canopy of trees, and along the path were fragrant honeysuckle bushes and wild blackberries in season, along with the more nefarious poison ivy and thorny undergrowth. An odd kind of clearing was deep in the woods—a manmade crater-like area carved out by some bulldozer, no doubt, with steep circular “hills” that we, children, would climb up or bike down in the summer, or go sledding on in the winter, if it wasn’t too icy.
I loved the quiet of the woods and relished being in its shelter for the most part. It was a calming place: cool and inviting on hot, summer days, but it could also be a fearful place—particularly at night-time, when walking home from the factory parking lot where we had majorette practice weekly. Much depended on one’s mental state, how many stars shone, whether the moon was out, and if I was walking alone through the dark. As Henry David Thoreau once said, “Generally speaking, a howling wilderness does not howl: it is the imagination of the traveler that does the howling.” For many, myself included, the wilderness was, and still is, a special place to hear the internal howling of one’s thoughts, mind, and soul. I can still hear echoes of the crickets and frogs on the path as I walked home in the still, summer evenings past the familiar, but shadowy landmarks.
Not entirely neutral, the wilderness is a rich metaphor in the Bible and a liminal space. Biblical characters and whole peoples get lost there; the Israelites wander there on the way to the Promised Land. Others escape oppression in the wilderness, or are sent there in exile…Hagar and her son, Ishmael, find safety and sustenance there, as well as Elijah, who flees a mad queen. Still others begin a mission or ministry within a wilderness desolation on the edges of civilization, like John the Baptist, or Moses standing before the burning bush. In his book on Wilderness in the Bible, Robert Barry Leal writes, “All the basic revelations of God’s nature and God’s will occur in the wilderness: the revelation of the name of God; the establishment of the covenant with Israel; the theophany on Sinai; and the communication of the Ten Commandments.
Furthermore, the wilderness is usually not a place to which one willingly goes—one is usually compelled to go there and may be tested or tried there. Think about the metaphorical “wilderness” places to which you have been driven: places of turmoil or isolation, places of unrest or sleepless nights. Perhaps you’ve encountered a spiritual wilderness in the wake of a death, or a desert of difficulty as a result of troubling circumstances at work, or the unexpected happening at home. Usually, we do not seek out such wilderness treks; we have not willingly signed up for an “Outward Bound” course—we’ve arrived there questioning the whys, the GPS, and our seemingly meager provisions. Often, the landmarks are few and far between, and the way back to civilization or civilized behavior seems impossible, while the way forward murky at best. Many times, we feel like we are wandering in circles—encountering the same obstacles over and over again as if some devious person were simply hitting the replay button with our lives or changing the map to suit their whim.
Barbara Brown Taylor says,
“Whatever your own wilderness is like, I am betting that it has at least three things in common with all other wildernesses: You did not choose it. It is no place you would ever have gone on your own. You are not in control. You cannot even control the pounding of your own heart. Whether it is noisy or quiet, there is one sound missing, and that is the voice of God. It might not even seem like a wilderness to you if you could hear that voice — telling you that everything is going to be all right, that you are not alone, that it is all for a reason. But you cannot hear it, and that silence defines the wilderness.
“For many people, the hardest thing to believe in the wilderness is that God has anything to do with it at all. It can feel like the exact opposite, as if God has vanished and you have been turned over to the enemy. But according to the gospel of Mark, it was the Spirit who drove Jesus into the wilderness — not the devil or the world but the holy Spirit of God.”
Which brings us to today’s scripture from Mark. Like Brown says, Jesus is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness where he confronts the Adversary or Satan. This is the place, after Jesus’ baptism and John’s arrest, where Jesus spends 40 days wrestling with both Satan and himself. While our scripture does not specifically say that Jesus wrestled with himself, Jesus was both human and divine. Wrestling with the Adversary can be seen as wrestling with oneself, that which goes against our better nature, wrestling with our inner demons, or that part of human thought and action that tends to favor our own inclinations over and against God’s better judgment.
In any case, Mark’s gospel doesn’t outline the specific temptations that Jesus faces, only to say that Jesus was with the wild beasts and angels as Satan tempted him. Unlike Matthew and Luke who describe in detail the temptations, Mark leaves us to our imaginations and our own experience of the wilderness and the temptation therein.
Being in a spiritual wilderness is a universal experience and other faiths have temptation stories that occur in the wild places too. There is a story about the Buddha that describes a similar human encounter with temptation while the Buddha is in Bodh-Gaya near the Bodhi tree. On his way to enlightenment, Siddhartha (Buddha) has a face-down with Mara, a demon similar to Satan in some ways. Mara decides to tempt Siddhartha because Siddhartha was just about to transcend fear and desire, a domain of Mara’s. So Mara sends three beautiful daughters to seduce the Siddhartha; the daughters names were “Craving,” “Aversion or Discontent”, and “Passion/Attachment.” Mara tries to seduce Siddhartha with these daughters of discontent, but each time the Siddhartha proves himself to be immoveable. Thereafter, Siddhartha reaches enlightenment and becomes the Buddha.
Likewise, from the gospel of Luke and Matthew we learn that Jesus faces three temptations: to make stones from bread, to throw himself down from a high pinnacle (thereby committing making a spiritual spectacle of himself), and to receive all worldly power and riches by worshipping the Adversary. Like the Buddha, Jesus turns from these temptations and remains immoveable and steady in his purpose.
The similarities between the stories speak of the underlying truth of human desire and those things that can distract us to our spiritual harm. Like Satan in Mark’s gospel, Mara appears before Siddhartha in the form of a world ruler with a large army and powerful weapons. Yet again, Siddhartha remains still, calm, and without fear. In one story, it is said that the weapons turned to celestial flowers in the face of Buddha. Oh, that our multitude of guns and weapons would turn to celestial flowers in the face of the Divine, but that would mean that we would choose to love the face of the Divine more than our desires for symbolic power thru gun ownership and weaponry.
In another story, Mother Earth becomes a witness for Siddhartha before Mara’s demonic power. Mother Earth wrings out her hair which causes a flood that drowns Mara’s army. Afterwards Mother Earth exclaims, “This is my beloved son, who through his 500 incarnations has so given himself that there is no more “I.” Thereupon, Siddhartha, now the Buddha, receives enlightenment. We are reminded of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove alighting on Jesus as a confirmation of his mission, ministry, and baptism.
While some may dismiss these stories as simply myth or legend, what we can learn is that spiritual development and maturity often comes thru trial and testing. Frequently, there are heavenly voices that confirm the path of the Beloved—whether they be angels, nature, doves, a Divine word, or something else. These voices provide the reassurance and consolation one needs to continue the journey and serve to replenish our strength in difficulty. We are not alone in the wilderness to face down temptation without Divine assistance.
Like Jesus, like Siddhartha, we may be sorely tempted by worldly riches and goods to give up our ideals; we can be distracted from God by those things which promise easy power and victory. We can also be tempted to “make bread from stones” or to take the easy way, the seemingly magical way, or the path of least resistance, to feed and satisfy our basic needs only and never transcend “survival mode” to reach for a higher purpose. Furthermore, we can be arrested in our spiritual development by demanding that God do for us, what we refuse to do for ourselves. We can be tempted like Jesus to place ourselves on a high pinnacle, demanding in our passivity or arrogance that God come to our rescue, saving us from ourselves, rather than doing the harder work of examining where we human beings have failed one another in our clamor for power and glory.
Sisters and brothers, what are those things which are tempting you within your own wilderness? Who might be the angels ministering to you as you keep company with your own wild beasts and menagerie of animals along the path?
USA Today had an article about survival in the wilderness, suggesting at least 4 tips for surviving the journey. One can apply these to when we find ourselves in the midst of a spiritual or barren wilderness. The first is to stabilize injuries. Jesus and Buddha may have been unharmed in the wilderness, but we often find ourselves trying to forge a path ahead without tending to injuries or wounds that we might have carried with us on our spiritual path. Trying to tough it out doesn’t make sense. If we are grieving, we need to grieve. If we are hurting, we need to explore why that is, rather than simply trying to pretend that the wound doesn’t exist. If we are angry with God, we need to say so, and trust that God holds our anger too.
Second, we need to build a fire and shelter. It may seem counter-intuitive to make the wilderness our home, but survival depends upon procuring shelter and seeking warmth. Spiritual shelter and warmth can be found in community and in fellow sojourners. Finding shelter may mean staying for a time in one place (something that the monks called ‘stabilitas’, a kind of groundedness), putting down roots, and getting to know deeply the spiritual terrain on which you are currently standing. Perhaps that means that you companion a few wild animals like Jesus did, or you begin to recognize that everyone has a better angel inside him or her, thereby giving folks the benefit of the doubt.
Third, if you are lost in the wilderness, you will need to seek a water source. Look for streams, lakes, snow or puddles. My kids gravitate towards puddles like they gravitate towards play. Find your spiritual water source…Perhaps it is a book, a song collection, a church group, or a particular podcast. Maintain a sense of playfulness even as you confront your demons. Stay close to rives of grace. If no water is immediately available, dig a deep hole and allow water to collect in it.
And fourth, keep a positive mind-set and avoid making hasty decisions while in the wilderness. Your wilderness trek will not last forever and will likely lead to some surprising revelations along the way. Jesus and Buddha both emerged from their spiritual wrestling with new vision and commitment. You will certainly emerge too. Whether 40 days or 40 years, it is a matter of time and patience. One day, you will wake up and realize just how far you have come, with your demons behind you, your God within you, and a story of how you overcame.
 Robert Barry Leal, Wilderness in the Bible: Toward a Theology of Wilderness, (New York: Peter Lang, 2004)52.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, “Four stops in the wilderness,” a sermon on the temptations of Jesus in Mark 1:9-15.
 Elizabeth Smith, Leaf Group, “Tips on Surviving in the Wilderness,” USA Today. Accessed 2-18-2018. http://traveltips.usatoday.com/tips-surviving-wilderness-2340.html