Sermon Series: Wilderness Time

January 20th, 2012

6 Week Series

Week 1: A Time for Learning

Mark 1:12-15

Jesus’ wilderness time “immediately” followed his baptism and the powerful affirmation of who he was: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). The Synoptic Gospels say that the Spirit who descended on him at his baptism drove him out into the bleak, lonely, and dry Judean wilderness for forty days of testing (see Genesis 7:2, Exodus 24:18, 1 Kings 19:8).

Wilderness time is a part of our lives too. We cannot live and love and engage life in meaningful ways without sometimes ending up in the wilderness. Wilderness times are those times when we feel we are tested to our limits, and we describe those times in wilderness terms: dry, desolate, lonely, trying, difficult, agonizing. We speak of hunger, thirst, and longing in the wilderness. This series explores this difficult spiritual territory.

We first recognize that wilderness time is a time for learning.

One of those e-mail lists making the rounds a few years ago listed significant things children have learned about life. Here are just a few of them:

“You can’t trust dogs to watch your food for you.”
“Don’t sneeze when somebody is cutting your hair.”
“You can’t hide a piece of broccoli in a glass of milk.”
“When your mom is mad at your dad, don’t let her brush your hair.”
“No matter how hard you try you cannot baptize a cat.”

These are the kinds of accelerated learning experiences we call “learning the hard way.” So it is with the hard time in the wilderness. A lot can be learned in the wilderness, but one lesson stands out. The wilderness can be a time of accelerated learning about priority—what really matters in our lives. Patrick Morley in his book The Man in the Mirror relates the lack of a clear sense of priority to a trip to the grocery store on an empty stomach without a shopping list. Nearly everything looks delicious and you wander through the aisles without a plan, loading up the shopping cart with goodies. After the shock of the bill at checkout, there is the shock of your spouse when you arrive home with sacks of snacks and food for only three real meals in the whole bunch! (Brentwood, Calif.: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1989, 163).

Life presents us with many options—a myriad of ways to use our resources, time, abilities, and influence. Without a clear sense of what is most important, we can spend it all and at the end of the day find that we have not taken care of what matters most.

Jesus’ time in the wilderness—coming just before he was to begin his public ministry—was a time for sorting out what mattered most and to get clear about God’s will for his life. The longer accounts in Matthew and Luke tell us that Jesus was tempted by wealth, fame, and power to deviate from his mission. As we follow Jesus into the wilderness, we can see that our own wilderness time can be an important time of testing our values, looking at what is most important, and making decisions about our life’s priorities.

A few years ago, a young man I knew was in the wilderness, suffering from an aggressive form of cancer. During the time of his surgeries and treatments, it was my privilege to be his pastor and to spend time with him in that wilderness. He said, “I have learned that what I thought was very important before doesn’t seem very important now, and what I took for granted and thought I could put off for another day has risen to the top of my list of priorities.”

As painful as wilderness experiences are, they can yield more spiritual growth than the good times. They can be times of learning about ourselves, about God, about what is most important, and about where life is headed. Without that time of stocktaking and learning—whether in the wilderness or not—life can just go along without much thought. Here are some good wilderness questions: What important relationships and friendships have I been putting off to some future time? What is God calling me to do with my life and with all the resources God has given me? What in my life right now do I take for granted?

A businessman visiting the pier of a coastal village noticed a small boat with just one fisherman pulling up to the dock. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. He complimented the fisherman on the fish and asked how long it took to catch them. “Only a little while,” the fisherman replied.

“Why didn’t you stay out longer and catch more fish?”

“I have enough to support my family’s needs.”

The businessman then asked, “But what do you do with the rest of your time?”

The fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take a siesta with my wife, and stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my friends. I have a full and busy life.”

The businessman scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats and eventually have a whole fleet of boats. You would cut out the middleman and sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution. You would need to leave this small village and move to Mexico City, then Los Angeles, and eventually New York City where you would run your expanding enterprise.”

The fisherman asked, “But, how long will all this take?”

The MBA replied, “Fifteen to twenty years.”

“But what then?” the fisherman asked.

The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right, you would announce an initial public offering and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich; you would make millions.”

“Millions?” the fisherman asked. “Then what?”

The American said, “Then you would retire and move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take a siesta with your wife, and stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play guitar with your friends.”

What is most important? Where is your life headed? These are good wilderness questions!

Week 2: A Time of Challenge

Mark 1:12-15; 2 Corinthians 4:8-11

In these forty days of Lent we remember Jesus’ time of testing in the wilderness and that we each have our own times of wilderness testing. Each wilderness experience that comes our way presents us with difficulties and struggles. Mark says that there were wild beasts in the wilderness with Jesus. Aren’t our wilderness times complete with wild beasts? Fear crouches in the brush nearby, ready to pounce and strangle. Temptation slithers around waiting for the opportunity to strike. Despair circles overhead, waiting to land and devour. Wilderness times have their wild beasts! They are times of challenge. Our faith, our values, our trust in God, what we believe, are all tested in the wilderness.

We call this testing temptation.

When I turned forty, one of my “friends” sent me a card that said, “As you grow older, don’t worry about avoiding temptations. Temptations will avoid you.” Would that it were true! We never outgrow temptation. Saint Anthony spoke the truth when he said, “Expect temptation with your last breath.” Temptation is a very real part of life and it is especially challenging in wilderness times—those times of spiritual dryness, loneliness, despair, fear, disappointment, low self-esteem, and bitterness. In those times, we are more susceptible to the power of temptation. Each temptation in the wilderness presents us with a corresponding challenge.

In the wilderness, the temptation is to stray from the values we hold dear—the challenge is to hold fast to them and live by them.

In the wilderness, the temptation is to take shortcuts, to avoid struggle, to find the easy way through—the challenge is to move through the struggle and take the hard way. The right way, the way to life, is often the hard and narrow way (see Matthew 7:13-14). The challenge is to persevere and move through the struggle—to take the hard way.

In the wilderness, the temptation is to listen to voices that would lead us away from God—the challenge is to listen to our living and life-giving God. Radio, television, and the Internet fill our ears with thousands of voices, representing many understandings of what is ultimately important, what gives meaning and purpose to life, and what principles guide life. With all the voices, it is increasingly difficult—especially for children and young people—to discern the good from the evil. So often the evil that tempts us and leads us to give allegiance to someone or something other than God is portrayed as ugly with a scary voice. In reality, the evil that presents itself in our lives doesn’t come with pointy tails, horns, cloven hooves, or a menacing scowl. That would be repulsive. Rather, evil generally presents itself as something good and is generally the twisting of something good and life-giving into something evil and destructive of life. Money, power, influence, sex, security, winning, fame—all are good and yet all can be twisted to become evil and destructive.

In the wilderness, the temptation is to substitute “stuff” in the place of God to make us feel better—the challenge is to live knowing that God is sufficient. One of the great temptations we face is the temptation always to have more. Happiness is just around the corner if only we have more things, or more wealth, or the finer things of life.

In the wilderness, the temptation is to give up—the challenge is to persevere. The life-giving way is to rise to meet the challenges head-on and persevere in doing what’s right, in being faithful to God, in trusting God, in listening to God, and in loving others as God loves us. The good news is that God strengthens us to meet the challenges. Paul wrote out of his own experience, “We are pressed on every side by troubles, but not crushed and broken. We are perplexed because we don’t know why things happen as they do, but we don’t give up and quit. We are hunted down, but God never abandons us. We get knocked down, but we get up again and keep going” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9, The Book [Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1984]). Perseverance is so often the key to meeting the challenges of the wilderness.

Meeting the challenge of the wilderness each time helps us prepare for meeting the challenge the next time. We struggle with our temptations in the wilderness and out of that struggle comes character. James 1:2-4 tells readers, “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”

In the stories of the Desert Fathers there is one story concerning Abbot John the Dwarf. Abbot John prayed to the Lord that all passion be taken from him. His prayer was granted. He became impassible. In this condition he went to one of the elders and said: “You see before you a man who is completely at rest and has no more temptations.”

The elder surprised him. Instead of praising him, the elder said: “Go and pray to the Lord to command some struggle to be stirred up in you, for the soul is matured only in battles.”

Abbot John did this, and when the temptations started up again, he did not pray that the struggle be taken away from him. Instead, he prayed: “Lord, give me strength to get through the fight” (Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert [New York: New Directions, 1960], 56-57).

Whereas temptation seems to be only a trap that leads to difficulties and even devastating tragedy, there is another side to temptation. If we pay attention, it presents us with the opportunity to learn about ourselves as we imagine the consequences of yielding to the temptation. We mentally work through the consequences without having to live through them. The benefit is obvious—only if we act on the temptation do we create negative consequences for ourselves and others.

We learn from Jesus that we meet the challenges of the wilderness by meeting God daily. Jesus, the Son, was ready to meet the challenges in the wilderness because Jesus had met daily with God, the Father. Jesus was thoroughly versed in the will and way of God for his life. When we meet God daily before the wilderness time comes our way, then we are more prepared for the challenges of the wilderness.

Week 3: A Time of Dependence

Mark 1:12-15; Hebrews 4:14-16

Wilderness time is a time of complete dependence on God. This is such an important part of the wilderness experience. When the people of God were in the Sinai wilderness, God gave them what they needed and God gave them only what they needed for the day. God could have provided at once the manna and everything else the Israelites needed for their wanderings in the wilderness. But, God didn’t do that. God gave them only enough for the day. This lesson taught the Israelites not just dependence, but habitual dependence on God. Each new day brought them a new reminder of their utter dependence on God.

Remember that Jesus taught us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Jesus was telling us that every day we should acknowledge who the source of everything is. Jesus was telling us to acknowledge every day our dependence on God.

I remember one man and his family in a church I served many years ago. He and his wife had three children, two boys and a young disabled girl with many medical needs. He quite suddenly lost his job and was unemployed for some time. He shared with me that during that time he learned to live daily in a way he never had before. The church as a body and various members of the church individually helped that family for several months as they struggled along. They literally did not know where the next meal was coming from sometimes. Each day was a new day and God provided through the generosity of God’s people. I remember he told me that the Lord’s Prayer had new meaning for him—for the first time in his life, he really understood what it meant to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

God gives us what we need in the wilderness. When our strength, our emotional resources, and other sources of what we need are at an end, then we learn to be dependent on God. God renews our strength, so “[we] shall run and not be weary, [we] shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31).

The Bible is full of images that call to mind our dependence on God. It is good to meditate on these images—whether in the wilderness or not.

Shepherd. God is characterized time and again as our shepherd. Jesus referred to himself as the Good Shepherd. Scripture constantly characterizes us as being more like a sheep than any other creature. One of the reasons sheep must have a keeper is that after centuries of domesticated herd life they lack the instincts to defend themselves against a wolf or coyote or other predators. Sheep are completely dependent on a shepherd who protects them from the dangers around them and even from themselves.

Most of us are taught that dependence is bad and independence is good. We don’t like to think of ourselves as dependent on anyone—or anything else, for that matter. In the wilderness, however, we have needs that we can’t meet with our own resources. What is called for in the wilderness is dependence—dependence on God, who is able to meet our needs.

Vine. Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches” (John 15:5). That means our strength and our sustenance comes from outside ourselves. It comes from our connection to the Source.

There is a grapevine at Hampton Court Palace near London that was planted in 1768. Some of its branches are two hundred feet long, and its single root is at least two feet thick. Because of skillful cutting and pruning, that one vine produces more than six hundred pounds of black grapes every year. And although some of the smaller branches are two hundred feet from the main stem, they bear plenty of fruit because they are joined to the vine and allow the life of the vine to flow through them. We, like the branches, are dependent on Jesus Christ for life in all its fullness. We draw our life from him.

The apostle Paul learned so well that his strength for the wilderness was from outside of himself that he said, “I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).

High Priest. The writer of Hebrews teaches us that Jesus Christ is our great High Priest and that we have a high priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses and who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. He then says, “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).

Christ understands our loneliness and despair. Christ understands the wilderness. Whatever wilderness we find ourselves in, Christ understands. Why? Because Jesus has been there too—in every respect tested as we are.

A few years ago, a Fort Worth Star-Telegram newspaper reporter posed as a homeless man and spent time on the streets. There he came to understand and then to communicate to others the plight of the homeless and the services available to them as well as the needs they have. Because he experienced what they experienced, he understood in a powerful way who they were and the demands and challenges of their lives. So it is with Jesus. Jesus walked where the outcasts walk. That is part of the message of the cross. Jesus walked where we walk. When it is time for us also to walk the via dolorosa, the way of suffering, Jesus walks with us.

In the wilderness times, in times of our greatest need, we will receive strength from beyond ourselves. That strength comes from God.

A boy and his father were walking along a road when they came across a large stone. The boy said to his father, “Do you think if I use all my strength, I can move this rock?” His father answered, “If you use all your strength, I am sure you can do it.” The boy began to push the rock. Exerting himself as much as he could, he pushed and pushed. The rock did not move. Discouraged, he said to his father, “You were wrong, I can’t do it.” The father placed his arm around the boy’s shoulder and said, “No, son, you didn’t use all your strength—you didn’t ask me to help.” (David J. Wolpe, Teaching Your Children About God [New York: Henry Holt, 1993], 214).

Wilderness time is time when we must use all our strength—and God is our strength!

Week 4: A Time of Doubt

Mark 1:9-15; Mark 9:24b

In wilderness time, just about everything is tested and called into question. Doubt is often part of the experience. Our cry in the wilderness is often the cry of the father recorded in Mark: “I believe; help my unbelief!” The cry of that father seeking healing for his son was not the first such cry, nor would it be the last. People of faith down through the ages— including the greatest Christian leaders—have experienced doubt in the wilderness time.

Unfortunately, we in the church have often dismissed or discounted doubts as the products of an immature faith, although sitting in any congregation on any Sunday morning are many people who hold unresolved issues of faith and belief. It is critically important that the church be a safe place where these doubts can be raised without the questioner being made to feel like a second-class Christian!

The important truth is that doubt is a part of our faith journey. Most Christians experience it at one time or another—especially in the wilderness times. Some Christians experience it a number of times throughout their lives. Doubt is part of the Christian’s journey, but doubt is not a good destination—any more than the wilderness is a good destination. It is not intended to be a stopping place. Doubt calls us to action. It moves us on and moves us forward. There is a big difference between doubting and giving up. There is an immense difference between wrestling with faith and throwing it to the side. There is a big difference between moving through doubt and getting stuck there and becoming a cynic. The healthy way of understanding doubt is to understand it as part of the faith journey. The key to doubt being a journey and not a destination is caring about God and wanting to move to faith: “I believe. Help my unbelief.”

The good news is that the doubt we experience in the wilderness times can actually be beneficial to us because doubt stimulates us and spurs us on to faith. Frederick Buechner wrote, “If you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving” (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking [New York: Harper & Row, 1987], 20). Interestingly, God’s most faithful servants have usually also been among the most doubtful.

We tend to think of doubt as the opposite of faith, but in reality apathy or staunch disbelief is the opposite of faith. Paul Tillich defined faith as “the state of being ultimately concerned.” In other words, what we are most concerned about is what we really have faith in. We are called to be ultimately concerned with God—to have faith and trust in God. The opposite of being ultimately concerned is not caring at all. If I am ultimately concerned about God and my life in God, then my doubt will not destroy my faith, but deepen my concern and spur me on to resolve it.

Doubt is not the opposite of faith, but a part of it. As the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson put it: “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.” If we look at the lives of those we consider most faith-filled down through the ages, it would be difficult to conclude that doubt is destructive of faith and is something to be avoided. Rather, we would have to conclude that one of the marks of a strong faith is a struggle with doubt. Perhaps that struggle is essential to a strong mature faith in the same way the struggle of a butterfly emerging from a cocoon is essential to the strength of the new creature.

So, if doubt is a part of the wilderness experience, what do we do with our doubts? First of all, we should not suppress them. Authentic faith begins with intellectual honesty, and doubt is the foundation of honesty. Ask the questions and continue to search. Don’t let your doubts stop up the channels to God. Let doubts open the channels in new ways with new insights and understandings. Pray to God, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.”

Second, we should stay involved with other Christians. We could learn a lesson here from the disciple Thomas, who voiced his serious doubts and yet continued to remain in the company of the other disciples as he worked through those doubts. Group support and sharing is a powerful way we can share our burdens and find support for moving through the periods of doubt.

Third, we should continue to seek Christ and faith in Christ. The issue for us is never, therefore, one of avoiding our doubts as if that will cure us of them. Rather, it is continuing in honest relationship to God. The prophet Jeremiah, speaking for God, says, “When you search for me, you will find me” (Jeremiah 29:13). Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Matthew 7:7). When we do these things, our periods of doubts and questions can lead us to faith.

In the early days of John Wesley’s ministry, when he was experiencing a particularly difficult time of doubts and uncertainties, he went to his Moravian friend Peter Boehler and laid his soul bare. Boehler told Wesley: “Preach faith until you have it, and then because you have it you will preach faith.” In other words, act as though you have already moved past doubt to faith; then, as you act in faith, faith will come.

Week 5: A Time of Comfort

Mark 1:9-15; 2 Corinthians 12:7b-10

The wilderness is a difficult and often frightening place; so what sustains us in the wilderness? How do we cope? From where does our strength come? We sometimes believe that pure optimism is the key to making it through the wilderness. And there’s no question that optimism can be powerful, but is optimism enough?

Think of the remarkable optimist who fell off a skyscraper. As he passed the twelfth floor horrified onlookers heard him shout, “So far, so good!” Optimism is great, but is it enough?

Or think of the two hunters who heard about a bounty offered for the hides of wolves that were decimating the farmers’ livestock. They headed out to the wide-open spaces to shoot some wolves and make themselves rich. They had just fallen asleep out under the stars when a noise woke one of them. In the reflection of the campfire he saw the eyes of twentyfive wolves—teeth gleaming. He shook his friend and whispered hoarsely, “Wake up! Wake up! We’re rich!” Optimism is great, but is it enough?

No, the optimism of our falling friend by itself is no match for the gravitational pull of the earth; nor is the optimism of our hunted hunter by itself a match for the wild beasts of the wilderness. Something more is needed! It is that “something more” that we focus on in the fifth sermon in the series on wilderness time. Mark’s Gospel says, “And he was with the wild beasts.” But then Mark says there was something more in the wilderness: “And the angels waited on him.”

Almost anyone can tell you what an angel looks like: halo around the head, wings sprouting from the back, long flowing robe, perhaps a harp in the hands. But the Bible doesn’t seem concerned about such descriptions. Why? Perhaps it is because you don’t experience angels like you experience ornaments. You don’t see angels like you see Christmas tree decorations. In nearly every instance, the Bible mentions angels simply for what they do, and not for what they look like. The Hebrew malach and the Greek angelos both mean “messenger.” Angels are messengers of hope when God’s message of hope is most needed. They are expressions of the inexpressible—the way we talk about God being present and bringing hope. Think of the role of angels in the Bible. They usually appear at the low points in the lives of those who receive their messages. They deliver their messages in the wilderness times: Abraham and Sarah unknowingly entertained three angels who gave them the message of hope that they would have a son (Genesis 18:1-15). Jacob wrestled all night with an angel as he struggled with God and with himself about his life and the fear he had of facing his estranged twin brother Esau (Genesis 33:24-30). An angel brought hope and strength to Elijah when he sat down under a broom tree just wanting God to take his life (1 Kings 19:5). An angel met the grieving women at Jesus’ tomb and proclaimed the great message of hope: “He is not here; he has risen, just as he said” (Matthew 28:6 NIV).

These were terribly low times in these individuals’ lives. These were times when God seemed far away and when the next moment seemed uncertain. They were times when both their need and their weakness to do anything about that need were very apparent. It was precisely in that moment of need and weakness that the messengers of God delivered their messages.

This is the good news that Paul discovered and recounted in the Epistle reading. Paul was tormented by some excruciating malady he called a “thorn in the flesh.” When he prayed repeatedly for his awful “thorn in the flesh” to be removed, he received this answer from the Lord: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). In our times of need and weakness, God’s message of hope and comfort is spoken—most often in a language too deep for words and too profound to voice. In the times of greatest need, God’s message of hope comes through when the soul is open to receive it, and sometimes even when the soul is not open. That is the good news of comfort in the wilderness. We are not alone in the wilderness. We have available to us God’s sustenance and strength and we can leave the wilderness stronger people through God’s working in our lives.

In the wilderness we are comforted not by mere optimism, but by hope—the hope that comes from knowing we are not alone; the hope that comes from knowing that the wilderness is not all there is; and the hope that comes from knowing that when our strength has gone God’s strength is sufficient. Emily Dickinson, struggling to express the inexpressible, wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers / that perches in the soul.” Hope is not a thing that flies serenely above the storms, untouched by the demands and challenges we face. Rather, the power of hope lies in its presence in our everyday lives—it “perches in the soul.” Hope stays within us singing its song in the bleakest wilderness.

There is also something else. If angels are simply messengers, can it be that most of the angels we meet are fellow human beings? Think of your darkest wilderness experiences. Were there people who were God’s messengers of hope for you? That is one of the most beautiful ministries that God gives any of us—to become a ministering angel to help a brother or sister in the wilderness experience the comforting presence of God. Even in the worst wilderness imaginable, God calls us to be persons through whom the light and life and love of God flow into a wilderness world. John Henry Jowett said, “God does not comfort us to make us comfortable, but to make us comforters.”

Week 6: A Time of New Beginnings

Mark 1:9-15; 2 Corinthians 5:14-19

In our last sermon in this series, we celebrate that the wilderness is a time of new beginnings. Another way to think of it is that wilderness times are temporary. I remember a retired pastor in a church I served telling me that one of his favorite phrases in scripture is found more than four hundred fifty times in the King James Version of the Bible: “It came to pass.” That can be very good news, if you’re contemplating wilderness time. Wilderness times come. But, they don’t stay. They are not permanent. They pass. Wilderness time always comes to an end and is always followed by a new beginning.

According to Dante, written over the gates of hell are the words, “All hope abandon, ye who enter here!” Sometimes we imagine that those words are written over the gate to the wilderness and we are tempted to abandon hope. The good news of our Christian faith, however, is that the wilderness is never the final destination and hope is alive even in that desolate territory.

Wilderness times generally mark the end of one phase and the beginning of a new phase of our lives. Jesus’ difficult and lonely time of testing in the Judean wilderness gave way to a new beginning—the beginning of his public ministry. It prepared him and strengthened him for it in a way that perhaps nothing else could.

New beginnings stand at the heart of the gospel message. No matter who we are or what we’ve done, no matter if the wilderness is of our own making, God is present in the wilderness with us and can lead us through it and out of it. When we find ourselves in the wilderness of sin, guilt, and separation from God and from others, there is a way out of the wilderness and a new beginning. God provides that way in Christ.

The apostle Paul was an expert in new beginnings. He knew well the spiritual territory we call “the wilderness” because he spent a great deal of time there! Paul also knew the power of being made new and set free from the wilderness of a broken relationship with God and with others. Paul wrote, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Corinthians 5:17-19).

The good news of Christ is that no matter who you are or what you have done, there is always held out to you the chance for a new beginning. In Christ, we are new creations: “Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

Jesus told the story of a man who had two sons. One day the younger of the two went to his father and, in so many words, said, “I wish you were dead.” He asked for his inheritance—not at all appropriate, since his father was very much alive! The father gave his younger son his share of the inheritance and the son ran away to a distant country, where he squandered it all. All that money his father had worked hard to earn and set aside for his son was just thrown away satisfying the son’s every whim and desire and trying to buy friends. It was awful!

It didn’t take him long to blow his inheritance and he found himself homeless and hungry. This young boy found himself doing the unthinkable. He wound up feeding pigs and was so hungry he even wanted to eat the pig slop. He was in the wilderness! When he came to his senses, he said, “How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!” (Luke 15:17 NIV). So he decided to go home and beg his father for forgiveness. As he was approaching the familiar place that once had been his home, his father saw him. His father was so overjoyed and excited that he ran to his son, threw his arms around him, and kissed him.

Jesus taught us that God is like that loving father. If you’re in the wilderness, feeling separated from God—and perhaps you even ran into that wilderness yourself—it may be difficult to believe, but God is like that father and will run to meet you and welcome you home with open arms, ready to give you a new beginning.

Ultimately, the wilderness never has the last word!

But, what about the greatest wilderness? What about death? The good news of our faith is that even the wilderness of death comes to pass. In Christ, Paul observed, “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54). The good news of our faith is that even out of the wilderness of suffering and death, and even out of the wilderness of the death of someone we love, there is a new beginning. Death is swallowed up in victory through Jesus Christ. Death never has the final word.

I know a couple who lost their daughter in a tragic car accident. Out of that experience, they founded an organization to help parents who are grieving the loss of a child. Out of that terrible wilderness came a new beginning for that family and for many other families suffering the pain of losing a child in death.

The good news of our faith is that the wilderness never has the last word. When Jesus was on the cross, he was in the darkest wilderness of his life. Jesus was nailed to that cross to die as a criminal by that cruel Roman means of execution. As Jesus hung there, the life draining from him, he experienced the rejection, the anguish, and the loneliness of the darkest wilderness. Jesus cried out, quoting Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But, we know that the cross was not the end. We, who will walk the wilderness way with Christ through this Holy Week of services, know what we celebrate next Sunday. We know that death will never have the final word. We know that the wilderness “comes to pass.”

Adapted from The Abingdon Preaching Annual 2006. © 2005 Abingdon Press

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