Ah, wilderness!

July 14th, 2021

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

The twelve disciples had been hard at work. It was the first recorded instance of their being without the physical presence of Jesus as they did ministry in his name—something we later disciples are accustomed to. They preached, they cast out demons, they anointed with oil those who were sick, they called people to wake up to God’s call and purpose for their lives.

Back with Jesus, they told him all about their experiences. Imagine it: six pairs of disciples. Six sets of stories. Six accounts of their time away. There must have been tender stories, hair-raising stories, heart-wrenching stories, funny stories. Children healed, adults shouting for joy, teenagers following them to the far outskirts of town, the curious and the quizzical plying them with question after question about this Jesus of Nazareth in whose name they had come.

All those people. All those problems. All that talking and preaching, anointing and praying, sun and heat and dust. We don’t know the full extent of their efforts, but of this we can be fairly certain: when they returned, they must have been tired. Small work, great work—it’s still tiring. Holding the door or holding the sacrament. Proofing the bulletin or preaching the sermon. Meeting in committee or ministering to the dying. Heat is exchanged, effort expended. Power goes out of you, and, like Jesus, you feel its departing.

Jesus apparently saw tiredness written all over their faces and responded. Come away for a while, he said, and rest. I know a place close by—just across the lake. A deserted place, the NRSV reads. A desert place. Otherwise translated “wilderness” or “desolate place.”

Some invitation! You’re tired, you’re spent, you’ve given everything you have. For relaxation and rejuvenation, why don’t we go out into the desert, fend off snakes and scorpions, get hot, hungry, and dehydrated, then crawl back home. Not exactly our idea of a good time, is it? At this stretch of the year, Lent is either behind us on the calendar, or way down the road, depending on how we prefer to look at austere things. We’d just as soon reserve the struggle in the desert for that gamey season. July is rugged enough without summoning even more wilderness.

Besides, even if, for some reason, wilderness is our idea of a good time, we’re way too busy to “come away for a while.” Jesus surely knows this better than anybody. Remember that Mark is the Gospel of urgency. Immediately is one of his favorite words. From the very first pages of this revved-up review of Jesus’ life, everything happens in a sprint. Immediately Jesus went. Immediately the Spirit drove him out. Immediately! What does the rabbi mean, “Come away for a while . . .”? We’ve got work to do— immediately!

The rabbi means just what he said. The rabbi means what he has learned from his teachers of old, all the way back to the teachings of Moses and the Sabbath commandment. The rabbi means what is still true today: that the heart is a lonely hunter. That is, a hunter for lonely, for quiet, for vacancy, for listening, for stillness, for rest. We do all we can sometimes to deny that urge, ignore it, drug it, cover it up, suppress the hunter instinct. We’re too busy for solitude, we say. We don’t have the personality for quiet time. We can’t afford the expense of going off somewhere to rest. We believe in praying as we work, staying in touch with God all through the day. No time for such extravagances as time apart.

To fortify the argument, Madison Avenue lends a hand, leading us to feel that every inch of time and space must be plastered with another sight or sound, another experience, another amusement, gadget, beverage, pill, or snack break. The church has its own way of blessing that message: hurry up and bring the kingdom, finish the work, fill up the pews and coffers, achieve megachurch status. There’s so much to be done. There are so many lives to be reached. Come away? In your dreams! Time’s a-wasting!

Meanwhile, the inner pursuit will not relent—the heart hunts for lonely. We’re good at multitasking, giving our attention to two or more activities at once. But the heart hunts for lonely. We pride ourselves on being busy, too busy.

But the heart hunts for lonely. We crowd our day planners and scheduling gadgets, fill idle seconds with cell phone calls or text messages. Aren’t we good? But the heart hunts for lonely. For quiet time, quiet space. There’s a place deep within us that, when the word vacancy is spoken, leans forward rather than pushes away. God has a secret waiting to whisper to those who yield to that forward-leaning and follow where it leads: the place we’re speaking of, the wilderness, is not what we think, but far better.

Henri Nouwen, no stranger to hard work over his lifetime, also knew something of the meaning of following the soul’s forward-leaning to the place of solitude. He once wrote that on the far side of the wilderness is a garden. The very word we translate in Mark as “a deserted place” is suggestive of the marvelous garden potential to be discovered in time apart. Ereimon can be translated “open country,” as if to say wilderness is the place from which new life embarks, new beginnings emerge, new dreams take hold; the place where we discover the new directions God wishes to lead us, gift us, bless us for the work. Wilderness is the place where anything becomes possible. Suddenly, the notion begins to hold certain appeal. Something inside begins to lean forward . . . Ah, wilderness!

Excerpted from Abingdon Preaching Annual. Copyright Abingdon Press.

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