Messengers in the Wilderness
Mark’s account of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness adds a detail not found in either Matthew or Luke: messengers. Sometimes translated “angels,” in the Bible they’re one and the same. In Mark’s brief portrayal, angel messengers get twice the coverage as Satan in this wilderness moment in Jesus’ ministry, suggesting their importance in the story.
If we think of Mark as giving us a picture not only of Jesus’ journey, but our own, then he seems to suggest that in the wilderness we can expect to encounter such messengers along the way.
What if we thought of Lent not as forty days in the wilderness, but forty days in the company of divine messengers? What would the message be for you, for me? What would it be for us together? We could imagine some possibilities.
This week the poet Robert Frost has come to mind. His name, of course—“frost.” Jack Frost. Robert Frost. But I’m thinking of a poem that Frost has written. Its title tells us so much already: On a Tree Fallen Across the Road.
Can you think of a better metaphor for a pandemic than a tree fallen across the road? For a pandemic; for a year of social unrest, and reflecting on our own nation’s history; for an epic winter storm, such as the one we have endured this past week. It’s as though a tree has fallen across the road, then another, and another, a road we had planned to travel uneventfully, routinely, maybe absent-mindedly, perhaps self-importantly. Not any more. This is how the poem begins:
The tree the tempest throws down in front of us is not to bar our passage to our journey’s end for good . . . but just to ask us who we think we are, insisting always on our own way so.
What’s the message of the wilderness during Lent? Maybe the message this particular Lent comes from a messenger that happens to be a tree—who knew nature could talk? Or maybe we should say, talk back?—and the message is an invitation for us to slow down and ponder our own sense of self-importance, our own self-preoccupation, self-serving goals, our tendency to insist always on our own way so. Is that the message for us during Lent, this Lent, this particular year?
We could imagine another message, this one drawn from Mark’s account of Jesus in the wilderness. The messenger, we’re told, “ministered” to Jesus. Diakonia. Served him there in the wilderness. Maybe that’s the message there for us this Lent, this year: serve one another, minister to one another, warm and feed and comfort and encourage one another, family, church family, friend, stranger. In the wilderness the questions of faith and service are such as these: Who needs what? Where are the others? How can I help?
We could imagine another message, the message given to Jesus in the moment just before this one in Mark’s gospel. We heard it as a preface to Jesus’ wilderness time in the reading today, when Jesus is being baptized by his cousin in the Jordan, those words we overheard: You are my beloved. Those words we overheard are for us to hear as well. You are God’s beloved.
Can we hear that message too many times? Think of the season of Lent as a human being whisperer, and then hear that assurance whispered into your ear over and over this season, this very day, in this very moment, letting it find its way into your ear and mind and heart, into the very depths of your being: You are God’s precious, cherished, beloved child.
Every wilderness has its divine messengers—and our current wilderness is no different.
What if the message in the wilderness is simply what it has always been throughout all of scripture, all of history, all of tradition; that God is with us, that Jesus is our companion even in the most—especially in the most difficult journeys?
As in the psalmist’s valley of the shadow of death, thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me; so in the wilderness: You, O Christ, are near, our teacher and brother and friend, ready to journey with us through life’s every season and circumstance.
Christ presents himself beside us, always open to deeper relationship.
Sometimes we might think that life in Christ is a sort of rule book, or a route we’re supposed to follow, or a revelation of some kind; a resolution of all our concerns and worries and problems. But I have experienced life in Christ to be first and foremost—a relationship.
Not a set of propositions or principles, but a person who welcomes us, befriends us, begins to form our hearts and shape our vision, so that over time, Christ is easier and easier for us to see in others, and for others to see in us.
This is the Lenten invitation to us, from us: Jesus, walk with us, show us the way, become the way, discover a way into our complicated lives, our ambivalent loves, our very being.
A few years ago, as the church gathered for Ash Wednesday services, people coming forward to receive the sign of the cross in ash on their forehead, little Allie, about four, was standing in the pew next to her mother who was seated there, and she was taking it all in, the motions, and hearing those words, “From dust you have come, to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the good news of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ.” Taking this all in over and over, “God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ, God’s love and grace, God’s love and grace.” Suddenly, she leaned over to her mother and whispered in her ear, “Mommy, I want some Jesus on my face.”
On my face. In my mind. In our hearts. In our lives. In our hands. Until the message is Jesus’ love, and the messenger . . . is us.