I have meticulously avoided the stories around the two young Australian men who face death in Indonesia. I have not avoided the stories out of disinterest but because they are too awful. The concept that it is okay to take a person’s life as punishment for a crime is so hideously awful and comprehensively inhumane that I feel sick thinking about it, let alone listening to the latest news and justifications around the event. It’s not that they are Australians and ‘we are better’ than them… It is because they are human beings and they are created in the image of God. That image may distort or fade as they make poor choices and deny the inherent goodness of God within them but that is no reason to kill them. I am unable comprehend or imagine what they are feeling or going through.
Their situation is ultimately not that different from so many people across the world, vulnerable in the face of greater powers that threaten their lives. Sometimes those powers are state controlled and act under the guise of ‘justice’. Other powers are controlled by organisations both legal and reactionary, such as guerrilla and jihadist rebels who will abuse and violate vulnerable human beings. The story of Kaya Mueller, the US human rights activist and humanitarian aid worker who was abducted when returning to Turkey from Syria after working with an Aid organisation, is one such horrific story of evil. Kayla was held captive for months before she was killed – the circumstances of her death aren’t clear. The time of waiting for the future to unfold must have been awful and is beyond the comprehension of most of us.
I am encouraged by our Gospel reading this week (Mark 1:9-15) to refer to these experiences as being in the wilderness. To call these situations a ‘wilderness’ experience is probably an understatement but what else are they? They are deeply profound experiences of aloneness and emptiness, in the midst of dangerous forces and powers that threaten them and overwhelm their immense vulnerability. These people are absolutely powerless before the world that surrounds them and the people who hold them captive. They come face to face with death, their own death, and that is very confronting. Perhaps the wilderness is ultimately about such vulnerability and as all of us enter and confront our own experiences of wilderness we are faced with our own mortality, vulnerability and humanity. There are moments in our lives when we understand that we are powerless before the world – whether to save ourselves or others or to change the world in our own strength and wisdom. There also comes a time when we recognise that everything we have believed and trusted will be called into question – it will stand or fall in the cold light of real life. Are the things we have invested our lives, our faith, our hope and time in able to sustain, and hold us up when the bottom falls out of life? When the wilderness surrounds us in its deepest, loneliest way, will we live? Will the wilderness overcome us or will we have the resources that can keep us afloat and sustain us through the valley of the shadow of death?
The wilderness is place that we all know and will know again and again. Sometimes the wilderness is mild and puts some strain, uncertainty or confusion upon us. Other times the wilderness is so deep, dark and cold that we flounder in grief, despair, depression and aloneness – and it seems to go on and on with no end in sight. The wilderness is a dangerous place with wild animals that threaten us. In other language, these are dark forces and powers that overwhelm us and challenge and threaten us. There are also angels, messengers from God, who accompany us and minister to us in our darkness and fear.
In the story from Mark’s Gospel we hear of the beginnings of Jesus time of ministry. He was baptised by John and received the Divine affirmation of approval and love as the Spirit of God descended upon him and the Divine voice claimed him as beloved. He was then thrust, driven, pushed into the desert, the wilderness by the Spirit. It is not clear if this was purposeful or the sustaining challenge to ‘do what he must do’ and endure what has come his way. God doesn’t force ‘wilderness’ upon us but we are often faced with experiences over which we have no choice, things we cannot avoid. The death of a loved one or the onset of illness, mental or physical come upon us whether we like it or not. When we face unemployment, poverty or violence at the hands of those of who have power over us, we face a wilderness thrust upon us. There are, of course, experiences of wilderness that come as a result of our own decisions. These decisions may be poor choices that bring struggle upon our lives or decisions that are courageous and bring us into conflict with powers that make life hard. The confrontation with injustice and suffering that challenges us to act on behalf of or alongside of those who suffer is such a choice. There are those who choose to enter limited periods of wilderness where they live without food or in isolation (solitude and prayer) as an act of religious discipline to cleanse their being and remove the corrosive build-up of addictive compulsions, illusions (delusions?) and attachments. Such experiences of wilderness are cleansing, renewing and bring deeper insight into who we are before God and the world.
In the story of Jesus it describes, in very brief and simple terms that there were wild beasts in Jesus’ wilderness – literal and metaphorical dangers that presented themselves and threatened Jesus. He was tempted in deep and challenging ways by the ‘Temptor’. Henri Nouwen suggests that the wilderness, whether chosen or enforced, is filled with temptation and desire as we will do anything we can to get out of the state we are in. The long road of depression that many pass through often yields into the temptation of suicide as a way to end the ongoing struggle and mental turmoil. Similarly, terminal illness that reduces life to a nothingness embraced in a cloud of pain cries out for an end. These are the more extreme ends but in the normality of our wilderness there are temptations to distract, remove ourselves, rage out at others or give in and choose other pathways that feel easier and lessen our weight. Not all of these choices are healthy or lessen the weight long term. Drugs can offer an escape (as can other paths) but replace one wilderness with yet another, perhaps deeper and more difficult long term wilderness. The wild beasts will come and we will have to face them and the temptations accompanying their presence.
In Jesus’ 40 day wilderness journey there are also angels who minister to him. We aren’t told what these are, just that angels are with him throughout this experience. The sense in this short story is that they sustain him and strengthen him in the midst of struggle and temptation. It is vital that we also recognise the angels in our midst, the God-given messengers in human or other form (they could be animals who share life with us, music, poetry, exercise, the beauty of nature, friends and family, books, art…) and draw strength from them – as Jesus did.
The last thing to comment upon is how Jesus went into the wilderness having received blessing and affirmation in God. He was baptised and blessed, affirmed and living in God’s love. He entered the wilderness in a state of being in deep relationship with God. What do we enter our wilderness experiences with? What is it we trust in or put our faith in? Is it God? Our money or education or power or position…? Where is the hope and centre of our lives? Will that hope and centre sustain us and provide the essential disciplines, tools, skills and path when wilderness arrives? We have entered the season of Lent and this season, of 40 days, is a time to reflect more deeply upon these things and make some concrete decisions about how we will live life and what foundation we will build our lives upon.
Kayla Mueller was led into humanitarian and aid work as a response to her faith. Her life was built upon faith in God and in her last months she managed to smuggle a letter to her parents. It said, in part:
“I remember mom always telling me that all in all in the end the only one you really have is God. I have come to a place in my experience where, in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our creator because literally there was no one else… by God and by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in free-fall. I have been shown in darkness, light and have learned that even in prison, one can be free. I am grateful.”
Kayla’s wilderness was her last on this earth, a deep and profound finality. It was filled with beasts that tormented her but there were angels who ministered to her. It was surrounded in the affirmation and hope that God was there, whatever may come, God was there – for her!