The Wilderness Way

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, March 4, 2021

The Gospel of Mark moves Jesus from the Jordan to the wilderness via catapult. The Spirit casts him there immediately following his baptism, according to Mark 1:12-13. Mark’s Greek is rough, and his word choice is graphic and earthy. (It’s a word used for bodily expulsions.) This much is clear – Jesus is forcibly driven into his wilderness ordeal.

Many of our most formative forces are just that – forces. We like to think we are shaped by our choices, and that is true; but we are even more significantly molded by that which is forced upon us.

Like the COVID pandemic. Like the brutal face of raw racism revealed among us. We cannot unsee the George Floyd video, or the photos of COVID victims’ bodies stacked in makeshift morgues. Such scenes force us to rethink what matters most, and how we should then live.

And yet…

Jesus embraces the situation into which the Spirit drives him. We too have a choice in how we respond to the forces that press in on us in our current crucible.

In his hurry to cut to the chase of the story of Jesus’ ministry, Mark entirely skips Jesus’ birth. John the Baptist gets a single paragraph, Jesus’ baptism three short verses, and his wilderness temptation just two sentences. Yet each of these is a pivotal force in shaping Jesus’ ministry. None more so than the wilderness.

In his 40 days of wilderness testing, Mark tells us that Jesus had a trio of companions – Satan, wild beasts, and angels. Matthew and Luke fill in details of Jesus’ temptations by Satan, and Matthew mentions angels, but neither tells us of the wild beasts. Only Mark does.

What are we facing that is wild and beastly, as we walk the 40-day journey of Lent 2021? The raging savagery of COVID-19 has brought the world to its knees. Just when we think it may be finally getting under control, another new untamed strain emerges. Little did we imagine, as we journeyed through Lent 2020, that our feral new companion would still be ravaging us a year later.

Our churches have been cast into a place none would choose. Closing sanctuaries. Reopening without singing or extending the hand of peace or sharing table fellowship. Grieving a deluge of deaths while unable to comfort one another with holy embrace.

How will we respond? With flight? Not if we follow Jesus. With fright? Not if we follow Jesus. With fight? Absolutely. With faith? Without it, we cannot please God. (Hebrews 11:6)

The Lenten journey is one of being sent out without volunteering. It teaches us to set aside fright and flight when confronted with the unexpected and unwanted. It motivates us to press forward with the good fight, in faith that the one who has begun a good work in us is faithful to complete it. (Philippians 1:6) We are here to get through, not to get pushed back.

The Judean authorities arrested the apostolic Christian leaders in Jerusalem, forcing the early Christians to flee for their lives, scattering them far away from the fellowship of believers. (Acts 11:19) The wonderful world of the fledgling church, where everyone’s needs were met and all enjoyed each other’s supportive company, was violently stripped away.

Driven away from what they had enjoyed in their glory days, they could well have given up. That’s what their antagonists hoped. But the believers embraced being cast into the wilderness as part of God’s larger purpose, even though it was the last thing they would have chosen. They were not discouraged by the challenge of starting over again after all they had enjoyed was stripped away. As a result, Christianity grew from a regional to an international movement.

I receive calls and letters lamenting that the church is going to lose all that is precious due to its COVID curtailments. I respond that while we have been cast into a wilderness that we would never have chosen, the same God who cast Jesus into the wilderness, and who helped the first Christians turn their expulsion from all they treasured into new glory, is with us today. The pandemic is not the end. It is but a season in the wilderness, from which the church of Jesus Christ will emerge with new missional focus and capacity.

Yes, some treasured old things are passing away. We grieve their loss, and understandably so. But the God of new things is with us.

Let’s be honest – we wouldn’t be nearly so open to new things from God were we not stripped of our comfortable old things.

Being cast into the wilderness is traumatic. But without it, we may never discover the great things that God has in store for those who are ready to embrace God’s new pathways. May this year’s Lenten journey bear good fruit in us and through us to God’s glory.

Your fellow-traveler,

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