“Being the wild beasts”

Clare L. Hickman

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale

February 18, 2018—Lent 1B

Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15


          “The wilderness is a dangerous place. You only go there if you have to.” So says the Godly Play version of this story, but it is just as true for adults. As writer Debie Thomas muses, “We don’t volunteer (generally) for pain, loss, danger, or terror. But the wilderness happens, anyway. Whether it comes to us in the guise of a hospital waiting room, a thorny relationship, a troubled child, a sudden death, or a crippling panic attack, the wilderness appears, unbidden and unwelcome, at our doorsteps. It insists on itself.”[1]

          It insists on itself. Which is to say that we all face it, probably over and over again. It’s part of life in this world: to find ourselves in the middle of nowhere, without the supports, the comforts, and the “knowing what the heck to do” that we are accustomed to. We will find ourselves there. Dropped there. Driven there.

          The gospels all say that Jesus was driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. Which is not a threat but a promise: that in the midst of the sufferings that are part of everyone’s life, God will be active. God will be with us in the wilderness, in the barrenness, in the confusion, working to bring something new from all that has been lost.[2]    

          At the Baptism, God declares to Jesus that he is God’s beloved Son. But before he can begin his ministry, he is driven into the wilderness. There, his identity is tested. His ability to trust in that belovedness is tested, as everything that might make him feel loved and cared for is stripped away. And his desire for a softer, easier kind of salvation—a softer, easier kind of world—that is tested too.

          Beloved means something different after 40 days in the wilderness. It becomes a love with some grit to it. One that knows, as Thomas puts it, that we can be beloved and uncomfortable at the same time. We can be beloved and unsafe at the same time.[3] It is a sense of belonging and belovedness that is tough enough and truthful enough to survive in a world that will toss us into all kinds of wilderness.

          This week we have been tossed, once again, into the wilderness of a world in which innocents are slaughtered. It is a wilderness of terrible, raging grief. It is a wilderness of awful, soul-wrenching fear. It is a wilderness of anger, in which we lash out, desperate for a scape-goat, desperate for an answer, desperate for a way to protect ourselves from the horror of such a world. Such a risk. Such vulnerability.

          If this is what belovedness looks like, then belovedness can go jump!

          We are in the wilderness. And if you’ve been paying any attention to the national dialogue, you will know that many of us are really clear about which ones of us are Jesus, and which are Satan. Okay, some of us might have taken the slightly less prideful path, and cast ourselves as the angels. But … we’re still pretty sure who Satan is!

          We know who is evil and we know who is good. We know who is aware of the statistics (the right statistics, the TRUE statistics, the relevant statistics) and who is not. So we know who “doesn’t care if children die,” and we know who “wants to abandon the Constitution.” And we know who “thinks the answer to violence is more violence,” and we know who “wants to punish the law-abiding for the sins of the law-breakers.” We know. And we believe these characterizations to be the truth, because … well, because we are terrified. We are ALL terrified.

          And yes, no matter what you might believe or what you might have read or said yourself, we are all actually terrified about the same thing: we’re terrified because these events remind us of our shared vulnerability. We are terrified because they remind us of the presence of sin, of evil, of brokenness. We are terrified because they remind us that we may be beloved, but we nevertheless still face danger.

          We are ALL in this wilderness. The children who died were all of ours, and those who might die in the future are too. They are ours, and we all want to find a way to avoid that, even if we disagree about how to do it.

          We are all out here in the wilderness. So maybe it would be better for all of us to resist casting ourselves as Jesus in this story. Because that makes it too easy to cast those who disagree with us as Satan. Plus, I’d rather leave Jesus as Jesus. We have been cast into the wilderness, but Jesus is out here with us. That’s good news, right?

          So I’m thinking the wild beasts. I mean, the gospel doesn’t really make it clear what role the wild beasts play. It could be that they’re hassling Jesus and keeping him up at night, but it could just as well be that the wild animals are in the same boat as Jesus. Maybe they too are under some kind of attack from Satan. Maybe they too are occasionally ministered to by angels.

          It’s hard to say. The wild beasts could go either way. Which, if you think about it, makes them a pretty decent stand in for us in this story. We’re kind of a mixed bag, and we could go either way. We do, in fact. Assailed by Satan, we bounce around quite a bit.

          Which leads us to the dangerous question of who Satan is. But if we look to Luke and Matthew’s versions, we see that Satan is that which tempts us to trust in any other power than God. To do this, Satan might use any number of things: hunger, fear, or physical harm; or the desire for fame, wealth, and security. In order to pull us away from God, Satan tells us that those things (or the lack of them) must mean that God doesn’t really love us. God isn’t really with us. So put your trust in something else (Satan whispers). Pick up your gun. Pick up your pitchfork. Choose fear. Choose self-righteousness. Choose division and demonization.

          And now, the beasts are really howling! Because we’ve lost hold of our own belovedness. Lost hold of the trust that we can be uncomfortable and beloved at the same time. That we can be unsafe and beloved at the same time. That we can disagree on methods, and yet still all be beloved, all at the same time.

          We belong to God. All of us. And we are all in the wilderness, as God’s people so often have been, over the millennia. We belong to God, and we are in the wilderness with Jesus, here to teach us how to wrestle with our demons and learn to trust in the power of God.

          And that’s the Kingdom of God. It’s not a place, or even a (TBA) time. The Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims and enacts is power. It is the power of God, breaking through to disrupt the powers of this world (disease and death, domination and oppression) in order to put things right.[4]

          Being in the wilderness forces us to admit that we ourselves are powerless in so many ways. Which means we have to choose. Which means we get to choose: which powers will we allow to work through us, the powers of the world or the powers of God? Where will we put our trust? Will we run after the easy answers and the quick fixes that Satan offers, or will we be brave and strong enough to stay in the desolate places, to gain a deeper hold on our shared belovedness, and to be there, when God finally brings forth resurrection from all that has been lost and broken?

          My friends, the wilderness is always a hard place to be, and it is human nature to look for the fastest way out. But the only way through is through, as they say. May we remember that Jesus is there to walk with us, and show us the way. May there be angels, in unexpected guises, ministering to us in ways we can’t even imagine. And may God give us the strength to surrender both our fear and our certainty, and learn to trust. May it be so, Amen. 


[1] Debie Thomas, “Into the Wild,” https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=1660, posted 2-11-18

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

[4] C. Clifton Black, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3566

Clare Hickman