Wild Beasts and Angels
by Louise Westfall
The desert is a strange and wild place. At night it is very cold, but in the day it is burning hot. There is almost no water at all. The desert is always changing. The wind comes, shaping and molding the sand. The desert is never the same.
So begins the standard introduction to many Bible Stories we use for our first Scripture reading each Sunday. That’s because so many faith events happened in this lonely and downright dangerous location. In the desert Moses heard his call to be the one to tell the tyrant Pharaoh “let my people go.” The Covenant People’s wilderness sojourn sorely tested their faith in the years before they settled into the Promised Land. They worried about sufficient food and water. They argued about who was boss. And they tried out some other gods (a strategy to which they would return again and again). The desert is so inhospitable that it prompted awareness of the necessity to offer hospitality to strangers and anyone who crossed your path, because it could be the difference between life and death. The prophet Elijah took refuge in the desert when pursued by wicked rulers, and there he heard God’s “still, small voice” — a presence which galvanized him for the long haul. And out of the desert where he dined on locusts and wild honey strode John who baptized people and called them to change. Throughout Scripture the desert is a proving ground for identity and purpose. It’s never comfortable or easy. It’s the place that will make or break you — and sometimes does both. The morning text tells of time Jesus spent in the wilderness at the very beginning of his ministry. A reading from the gospel according to Mark, in the first chapter at the ninth verse. Listen for God’s Word to the church in a week that has driven us to the desert, with broken hearts and parched souls. [1:9-15]
Between the starting gate and the finish line of Jesus’ life lies the desert. There’s something about the placement of this scene that makes me think we’re supposed to notice it. As if it too were a crucial part of Jesus’ developing sense of who he was and why he had come. By considering this experience in Jesus’ life, we may get insight into our own wilderness times. Mark’s account is brief but telling: he was compelled to go there. He may have gone willingly, but the phrase “the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness” implies urgency. He was there forty days (a number often used in the Bible not necessarily as a measure of time but of significance.); he was tempted by Satan (the word is more accurately translated “tested,” suggesting not so much being enticed to do evil as being tried to reveal one’s essence); and there were wild beasts and angels. In fact, Jesus was “with” the wild beasts. Not he was stalked by wild beasts, or threatened by wild beasts. He was with them. Maybe a descriptor of the evils lurking in the wilderness? Or maybe, just maybe, a literal reference to a vision of restored creation where natural enemies become friends and dwell in peace together. You remember the Old Testament foretelling a day when the “lion shall lie down with the lamb … and the child shall put her hand on the snake’s den. They will not hurt or destroy [anywhere], for the earth will be full of the knowledge of God …” [Isaiah 11:6-9] Is the gospel writer trying to tell us that even our fears are understood differently in the wilderness of self-discovery?
And there are angels. As harsh and empty and terrifying as the desert can be, its fearsome exposure is eased by the presence of helpers who appear (or are sent?) to provide care and security and life-giving nourishment. The severity of Jesus’ testing was diminished by the angels who waited on him. Ever know anyone like them?
Friends, the Spirit calls us into the wilderness because there’s more to life than avoiding discomfort and remaining insulated from our vulnerabilities, hurts and shadow sides. The Spirit calls us into the wilderness to discover who we are and what we’re made of. I’m always moved by the imposition of ashes and the solemn reminder, Louise, you are dust, and to dust you shall return. We are mortal. We will die. We are human. We will fail. We are dust. But that dust is, in fact, stardust, and bears the unmistakable imprint of the One who created us in love and for love. In the desert, the familiar vanishes. The accumulated “baggage” of our life must be surrendered out of necessity. It’s a burden we cannot carry. And so, we come to see with utter clarity who we are. We remember Whose we are. We face our deepest realities and worst fears.
In the shadow of yet another school shooting, in a nation that seems incapable of responding effectively to gun violence twenty times greater than that of any other nation in the world, haunted by the faces of more than 138 children, youth, men and women who have died in these incidents since 2012, is it not the time to confront this problem directly? We are overdue for a wilderness experience in which we have uncomfortable conversations from many perspectives that lead to sensible, effective solutions. Yes, this includes gun control. But the problem is not just guns. Yes, this includes robust mental health strategies, and I am grateful for the 30 Central members and staff who attended the Mental Health First Aid class yesterday. It will undoubtedly shape the developing safety and security plan for our building. But the problem is not just about mental illness. Yes, this involves politics. And also soul-searching, community-building, and justice-seeking. Prayer, yes, but not only prayer. We must learn to be “with” the wild beasts, just as Jesus was. We can follow his example to understand those with whom we clash; who may even appear threatening. In doing so we could demonstrate a different way of engagement that heals the deep divides between and among us.
For just as Jesus came out of the wilderness resolute and ready to proclaim the good news of God, perhaps it is in this unpromising place that we receive the building blocks for the Kingdom of God. Stripped away of our defenses and the armor we put up in self-protection, we can learn new truths about what life is like under God’s rule, and how it changes the way we’ve defined family, community, political alliances, economics, health, acceptability. Maybe even the second amendment.
Here at the beginning of Lent, we see how Jesus prepared himself for a ministry that would forever change the world. We know the outcome of this story, and how those who had a stake in keeping things as they were ended up demanding Jesus’ life. But we also know that their victory was only temporary. IS only temporary.
And in the meantime, there are angels. Not all of them are supernatural beings. The late great Mister Rogers was asked in an interview about how he maintained such a positive, hopeful outlook. When I was a boy, he said, and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” They’re here. We see them sometimes through tears as they bring food, listen patiently, wordlessly hug, and put their money where their mouth is. We see them support the weak, speak up for the voiceless, challenge the status quo, and help the poor.
Friends, life in the wilderness holds many dangers. Here we encounter wild beasts (even the ones in our own soul). We confront forces of evil and challenge their power to destroy with the power of God wielded through love. We minister with the angels. The Spirit calls us into this place. This is where the Church is called to be because this is what the Church is called to do.