Called To The Wilderness: Finding The Only Thing We Need in a Place That Has Nothing
During my Army days, I once was on an infantry training course learning to do what are called "section attacks." Basically, you take eight soldiers and a couple light machine guns and spend a week assaulting foxholes, trenches and machine-gun posts. Now this course took place over the summer, and this one day we found ourselves doing these attacks, one after the other, as the thermometer (and the humidity!) climbed higher and higher. The temperature got up over 35 degrees Celsius by around lunchtime, and suddenly I began to stumble as we marched. I knew that I was in trouble, and finally, my instructor ordered me to sit down in the shade, and they called a truck to drive me to the clinic, because they were worried about heatstroke. And over the next three hours, I watched no less than thirty other soldiers dragged into that clinic suffering the same symptoms. It got so bad that I was told 60% of our company were heat stress casualties that day, and they had to call off the exercise. As for me, after no less than five 1-liter bags of IV solution were put in me, they trucked me back to the barracks and told me to rest for a full day before returning to duty.
That was a close call. I didn't get heatstroke, but it was a really bad case of heat exhaustion. And I thought about that as I read the first eight verses of Mark. See, I was twenty-two years old, in the prime of my life, the best physical condition I'd ever been in. I wasn't irresponsible - I had drunk several canteens full of water throughout that morning, had kept my head covering on. I had all the right equipment. I did everything right. I was surrounded by a group of tough, well-trained, experienced instructors and a group of good fellow students. Yet there, in the middle of the sticks, the middle of the wilderness, far from civilization, I suddenly developed a life-threatening condition. Despite everything I did. Despite everything I could do. I was helpless, and my life at that point depended not on anything I did but on help from outside.
The wilderness is a dangerous place, because it defies our efforts to master it. Even when you've done everything humanly possible to keep it under control, it can still kill you.
God really doesn't do things in ways we would expect, does he? Look at where the good news of Jesus Christ begins. It doesn't start in a fancy temple, covered in gold and silver. It doesn't start in a soaring cathedral with stained glass windows and carved statues and million-dollar paintings. It doesn't start on a national TV network with blinding lights and a huge stage in a 50,000-seat football stadium.
The good news of Jesus Christ begins in the wilderness. It begins in a desert. The good news of Jesus begins in a hot, dusty, barren, empty, seemingly endless wasteland. Doesn't that seem strange? The God of the universe takes on human flesh, and the good news of his coming begins not in a dazzling display of his wealth and glory but in a place of utter abandonment and emptiness.
Mark starts his Gospel with the words, "The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ." What is the beginning here? Mark starts his Gospel with the story of John the Baptist. That's unusual. Matthew begins with Jesus' genealogy, for instance. John begins with the Word being with God in eternity past. Why does Mark start with John the Baptist?
Because Mark's point is this: God is calling his people “back to the wilderness.” Mark uses the word “wilderness” four times in the first thirteen verses, twice in our passage. This part of Mark, these first eight verses, explain how we get there. We have to see why the wilderness is so important, and what it means to us.
What is this wilderness? In our story, it is the desert on the far side of the Jordan River. Across the Jordan, on its eastern side, the opposite side from Judea and Jerusalem and Jericho and the whole promised land - this is where the Good News begins. The Gospel, the story of Jesus Christ, begins in a place so inhospitable that it is famous today for only one thing: the Dead Sea. It’s a rocky, barren hell of a place.
But to a Jew, this wilderness meant a great deal. This wasteland is where God led his people in wandering for forty years. This wilderness is where God fed them, watered them, guided them, gave them his Law. This desert is where God appeared in a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day to be with his people. This desert is really where the people of God were formed. Where they were given their identity. Where God made a covenant with them, binding Himself to them, making them his own, declaring them his people and Himself their God. The wilderness is, to a Jew, a place of beginnings. And in the Old Testament, we see prophets like Elijah retreating into this wilderness to commune with God. The wilderness is a place where God meets with his people.
Why does God like the wilderness? Because there, his people understand that they need Him. When you're in a desert, you're in trouble. In a wasteland, there isn't much food and water. The day can kill you by heatstroke. The night can kill you by hypothermia. In the wilderness, you're helpless. Without help, you'll die. To survive, you need supplies. You need help. Israel found this out the hard way. The only reason Israel survived in the wilderness was because God gave them food, because God gave them water, because God organized them, because God led them day and night, because God protected them from raiders and marauders. God provided. God gave. In the wilderness, the people of Israel had nothing to give back. They couldn't put God in their debt. They couldn't buy Him off or earn anything with Him or do Him any favours. All they could do was look to Him and trust Him and receive the gifts of his hand.
So John appeared in the wilderness and called the people to the wilderness - to a place of emptiness and need. He called them to a place where they didn't have it all under control. He called them to a place where they couldn't do it on their own, where their smarts and their strength were not enough to let them survive, where they needed God to live. As a biblical theme, the wilderness is where God is! That is the beginning of the Gospel! That is the start of the good news, coming to the wilderness. Salvation begins in the wasteland, recognizing that we can't do it, that we're not good enough, that we need everything given to us from God's hand. The Christian life is life in the wilderness, a constant dependence on God for everything. The Christian life is not a life of comfort and plenty, but one of sacrifice and struggle and dependence on God to guide and provide. There's an old saying: Jesus came to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable. It's true.
God's calling each and every one of us into the wasteland. He's calling his people to a place where they know they need Him. He's calling us to recognize and live in light of the truth that every breath we take, every beat of our hearts, is a gift from his hand. He's calling us to acknowledge that we absolutely, desperately, need Him to survive. If you're grieving, or scared, or ashamed, and you don't know how you can go on by yourself, this is where God is calling you. He's calling you into that scary and harsh place because there is where we learn to lean on Him. If you're in a wasteland or wilderness right now, don't waste your opportunity to revel in the grace of God. God is glorified in your need! God is our provider and our protector.
That's the wilderness. That’s the home of grace. God's calling us to live there, in the wasteland.