United Presbyterian Church of West Orange


“Into the Wilderness”

Feb. 26th, 2023

Rev. Rebecca Migliore


        “Into the Wilderness”—That’s what Seasons of the Spirit invites us to picture this time of Lent, the 40 days (not including Sundays), leading us towards Holy Week, the passion and Easter.  Wilderness, a wild place.  Funny, whenever I’ve heard this passage read, or seen pictures of the temptation of Jesus, it is the wilderness of Israel that I conjure up in my mind—a desolate desert of rock and sand and hill.

        It was with a shock that I read the sentence “Genesis 2 and 3 is set in the first wilderness inhabited by people.”  Of course, wilderness can be lush and green as well as bare and earth-toned.  There are so many places of wilderness—forest or ocean or mountain or desert.  Wilderness is just a place where humans are not in control, a place that is not teeming with the comforts that many of us call necessities.  Wilderness is a place of testing, because there is so little supporting a leisurely life.  Wilderness strips away so much of what we deal with on a daily basis, and yet into that vacuum can step so many desires.

        So, going into the Wilderness could be seen as a time of removal from the rat race we live in.  Going into the wilderness, even for short periods of time, could be seen as a retreat, even a Sabbath, a time when the pressures of the human world are dimmed, and we can spend some quality time with God.  Isn’t this why the prophets often find themselves on the tops of mountains talking with God?  Isn’t this why God chose to take the slaves from Egypt into a 40 year wandering around the wilderness as a preparation for becoming the people of Israel?  Isn’t this the pattern that Jesus follows in his own ministry, slipping away to a lonely place to pray?

        This year, let us be willing to be led into the wilderness of time with God, the wilderness of letting go of worldly expectations, the wilderness of being willing to delve deeply into hard questions, the wilderness of trying to listen for answers, even while we trust that this is time out of time, somehow God’s time.

        Do you notice that Jesus is “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil”?  Why is the Spirit doing that?  I mean, Jesus himself will coach us to pray, “and lead us not into temptation.”  Is this archetypal wrestling with the devil that Jesus does absolve us of having to face our own wilderness?  Not likely.  And even if we pray extra hard that we not be led into temptation, it seems a prayer destined for failure.  Maybe the prayer really is, when we are in the midst of temptation, O God, be with us, speak to us, stand by us, strengthen us.

        Again, I was startled by Seasons’ commentator’s take on the Spirit leading Jesus into the wilderness.  It says “he does not go alone.”  All of a sudden I had an image of Jesus and his guide, the Spirit, traveling into this wilderness together.  Hiking side by side.  Pushing mile by mile into the desert.  (Just as an aside, it is fascinating to look at how the three gospels start this story: Matthew 4:1, Mark 1:12, and Luke 4:1—maybe a good Lenten Bible Study).  Back to Jesus.  Once deep in the wilderness, Jesus uses that age old way of separated one’s self from physical desires by fasting.

        Does the Spirit leave Jesus during this time?  Or as the tempter comes to lure Jesus into the oh-so-common traps of our minds and hearts, is the Spirit wrapped around Jesus, whispering into his ear?  Is this the beginning of our cartoon depiction of devil on one side, angel on the other?  For in the wilderness, even in a place far from human involvement and human interaction, there is still temptation, because we are there—our minds are there, our desires are there. 

        Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, embodies the human predicament, that no matter how far we flee from the ungod-focused world, we cannot flee from ourselves.  So what do we do with these desires:  Of body?  Of prestige?  Of power?  (or any other myriad ways of seeing the temptations.)  What did Jesus do?

        Jesus faced them head on.  And Jesus deflected them.  He held onto a higher calling, a higher purpose, a higher allegiance.

        The business community has made a slogan of this idea, “Know your why!”  It is a powerful incentive.  Take, for example, in 2022, a group of 4 US military veterans who rowed across the Atlantic Ocean to raise money and awareness for PTSD and veteran suicide.

      Calling their mission “Four from Home” 4 veterans: Billy Cimino, Army; Cameron Hanson, Air Force; AM “Hupp” Huppmann, Navy; and Paul Lore, Marine Corp rowed from San Sebastian in La Gomera, Canery Islands more than 3000 miles to Nelson’s Dockyard English Harbor, Antigua.  It took them 51 days, 11 hours, 41 minutes.  They rowed for 2 hours and slept for 2 hours, constantly, 24 hours a day, in waves measuring up to 20 feet high.  As they said, they battled not just the elements and their own physical limitations, but sleep deprivation, and salt sores.

        They, and their team behind the team, did all this in hopes of producing funding for two important veteran charities: K9s for Warriors (which helps provide dog companions) and Cross the Line Foundation (which gives scholarships for educational or occupation help during times of transition).  As one of the team, Paul Lore, said, “Every day we’re on the ocean for this unsupported row, we will be pushing for each stroke, for each mile, for each day—we will get up and put in the work to achieve the goal.  While this is the hardest endurance challenge the four of us will face, it pales in comparison to what warriors with PTSD face every day.”  (Tulsa City Lifestyle, by Jerri Culpepper)

        This story of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness helps us see, through Jesus, our why.  What is Jesus’ higher calling, his higher purpose, his higher allegiance?  It is to be in right relationship with God.  To live by every word coming from the mouth of God.  By knowing that although God intends good for us, we will not put God to the test.  To worship God alone.

        One can almost feel the push and pull of temptation and faith, of worldly desires and holding firm to the reign of God, of all those voices in our heads battling with the voice, the message, written on our heart.

        This is a message for us individually.  It is something we can work on, and cling to, each and every day.  During this Lenten time we can open our eyes wider to see the lures of wanting more and more and more that come at us from all corners.  During this Lenten time we can open our ears to hear more clearly the familiar refrains we may have learned in Sunday School, or sing with gusto in favorite hymns, or read with better comprehension from the Bible.

      During this Lenten time we can open our hearts to stand up in our faith, to be willing to be in the wilderness, to learn from the wilderness, to grow in our knowledge of ourselves and our gifts, as well as our reliance on God.

        It is also a message for us as a church.  As much as we would like to think otherwise, we are a human institution, filled with actual humans.  Humans who make mistakes.  Humans who are enticed by what others have.  Humans who constantly have to re-turn towards God.

        So, each time we bemoan that the rest of the world seems to have moved on from Christianity, or at least from belonging to a church—let’s see it as a wilderness time.  Each time we get fearful about how we are going to make ends meet, or want to choose to be more insular, more safe—let’s remember Jesus pushing away any opportunity to take the easy road.  Each time we wonder if we can do anything of import because we are so small—let’s listen to the wisdom of the ages, it is not about us, it is about being faithful, being useful, being the best we can be, in following our God, the one who wants so much more for our world.  Our ultimate “why!”

        I think people often have a misunderstanding of church (and I believe we in the church have a lot to answer for that).  Maybe they see church as something parents told you you had to do.  Maybe they see church as a hypocritical institution that talks a good game but then falls down in living it.  Maybe they see church as just one more appointment on a weekly calendar, one more charity asking for money, one more place that takes more than it gives.

        I see church as community.  As the place where in our wilderness we can find companions.  Angels who minister to our needs, and an opportunity to be angels to others.  Friends who are willing to walk alongside us through thick and thin.  People who are willing to share honestly and deeply.  A place of trust (we hope).  A place of forgiveness (we try).  A place of challenge (so we grow).  A place of finding your place in the emerging realm of God.

        You see, Jesus may have been led into the wilderness by the Spirit.  Jesus may have been locked in serious argument with the devil.  But in the end, suddenly angels came and waited on him.

     And as much as that story of “Four from home” focuses on those four veterans (and their teams at home and around them)—they weren’t on their own either.  They were part of a global organization that helps 20-40 teams a year attempt this goal (both on the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans).  This does nothing to diminish the achievement—in some ways, doing something wonderful with other people only makes it more special. 

        So, this Lent, let us not shy from wilderness.  May it provide us with time for God, with time to struggle with our why, with time to revel in being together.   


Reclaiming Wilderness (by Donald Schmidt ©2016)

It’s time to reclaim the wilderness

        I think

to revisit it and recognize

the life that is there.

Too often I have heard people

        I have heard myself

say that the desert is a lifeless place,

that it is full of despair and hopelessness,

a place of desolation and the ending of things.


But when I sit there

        when I pause from my everyday life

        and just sit there

I find it teeming with life,

filled to overflowing with little mysteries

I might otherwise overlook.


I think the biblical people had it right

when they used one word

for wilderness and desert: both places that

        in our modern, busy, proper world,

we have forgotten, ignored,

tried to escape from,

tried to insulate ourselves from.


But it’s time we revisited them for,

like the dark of night,

there is so much life to be found there,

and hope,

and newness.

It is in the night

        in the desert

        in the wilderness –

when I let go of me –

that I can truly grab hold

of the one who made me.


               Becca:  May it be so, Amen and Amen.