The Wilderness
Reflections on Mark 1:9-13

by Noel E. Bordador

“Immediately after his baptism, the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness…”

When I was going through my ordination process, I went before our Church’s Commission on Ministry and was asked to describe an event in my life that has been formative in my spiritual development as a Christian, an event in my life that has also shaped my desire to become a priest. I said, quite honestly, not knowing how it would be received, I said that probably the event in my life that has led to a significant and profound spiritual growth was when I felt abandoned by God, when I felt that God has left me hanging out to dry. It is ironic, but it is true. I told the interviewers that there was a time in my life when I went through a very rough time, and I was counting on God, but suddenly, God seemed to have vanished in my life. It is very scary when your faith seems to be hanging on a very thin thread. It is a very lonely feeling when your faith seems to have been all in vain. But it was real. Being out there in that spiritual wilderness- feeling alone, vulnerable, scared, betrayed by God, despairing, life seeming to be meaningless and chaotic. The best description probably of this spiritual wilderness is exile, exile from God.

Wilderness. The Gospel of Mark (1:12) speaks about Jesus entering the wilderness. Mark says that after Jesus’ baptism, after that glorious event in which God affirmed Jesus to be his own Beloved Son, the Gospel says the Spirit drove him to the wilderness. The verb “drove” in Greek has a nuance of compulsion and violence. The Spirit violently hounded Jesus to go to the wilderness, Mark says. Now, wilderness in the Hebrew Scriptures is a barren, arid and dry place, a void, and a place where no life grows or thrives. It is a place cut off from life. A place inhabited by monsters and demonic forces. It is a scary place, a place of chaos. It is a place of wandering, of restlessness, not of peace and stability. This was the place where the newly baptized Jesus was violently forced to live in, where he encountered chaos, death and Satan himself. There he suffered a lack- heat, hunger, thirst, and loneliness- that he was tempted to desperation, to give up on God altogether. If you think that your baptism is supposed to protect you from suffering and pain, Mark says think again. Baptism offers the Christian no guarantee to a life devoid of pain. You know this. Many of you have your own experience of wilderness. Many of you have gone through several wildernesses. Perhaps a life-threatening or serious illness, death of a loved one, separation from a partner, death of a dream, failure, addiction, to name a few. Our baptism offers no respite from struggles of life. Like Jesus, we are thrust right there in the wilderness of life.

But the wilderness is also more than just a place of utter darkness, despair and death. It is also a place not foreign to God. In that awful place, God is. When the Israelites left Egypt where they were enslaved, and entered the wilderness, God accompanied them as they went through that desert and wilderness where they lived forty years. God drove them out to Sinai, but he did not leave them there alone by themselves. But it turned out that the wilderness was no place of picnic either. It was barren and not some oasis that they thought. It was worse than Egypt. At least, in Egypt, they got their meals on time from their slave masters. In the wilderness, they had no food or water. They had to wait on God to rain down manna, that bread from heaven; they had to wait on God to send water. And because God did not function on their schedule, their sense of security was threatened. God was not their meal ticket after all. God was not the God they thought that would make their life easy. The Israelites were disappointed in God; they felt abandoned by God that they were tempted to abandon God himself. Their faith in God was tested. Emerging from the glorious event of the Exodus, the Israelites thought that since they were God’s chosen race, God would act in a way that they wanted and could predict; that they have somehow bagged him. They thought that God was predictably predictable. And so, the wilderness was a shock for them. How can God do this to us? God after all was not what they predicted him to be, and they were ready to turn away from him. Yeah, we don’t want this God. We want a god that we can predict, a god that we can control, a god in our own terms. When we feel as if God is not functioning the way we want him to, when things are not going so well, we think perhaps God has forgotten us. We all want to predict God… that if we’re good, then God won’t allow bad things to happen to us. We’re all shocked when suddenly bad things do happen to us, good people. We love and trust God when good things are happening to us, but the wilderness experience makes us to ponder this: can we trust and love God when bad things happen to us?

But in that precarious place called the wilderness, full of insecurity and uncertainty, the Israelites learned to trust God, to believe profoundly in his goodness and mercy despite of the wilderness. They had to learn to trust that God is still good, that God is for them not against them amidst the unpredictability of life. God might seem unpredictable, but they learned he was predictably good. And so, the wilderness is a place of exile from a predictable kind of a God; we’re forced to give up on that kind of a God. The wilderness forces us to let go of our control, and in the dark night of faith, we let God take us in the journey to the Promised Land even if we get there circuitously by the way of the desert. The experience of the wilderness opens us up to a more profound and deep faith in God and in his goodness even as we are led to wander through the lonely desert. God says: “I will allure you, and bring you to the lonely wilderness, and there in your heart, I will speak tenderly. In the barren soil of your loneliness, I will speak my love. I will betroth you to me forever as my spouse. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness, and then you will know me, your Lord, whom you will call ‘My Spouse’.” (par. Hosea 2:14, 16, 18-20) It is in the wilderness of life that God betroths himself to us in such deep intimacy, an intimacy that springs forth not in some factual knowledge of God, but intimacy that comes from trusting in the midst of the desolate wilderness.

But the wilderness is not the end of our story because the Scripture says that God always brings people out of the wilderness just as the Israelites and Jesus himself emerged from their wandering in the desert. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the wilderness is also the place where salvation will dawn. The wilderness will give way to land rich in water and life. The desert will become the Garden of Eden. It will cease to be a place of exile and alienation. The promise is that we shall reach the Promised Land, in God’s time, on God’s terms.

When asked what I learned from my wilderness experience, and how I sustained my faith in that place, I told the interviewers from the Commission on Ministry that what sustained me was the cross. I contemplated the cross in my life, and I learned to give up my illusion of a God that will make my life easy for me, a God that will do what I wish, a God of my own liking and making. And the cross helped me; just look at that thing: if God can allow his Son to be stretched out like that, left to hang to dry and wither, then we who have been baptized in the name of the crucified Christ cannot escape the destiny of the cross. But that sounds more like a cynical resignation and defeat. Not the Good News of hope we want to hear. Which brings me to an important point. The cross sustained me in the wilderness, helped me to continue to believe and hope; because when we gaze upon it, we see not only death and abandonment, but that He who endured the cross was not allowed to remain there. That the one who felt abandoned by his Father is vindicated. And so like our Lord, we will not be abandoned, that we shall see the Land of the living.

Ave Crux, spes unica. Hail, O Cross, our only hope!

© 2003 Noel E. Bordador

Noel Bordador is a gay Filipino priest in the Episcopal Diocese of New York.

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