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"On the Wilderness" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - February 18, 2018

posted Feb 21, 2018, 3:19 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

One day earlier this winter, my family realized our dog Duchess wasn’t well.  She didn’t greet us at the door, didn’t wag her tail; our happy lab had become lethargic.  Duchess only wanted to lay on the couch.  We figured Duchess suffered from the dog equivalent of the flu.  And so we petted her and comforted her.  And everyone felt bad to see her hurting so.

The next day Jay took her on a walk; and then - quite literally - the truth came out.  A Christmas tree ornament.  What she so enjoyed eating hadn’t sat well with her.

I could imagine how the tree looked from Duchess’ perspective: basically, a toy chest; laden down with plush things that didn’t look that different from her own toys on the floor.  Why not take a fresh one?  So I immediately moved all my needlework ornaments up higher on the tree; moving temptation out of reach.

Beyond such precautions, what did Duchess feel about this?  Many dog owners think their dogs feel shame when they do something wrong.  Numerous videos of “guilty” dogs can be found on YouTube.  But what did Duchess feel?  Not much more than indigestion, according to researchers.  In one study, a researcher had dog owners forbid their dog to eat a treat; then, when the owner left, the researcher either gave the treat to the dog or hid it.  Then she told the owner that the dog either ate or didn’t eat the treat.  Owners reprimanded or praised the dogs accordingly; but interestingly, the dogs who hadn’t eaten the treat looked more remorseful when reprimanded, leading researchers to conclude that the guilty look of a dog is just a technique to reduce conflict with humans.  And so, in case you’re wondering, that look on Duchess’ face wasn’t guilt, just her gut.

My experience with Duchess eating off my Christmas Tree made me think about another forbidden fruit: Adam and Eve in the garden.  That story hangs over Lent, a paradigmatic story of humans succumbing to temptation; with Adam’s original disobedience answered by Jesus’ final obedience.  But it also set up expectations of God’s judgment as swift and severe: break the rule, get banished.  It led us to imagine God just waiting for us to break a rule and to fear the eternal implications of judgment (up or down).  Viewing God this way encouraged a piety that is no more sincere than the look of guilt on a dog’s face; a spirituality of shame.

But an alternative story of temptation comes out in the tale of Jesus in the desert; and this story can help move us beyond shame to a spirituality of vulnerability.

The Gospel of Mark described the temptation of Jesus in the briefest way possible.  One moment he rose from the water of the Jordan; headed to the desert; and then before we can really wonder about that, he started preaching in Galilee.  And yet, one senses that this moment in the desert affected all of what came next.  In the wilderness, Jesus discovered something of both his humanness and his holiness.  As one commentator said, “Jesus carried a bit of wilderness around with him.”

Mark’s vision of Jesus in the desert alludes to other stories.  Jesus “was with the wild beasts;” like Adam and Eve, naming all the animals in the garden.  Jesus “was in the wilderness for forty days;” like Moses and the Israelites on their quest for freedom.  “Tempted by Satan, the angels waited on him;” like the prophets before him.

And just as the wilderness moment connected Jesus to the past stories of the Bible; we can also see our own connection to him in the desert.  Because we know those moments of wilderness.

Several times I visited the Badlands National Park in South Dakota; a dramatic, almost lunar, landscape formed by the slow erosion of what once was ocean and marshland.  Not desert, but certainly arid and desolate.  You can see for miles without seeing anything at all.

Alone in the Badlands, I become much more aware of sound - the wind, certainly; but also, because of the way the soil captures noise and the lack of many creatures, the absence of sound.  A beautiful loneliness in which you hear your own heartbeat; or is it soulbeat?

But not everyone’s wilderness looks like the Badlands.  Some experience it not as desolate, not as a desert; but as a jungle, a jumble of verdant life.  There the cacophony of sounds fills the mind and chases away the thoughts.  The vines entangle.  You can know you’re lost without seeing where to go.

And just as we can imagine the physical geography of the wilderness, we know even better the emotional terrain; the craggy loneliness of the Badlands; the overcrowded overwhelming jungle in which everything seems entangled, and life itself at once abundant and suffocating.

We might visit a physical desert or jungle; but we rarely choose the emotional terrain of wilderness.  Like Jesus, we get driven to it.  Think of Jesus, rising from the waters of the Jordan, hearing a voice from heaven say “This is my beloved” and seeing a dove, a sign of peace.  That happy moment changed in a blink.  The peaceful doved morphed into a pursuing hawk, chasing Jesus; and Jesus found himself changed from beloved son to terrified prey; a mouse chased by a hawk.

Our emotional wilderness comes like that hawk.  A diagnosis changes us.  An infidelity wounds us.  A hidden addiction becomes undeniable.  A day at school turns to tragedy.  And in a flash we find ourselves in a wilderness not of our choosing.  A moment when we realize we can’t control the outcome.  And, perhaps most desperately, a time when in the silence of the desert or sounds of the jungle we long for the voice of God.  Until we want to scream into the wilderness, “Where is God in this?”

What happened to Jesus in his wilderness remained hidden in Mark.  And yet we can see the effect of the wilderness on all of what came afterwards.  Jesus left the wilderness to question the assumptions of his society, to overturn established traditions, to reach out to the outcast.  As one Biblical commentator said, “Mark is using this stark story to preview the rest of the Gospel, in which Jesus is the wild beast who refuses to be domesticated into the household of conventional religion.”

The experience of wilderness changed Jesus.  Taken somewhere he didn’t want to go, he came to question all the assumptions of his life.  You can hear that wildness when Jesus spoke, “you’ve heard it said, but I say to you.”  You can see it when Jesus surprised people by his welcome of sinners and tax-collectors.  We know he became a different person because of the wilderness, just as wilderness moments can change us.

Jesus could only come to this by facing the danger that exists in the wilderness.  Mark named it as Satan, but I might give that power a different name: shame.  Shame stalks our emotional wilderness.  Shame is such a tricky devil.  The people who ought to feel it, never do; leaving us to wonder, as the defendant once asked his merciless tormentor, “Hhave you no shame?”  And too often, those who ought not to feel it become immobilized by shame.

Mark said that while Jesus faced the devil of shame in the desert, he also experienced angels waiting on him.  Just as I reimagine Mark’s Satan as our shame, I think of the angels in a different way too, as new beginnings.  Fresh starts waited on Jesus.  For that’s what we need in our emotional wilderness: a fresh start, a new beginning.

It feels to me that shame pushes us to divide the world into good or bad.  And, of course, shame makes us feel like we’re on the wrong side of that division.  But the angels offer a fresh start, a new beginning, a chance to understand ourselves beyond a simple division of good and bad.

Oscar Wilde - to quote from the LGBT scriptures - knew a lot of living in the wilderness.  And he once quipped, “It is absurd to divide people into good and bad.  People are either charming or tedious.”  And I would add: the most charming people I know all have a wilderness story.  And when you struggle in that desolate terrain, your view of charming and tedious often changes.

Jesus certainly came out of his wilderness finding Mary Magdalene charming and the chief priest tedious.

Forty days of fresh starts gave Jesus a different relationship with God.  Too often conventional religion, domesticated faith, speaks of a judgmental God: that up-or-down judge.  As one person explained to me, this view imagines “God as a kind of austere Puritan presiding over life as if it were an old-fashioned spelling bee - one mistake and you’re out.”  (And before such a God, I would do about as well as a dyslexic asked to spell onomatopoeia).

But in the wilderness, Jesus questioned all the assumptions of his world.  And in the grace of waiting angels, in a new beginning each day, he found God didn’t care about our mistakes or our misfortunes.

As another preacher once said, “God is always more interested in our growth than in our innocence, which never was the issue anyway.  No, it is not our mistakes, not even their number, that matter most to God.  It is what we do with them.”

President Lyndon Johnson, after he left the White House, once reflected on the Vietnam War.  He said, “I never felt I had the luxury of reexamining my basic assumption.  Once the decision to commit military force was made, all our energies were turned to vindicating that choice and finding a way somehow to make it work.”  How tragic the unexamined life!  How many lives were lost because Johnson couldn’t imagine a new beginning?  

Jesus’ wilderness, and especially those forty days of new beginnings, taught Jesus to always be open.  Instead of allowing an assumption to rule his life, Jesus practiced a constant reflection, symbolized by returning again and again to remote places, remaining in touch with his wilderness.  The most open-hearted people I know faced wilderness moments they didn’t choose; like Jesus they came to embrace reflection and every day as a new start.

An openness to new beginnings turns us from shame inducing judgements toward vulnerable reflections.  We come to see reflection as something we do constantly; a bit like doing dishes.  One washes the dishes and puts them away, but soon again, they pile up.  (I know this sounds hypothetical; but it’s real life for Jay - I make such a mess in the kitchen that the dishes are never done.)

Shame makes mistakes and misfortunes a terror.  But vulnerability claims them as moments on the road.  Shame can be a danger of our emotional wilderness.  But angels of new beginnings await in the desert too.  The wilderness changed Jesus into an open-hearted person, someone who offered a fresh start to all the people he met.  And our wilderness moments can be transformative too: gifting us with a spirit of vulnerability, open to others, knowing all need new beginnings.

Amen and Amen.


  • Brennan, William, “Your Dog Feels No Shame,” The Atlantic, Mar. 2018.

  • Enniss, P.C., “Stewards of our Mistakes,” Journal for Preachers, 1988.

  • Feasting on the Word (Lectionary background articles for Lent 1 B).

  • Taylor, Barbara Brown, “Four Stops in the Wilderness,” Journal for Preachers, 2001.