Sunday’s Sermon, February 18, 2024: Into the Lenten Wilderness

Rev. Cn. Richard Hogue Jr.

Welcome to the first Sunday in Lent! We kicked it all off on Ash Wednesday, of course, remembering that we are dust, and to dust we shall all return. We’re beyond that first stop of our Lenten journey, and while it is still quite early, our gospel for this morning throws us from the cold and clouded waters of the Jordan River at Jesus’ baptism directly into the wilderness. The watery parallels between this passage and our Genesis reading shaped an entry point for my reflection on these passages. The Flood story is at its end, the earth is no longer in total deluge, the Ark has saved the fauna of the Earth. God promises all living creatures and the Earth itself the rainbow as a sign that God will never again destroy the earth with water.

“I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.”

There are a few takeaways for me in this. The first is that God says nothing about humans drowning it all ourselves later, so we’re still responsible as stewards of the earth. The second is that God forgets and needs reminders too, the funny image that comes to my mind is the rainbow as the equivalent to a rainbow sticky note on a refrigerator door for God. “Don’t drown them all again, have a nice day!”

The third is the most significant for me, and that’s the idea of the earth having been inundated, the release of wild creatures in parallel with Jesus’ inundation and consecration as the Messiah, as Rudolf Bultmann explains the Markan baptismal story, and then Jesus being driven by the Spirit into the wilderness. [1]

We often think of wilderness in romantic terms now, and I certainly am one of those people. But for much of our agrarian history, wilderness has been a place of fear, the edges of maps filled with monsters, not just from the depths of the then unknowable oceans, but also from mountains, woods, deserts, and hills. Dragons, great beasts, and many other mythological creatures all resided beyond the safety of city walls, the bounds of farms, towns, and markets of safety. Of course, all these beasts, even the roaring of lions, are associated with catastrophe, loss, and evil spirits. In fact, there is a Greek magical amulet that was found on the Crimean Peninsula from the late Roman period with an exorcism incantation to protect its bearer, who was a young girl. It reads, “I adjure you all, by the living God, that every spirit and apparition and every beast, be gone from the soul of this woman.” [2] It was no different in Jesus’ time, and he was already on the edge of the wilderness at the river Jordan when we pick up with him. “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

I find this idea of the wilderness holding evil spirits and evil beasts fascinating on a personal level, because I grew up in what most people now would call “the sticks.” Where I grew up and my parents still live is on land with only one other bordering private property that is otherwise surrounded by the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. Our driveway was half a mile long, and it was another mile-and-a-half to the nearest neighbor and then to a paved two-lane highway, otherwise everything was gravel or old lumber trails.

Some of my favorite memories are of truly deadly animals seeming as goofy as humans. One of my all-time favorites is of a black bear going to the very large bird feeder my dad built outside his bedroom window. I was sitting behind the glass window of our log cabin, staring out ten feet in front of me to this 400 lbs. bear happily scarfing down sunflower seeds. Yes, they are ferocious animals, and I’d never want to be caught alone near a baby bear with mama nearby, they aren’t forgiving creatures. But this bear was so joyful at this easy meal, that as it faced away from me, I could see its little tail wagging vigorously back and forth like a dog getting a treat. [wave finger and make a noise to express joyful swiftness]

It’s these and a flood of so many other memories that make me wonder why I never felt darkness or evil in any of those situations. Certainly, as I would wander the woods I would turn my head around regularly just in case something lurked behind me. But nothing ever felt malevolent, it was simply a matter of caution in the face of creatures far larger and faster than me. The call of wolves still makes my spine tingle, but I was never afraid because I knew they were talking with each other. One would go off, then another and another, until there was a symphony of lupine voices that went on until they all abruptly and mysteriously ended simultaneously. Just thinking about it now gives me a jolt to be aware. But if a creature is audibly letting everyone know where it is, like the roaring of a lion or the howling of wolves or coyotes, it’s a sign that they want you to avoid them, to scare is to survive in the wild.

Whenever I read about Jesus’ time in the desert, I think less of temptation and testing, and more of survival and wonder. Jesus, a human, alone, unarmed, without much in the way of food, goes into the wilderness not to conquer or disrupt the natural order, but instead to listen and observe, to see where he and his ministry fit in the world. God’s promise in Genesis was for all the earth, and I wonder if Jesus meditated on his life and ministry in the light of that promise of his Father, as the animals around him went about finding their own daily bread.

Of course, he avoided death in the wild, and the temptation of demons, even Satan, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Jesus starts on the fringes of the “civilized” world, goes into the wilderness, and emerges from the waters of baptism and wilderness meditation with new insights into his own path that led him to the heart of the city and to death.

As we’ve done our own symbolic wandering in the Great Litany as a sign of where we might go this Lent, we are offered the opportunity to turn away from old ways and establish new ones. We are given a chance to reflect and reorient our lives. What are the wildernesses we are called into this Lent, and what discoveries might we make about where we fit in the scheme of God’s promises to the world? I hope we enter those wildernesses without fear, but instead with awe and wonder, a sense of possibility, and a willingness to simply see what God can do. May our wildernesses be spectacular!


[1] Collins Adela Yarbro. 2007. Mark: A commentary: Hermeneia—A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible. Edited by Harold W. Attridge. Fortress Press. pp 146-147.

[2] Ibid.,

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