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Lessons from the Wilderness

St. George's Monastery in the wilderness of Israel.

Life-changing things happen in the wilderness. The Rev. Glenn Wagner describes what happened to Jesus and what happened to him in the remote desert in Israel.


GLENN M. WAGNER

Michigan Conference Communications

Lent is an annual reminder for Christians of an important chapter in the life of Jesus when he chose to begin his ministry with a forty-day journey into the wilderness to fast and do battle with temptation. The life lessons connected with this season are personal for me. I pray that what I have learned from my own wilderness experience may prove useful for your Lenten journey.

At the outset of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. Matthew remembers that as soon as Jesus was baptized, Jesus went up out of the water. At that moment, heaven opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, alighting on him. Then a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him, I am well pleased.” (Matthew 4:16-17)

I can imagine a contemporary politician receiving that kind of public endorsement from heaven and immediately, capitalizing on the heightened notoriety, going on a national tour to sell his or her book to a wider public hungry for heroes.

But instead, Jesus uses the moment of God’s great public affirmation to withdraw from public life completely. Jesus stopped doing. Jesus retreated. He suspended routine. He got off the merry-go-round of life and went to the wilderness. He disappeared from public view for forty days.

Who does that?  Is Jesus crazy?  Have you seen the wilderness?  What can possibly be gained by going THERE? Doesn’t Jesus know that the grown-up thing to do is to get to work and keep working because our survival depends on it?

Every year Lent helps us remember this odd beginning to Jesus’ ministry when Jesus did things that would have made my very religious grandmother extremely unhappy. Jesus left home and went to spend time with Satan in a foreboding place with a bad reputation. He stopped eating regular and healthy foods for a long time.

 

“Jesus did things that would have made my very religious grandmother extremely unhappy.”

 

During his 40 day trip away, Jesus also did something that would have made many of my coaches and teachers angry. He left the continuous effort and daily disciplines required to be successful.

I know. I have heard preachers extoll Jesus’ focus and praise his bringing into clarity his central devotion to doing God’s will. But does it take forty days and time alone in the company of the original hellion to get this done? Wouldn’t most of us, if ever offered a forty-day vacation, choose a more exotic destination with better company, better perks, and finer cuisine than Israel’s wilderness served up?

It is nice that Jesus, as God’s beloved son, could afford the time for that first Lenten retreat but honestly, can anyone else? If a basketball team tried to do what Jesus’ did they would miss the playoffs and any chance for becoming March-Madness heroes. If a mother of a newborn decided to take a Lenten sabbatical she would be arrested on her return for child abandonment. If a factory worker took leave for forty days, he would find someone else doing his job and a “do not hire back” memo in his personnel file. If a doctor prescribed a 40 day fast to her patient she would lose her license to practice medicine and be sued for malpractice.

Christians approach Lent with the noble intentions of a New Year’s resolution. We set aside Ash Wednesday and some of us go to worship where we are smeared with ashes as a reminder of both our need for forgiveness and our mortality. Lent strengthens our resolve to be more devoted to the cause of Christ for the stretch until Easter. 

It has been 19 years for me, but I still remember the Lent that changed my appreciation for this season in a life-changing way.

 

“It has been 19 years for me, but I still remember the Lent that changed my appreciation for this season in a life-changing way.”

 

In the fall of 2000, a member of my Staff Parish Committee brazenly asked me, totally by surprise during a meeting, “Glenn, when are you going away again?” She explained, “I don’t mean to be rude.  It’s just that you haven’t been gone for a while now and truthfully, you always seem to be a better preacher when you have gone away and can bring back new life experiences to share in your messages.” She then made a motion that the committee encourage me to go away somewhere of my choosing. “All in favor?” The motion passed unanimously.

That unexpected intervention helped me to enroll in a program that I had heard about at Jerusalem University College which offers a three-week course to study the Bible on location in Israel assisted by biblical scholars. I enrolled with another clergy friend for January of 2001.

At the end of our first week in Israel, on Greek Orthodox Christmas, Friday, January 7, 2001, our class schedule took us first to visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Then we went on an afternoon climb to a mountain top in the wilderness overlooking both Wadi Qelt and the dramatic Byzantine St. George’s monastery.

The monastery was established in that remote location 10.5 miles east of Jerusalem in 420 AD.  From that rocky summit, we were given a 360-degree view of the barren land. We could see the Mount of Temptation 4.2 miles away from where Jesus spent his forty days in the wilderness fasting and confronting Satan. The Jerusalem-Jericho road was visible just south of our vantage point, snaking in dramatic descent through the vicinity where Jesus shared his parable of the Good Samaritan.

 

“The wilderness left an indelible first impression as a lonely and brutal place more likely to crush life than to sustain it.”

 

The ancient city of Jericho was visible 5.9 miles from us on the eastern horizon and beyond Jericho, we could see the Jordan River. Below us, on an adjacent slope, a Bedouin shepherd herded his flock across the barren rocks in search of scant winter forage far below in the Wadi.  The wilderness left an indelible first impression as a lonely and brutal place more likely to crush life than to sustain it. The professor lectured on the many important biblical connections to the region and its bleak geography.

Then he invited us to take pictures of the view before our hike back down the rocky mountain slope to our bus waiting to whisk us on to Jericho. I opted to venture down the mountain just a bit for a better angle to take a picture of St. George’s monastery. The mountain moved. Just as sand gives way beneath the foot of a descending hiker on a dune slope, what I had assumed was a solid mountain turned out to be a shelf of limestone gravel that yielded unexpectedly to the weight of my feet initiating a mini landslide.

I lost my footing. Limestone is not as forgiving as sand. My leg snapped on impact causing a fracture of both my tibia and my fibula. My ankle felt like jelly and I was introduced to intense, non-stop pain. Suddenly, I realized that if I were a lone pilgrim in this environment, I would soon be dead.

A fall in the wilderness
~ photo courtesy of Glenn Wagner

I will be forever grateful for a medical doctor enrolled in our class who knew how to splint my break. I am thankful for the Israeli’s who have established cell phone service in the wilderness and for the generous Jews of Chicago who donated the ambulance that came to fetch me. The Orthodox Jews on the crew were trained as emergency medical providers. They were willing to violate Jewish Sabbath to Sherpa me down the mountain to a modern medical center in Jerusalem skilled in orthopedic surgery.

When I first broke my leg I couldn’t discern God’s presence in the trauma. A broken leg changes plans. Instead of fulfilling a dream, I found myself flat on my back in a foreign country, wallowing in pain and self-pity. I was angry at God and at myself for what felt like a silly accident. I wished I could relive that moment with an ending that did not include fracturing my leg and surgery to repair it.

My views on the unpleasant circumstance changed when I asked a simple question: “OK, God, what would you like me to learn from this?” When I opened myself to the possibility that God had things to teach me through that broken leg in the wilderness I was presented with important life lessons that have shaped my life and work.

In the eight-bed ward that was my Jerusalem hospital room, I received valuable lessons about living in community from the four Jews and three Palestinians who were my roommates. We each came to the room with individual handicaps and different abilities, and we soon learned how each was needed to contribute to the welfare of the group.

After returning home from Israel, I learned that many around us struggle with disabilities. Many of our public buildings, including my own church, were not accessible to persons with physical limitations.

 

“When I opened myself to the possibility that God had things to teach me through that broken leg in the wilderness I was presented with important life lessons.”

 

My first day back at work after the accident was a Communion Sunday. I had never before celebrated this sacrament while balancing on crutches. My right leg in its cast was throbbing when I got to the words of institution and the breaking of the bread. When I came to the part where I said, “Take, eat, this is my body broken for you,” I choked on the words.

In that moment at the altar, thoughts about Christ’s sacrifice and broken body flooded my consciousness. Who would willfully choose to be broken? Being broken is painful. My broken leg was expensive and inconvenient. It was disruptive. For Christ, broken meant laying down life itself. The only people who choose to be fractured on purpose are those with deep love, who see that by being broken they can save someone else they love even more, like a mother who gives a kidney to save a daughter or a soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save his comrades. I knew in that instant that I could never again in good conscience ignore, nor take for granted, such a sacrifice on my behalf.

My leg broke in the same wilderness where Jesus retreated from the world. My accident forced me to stop “doing” for an extended period of human “being.” My recuperation forced me to stop, to get off of the merry go round of daily church business. I could listen.  Sleep.  Practice patience. Appreciate acts of kindness and experience total dependence. Take time to read.  Spend time in prayer. Dream. Learn first-hand about the daily struggle. Be introduced to the high costs of health care which can be as crippling as the injury for those without insurance.

It was six months between the January snap of my leg in the wilderness of Israel and the day in mid-June back in Michigan when I could finally graduate from crutches, casts, braces, doctors, subsequent surgeries, and therapy. The permanently embedded titanium rod that still supports my right leg reminds me that my life had finally returned to normal. But normal for me has had a new definition ever since.

The lessons of the wilderness have altered my lifestyle and created in me both the wisdom that comes from experience and the empathy that has grown in gratitude for the remembered kindness from others. Today I am more comfortable with getting away and spending needed time just being rather than doing.

 

“We choose to live life differently, wherever we are and whatever demons we face, if we live it each day and make each decision with eternity in mind.”

 

I believe that the wilderness helped Jesus to know, in an unshakeable way, that life is a precious gift. Above all else, honoring God in gratitude is of paramount importance. We choose to live life differently, wherever we are, and whatever demons we face if we live it each day and make each decision with eternity in mind. 

Satan tempted Jesus by inviting him to use his status as God’s son to feed himself, perform miracles for his own benefit, or trade his mission for the earthly power that Satan offered to deliver. Lent helps those of us who follow Jesus to remember that loving God is life’s most important focus. Our faithful devotion is rendered willingly in gratitude for the greater love we have already received.

Looking back through the rear-view mirror of my own life experience and remembering my own time in the wilderness, I can see clearly God’s grace. I don’t ever want to forget it.

~ Please note: The global coronavirus pandemics emerged since this blog was submitted for publication.  These lessons, that Glenn Wagner shares from his personal wilderness experience, may prove helpful as we face these new challenges together as people of faith.