Perhaps you think of hymns like "Spirit of the Living God, Fall Afresh On Me" or "Like the Murmur of the Dove's Song." Perhaps you think of charismatic Christians joyfully raising their hands in praise. Perhaps you think of Holy Wisdom, calling from her window to the street below, inviting all who would be wise to come to her feast.
I suspect you don't think of the Spirit as driving and relentless.
Yet this is what happens in our Gospel lesson this week. Jesus has just been baptized -- has just had what we might call a "peak experience" with a manifestation of the Holy Spirit described as like a dove -- but the next thing we read is that Jesus is driven by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness. It's a jarring verb; one that we may not associate with "Spirit, Spirit of Gentleness."
But that's where Jesus winds up.
At my recent lay ministry retreat our visiting professor illustrated his lecture on the Gospel of Mark with slides from his trips to the Holy Land. Several of them were of the wilderness -- vast stretches of sand and stone that bring to mind Gertrude Stein's "There's no there there."
Alone in the wilderness, you lose your everyday points of reference -- people you know and love, people you are used to being around; your daily activities; your occupational identity; the visual and aural and olfactory backgrounds that normally frame your world. You lose your possessions. You lose the certainty of obtaining the things you need to live -- food, water, shelter. You lose physical safety.
All you're left with is yourself.
And that can be dangerous. Mountaineer and author Jon Krakauer wrote a book, Into the Wild, that explored the life of Chris McCandless, a young man who sought to live in ever more remote wilderness, psychologically as well as physically, until he journeyed into oblivion. Recently filmaker Werner Herzog's film Grizzly Man chronicled the life of Timothy Treadwell, a free-spirited amateur naturalist and filmmaker whose time in the wilderness amplified his narcissism and rescue fantasies, until he lost hold of the fact that he lived in the midst of dangerous carnivores; Treadwell and his partner wound up being killed and eaten by the grizzly bears they imagined they'd befriended. In Mark's text, in his terse manner, he simply notes that Jesus "was tempted by Satan" there amid the rocks and wild animals, buffeted daily by scorching heat and bone-chilling cold, howling wind and deathly silence.
But this lonely, dangerous, uncomfortable wilderness is also a place where God happens. It's a catalyst for change in a Godward direction. The Old Testament, from the story of the desolate Hagar and her son being saved by God as they languished in the wilderness, to the desert journey of the Israelites, to the images of a refreshed, renewed wilderness in the Book of Isaiah, is filled with references to wilderness as a place where humanity encounters the saving power of God.
My pastor has observed on more than one occasion that in his experience, most people do not have transformative encounters with God when life is going swell -- when their relationships are dreamy, when they're heading up the career ladder, when their bank accounts are burgeoning, when they've got it all together. More often than not the scenario is more like that in Madeline L'Engle's poem "Lines Scribbled on an Envelope," quoted by Dr. Luke Bouman at Goettinger Predigten im Internet :
To learn to love
is to be stripped of all love
until you are wholly without love
until you have gone
naked and afraid
into this cold dark place
where all love is taken from you
you will not know
that you are wholly within love.
Wherever, whatever our own wilderness, the Gospel lesson for this week tells us that Jesus has been where we are; has experienced the same dislocation, the same desolation, the same inner turmoil. When we say, with Kanye West, "God show me the way because the Devil try to break me down," Jesus tells us, "I'm the way. Because I've been in this place before. Come with me; follow me to the other side." And when we do, we will be changed.
"Christ in the Wilderness," Ivan Kramskoy