Last week, I told you all about how I traveled back from Essex, Montana, through a great cloud of fog. What I didn’t tell you all about was what happened when I traveled from here to Essex. Like a good child of this information age, I consulted the all-knowing Google Maps to find out how I should travel from here to Essex. Google Maps provided this answer: Travel from here to Laurel. But don’t go on the Interstate. Instead, go through Laurel. Stay on 1st Avenue, which will turn into Buffalo Trail. Continue on Buffalo Trail until you enter Broadview. Turn left on Montana Route 3 when you get to Broadview, and continue on to Great Falls. OK, I thought, that’s a new one, but I’ll try it. So, I followed the directions, and found Buffalo Trail to be a very pleasing road that wound through some very pretty country. But suddenly, there before me was a four-way intersection. A paved road went to the left and to the right, and in front of me was a dirt road. Surely Google Maps did not want me to travel on a dirt road, I thought, but it hadn’t said anything about taking a left or a right turn. Confused, but certain that I wasn’t supposed to go on a dirt road, I turned left. After about 10 minutes, I ended up in a dismal little town named Molt, and I again was faced with the paved road turning into a dirt road. So, I turned in to the post office parking lot and pulled out a paper map. And the paper map said that yes, that dirt road that I had initially thought Google Maps did not want me to go on was indeed the road that would lead me to Broadview. Frustrated, but seeing no other good way around the dirt road, I left Molt, returned to the four-way intersection, turned onto the dirt road, and continued on to Broadview, from there to Great Falls, and from Great Falls to Essex. Google Maps got a very nasty email from me about that when my trip was over.
As I was reflecting on this week’s Gospel passage, however, it occurred to me that my experience on the dirt roads of Montana is a great illustration for baptism, and the effects that baptism has on a person. If the mapmakers had not told me that I was really supposed to travel on that dirt road, I wouldn’t have done it. Mark tells us that immediately after Jesus’ baptism, immediately after he sees the heavens ripped open and the Spirit descending into him as a dove, that the Spirit drives him out into the wilderness. If the Spirit hadn’t driven him into the wilderness, would Jesus have gone there? We who live in an oasis in the midst of wilderness here in Wyoming know how dangerous wilderness can be if we are not properly prepared for it. Jesus went out into the wilderness with no food and no water, subjecting himself to testing from Satan and survival among wild beasts with no bear spray. If the Spirit had not driven him out into the wilderness to do that, Jesus probably would not have gone there.
We think of Holy Baptism as a wonderful thing, a beautiful Sacrament that welcomes a person into God’s family, and it is. Most of the time when we think of baptism, we think of cute little babies or toddlers dressed in white, but adults can be baptized too, and it’s just as wonderful an experience. But did we ever think that, when a person is baptized, that Holy Spirit that came into Jesus at his baptism and drove him out into the wilderness is the same Holy Spirit that comes into the person that is being baptized? Baptism is not tame. Baptism is not only the radical statement that we are God’s children through Jesus Christ, but it is also the gift of the Spirit that will, on occasion, take us into places we do not wish to go; places that we consider godforsaken, places that we consider wilderness.
It is that Holy Spirit who drove aid worker Kayla Mueller into the Middle East, to help those on the margins who are suffering. Before her death, when she was asked what kept her going in the work that she was doing to aid others, she said, “I find God in the suffering eyes reflected in mine, if this is how you are revealed to me, this is how I will forever seek you.” In a place and time which many of us would have considered a godforsaken wilderness, Kayla Mueller was driven by the Holy Spirit to aid others, and to see God in the faces of others who were suffering. Jesus was at work in Kayla to shine light in darkness, and to put the devil on notice that, even though her life may have been taken, others will continue to shine God’s light in the face of evil, and God will have the last word.
That same wild Holy Spirit is at work in all of us. When we were baptized, our parents, if we were children, or we ourselves, if we were older, invited that restless Spirit to come into us. Where is the Holy Spirit driving us that we would not otherwise go? It might not be into a place where ISIS is located, but instead a place here in Powell that we wouldn’t otherwise go. In several Bible studies this week, we’ve been discussing the idea of having a hymn sing or a Bible discussion in a bar. Other congregations across the country have been doing this. The idea behind this is to meet people where they are. If they’re in the bars, then we go to the bars. And the other idea behind meeting people where they are is talking to them about Jesus in their language: to find out where they are spiritually, and discuss Jesus from their point of view instead of from some stock “missionary speech” that we might know. Is this wilderness? For me, it is. I don’t drink alcohol very often, and frankly, bars scare me. But if that is where the Holy Spirit is driving me, and if that is where the Holy Spirit is driving us as a congregation, then God will give us the courage we need to do what he asks of us.
What other wildernesses might the Holy Spirit be driving us into? Perhaps it might be into the poverty-stricken parts of our town. When you walk down Bent Street here in Powell, it looks like Mayberry from The Andy Griffith Show: a small but prosperous town with nice, polite people who are well-off. Across the street from where I live is a subdivision which I call “suburbia” because the houses are beautiful, modern, upper-middle-class to lower-upper-class homes with beautiful families. If all you saw of Powell were these two places, you wouldn’t think we had poverty here. But if you take a closer look at Powell, you will see that poverty: we have several trailer parks; we have several thrift stores in town, but not many first-run retail stores; we have Loaves & Fishes to help people out with food; there is a Backpack Blessings program which helps a high number of children who otherwise might not eat on the weekends; and even with these programs and the Council of Community Services, people still come to the church door looking for help. This issue of poverty might be a “wilderness area” that the Holy Spirit is driving us into: not only by helping the poor, which we already do, but also by looking into the issues that cause poverty and working to address those causes in our community.
Now, here’s the thing about whatever wilderness it is that the Holy Spirit drives us into: there will be testing, as Jesus was tested in the wilderness. We don’t know exactly what kinds of tests, what kinds of temptations, we will encounter. They will be difficult, and as we encounter difficult situations in those wildernesses, we will despair and we will doubt that God is there. For example, when we see people who, no matter what happens, cannot seem to break out of the cycle of poverty, we will wonder where God is. But that is the temptation when we enter into the wilderness: to think that God has truly forsaken whatever wilderness we find ourselves in. And that is simply not true. Kayla Mueller knew that—she saw God in the suffering eyes of the people whom she encountered in her life, and was moved to help. We too, when we are driven into the wilderness, must remember that God has gone there ahead of us, and will be present with us in whatever situation we encounter.
So, let us go into the wilderness that the Spirit drives us into with good courage. Let us go, knowing that even though we consider a place or a situation godforsaken, that this idea is an illusion. Let us go knowing that God has gone before us, and let us pray that God will help us to withstand the testing and temptations that arise. Let us go, knowing that, just as God told Jesus that he is his beloved Son, with whom he is well pleased, that God says the same thing to each one of us in this life. We are indeed God’s beloved children, and we know that, through Jesus Christ, God is well pleased with us. We need have no fear, even when the Spirit drives us out on those dirt roads where we would rather not go. Amen.