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The Quest: Entering the Wilderness

March 12, 2019

THE QUEST is a Sermon on the Wilderness Trials of Jesus, preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on The First Sunday of Lent, March 10, 2019, in which we face up to our needs, lacks, and longings for intimacy (with God and others) and a better world. 

Psalm 42         Luke 4:1-11

My thinking about our gospel story today (often known as the temptation story) has been shaped for some time now by my work for indigenous justice. I have been nurtured by several Native American Christian thinkers who see in Jesus’ wilderness trials something akin to a Vision Quest. Vision Quests are undertaken by indigenous people the world over as both a rite of passage and as an experience of cultural rootedness. The quest immerses one in the stories and struggles of one’s culture, grounds one in relationship to the land and to all living beings and provides one with a place and purpose among one’s people. Among Australian Aboriginal peoples it is called Dreamtime or Dreaming. While there are many traditions of vision quest, there are some pretty consistent characteristic cross-culturally: a period of intense preparation, availing oneself of spiritual support, undertaking a significant challenge, and enacting communal lament. All of these can be found in this story of Jesus’ wilderness trials, and we will unpack these elements more fully over the next few weeks as we journey together through Lent.[i]

This morning, however, I wish to linger on the location of Jesus’ trial – the Judean wilderness – and to think with you about what it is like to spend time in the wild.


In his classic book, The Denial of Death, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974, Ernest Becker wrote that “the preeminent human temptation is to escape or repress the truth of our frail skin. We avoid the desert,” he writes, “the loneliness, the loss of familiar support, the grand stillness. If we go into the wilderness,” he cautions, “we will be reminded of the great hunger. We will be dwarfed by the earth’s mighty movements.”[ii]

What Becker was describing is our flight from precarity, our denial of dependence, our retreat from relationship. It is about all the ways we try not to know about our mortality. Much of white western culture, he thought, has been built to buttress our denial of death, which entails both our vulnerabilities and deepest desires. But that is exactly what ancient people sought out in wilderness.[iii]

I want to invite you to take a short trip into the wild. Feel free to close your eyes and imagine yourself travelling, alone, to some place wild. What does that look like for you? You might imagine a dry desert; a place of hills, sand and stone. Rocky caves your only shelter from the hot sun, shared with animals. There is nothing wet here. You are thirsty. Or you might imagine a place remote, cut off, a desert island. Inaccessible but by boat twice a week. Far from the sounds of civilization, cell phones, cell service, human contact. There are no signs of humans have ever been here, and traces of your presence will be quickly erased or eroded. You are lonely. Or the wild for you might be a jungle, tropical forest, or mountain woods. Rich, moist, cool, alive. Vibrant with life and with lives completely unconcerned with your own. You must be careful. – How do you feel here? Look up? Look down. Is there anything here to eat? Is there anything here that can eat you? Psychologists tell us that we have a deep need for four things – to be seen, to be soothed, to feel safe and to have a sense of security. There is none of that here.[iv]

Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness was a physical ordeal, like that of other vision quests. But Choctaw Christian writer Stephen Charleston has written that “the quest is not a test of how strong and brave a person can be, but rather, how vulnerable she or he can be.” It is about exposing our selves, or exploring for ourselves, the experiences and feelings of lack and longing. Our experience in the wild (in what various authors call the lonely place, the desert place, the hunger place, or the empty place) is about intentionally stripping down or stripping away the comforts, supports, and routines of daily life so that we can encounter our deepest needs. To face squarely and touch the parts of us that are unfulfilled, unresolved, or incomplete.[v]

Enter the distractions. In the madness of our lives, we try to convince ourselves that

If we keep ourselves ceaselessly preoccupied, we might be spared the pain and the pained. We need not pay attention to the terrible precariousness of our condition. We need not embark on the quest for an answer to our absolute lack. Perhaps if we entertain ourselves to death, we may be able to divert our way through life.

This is what one theologian calls “a tempting tactic,” and it is what Jesus confronts in the wild.[vi]

But distractions don’t work, do they? Not really. Each of us has encountered intense loneliness, fear and need lying in our own beds, in the restless hours of darkest night. Take our psalm this morning. The alternation between hope and despair expressed by the several voices of the psalmist has all the feel of someone whose bed sheets are slick with sweat and sleeplessness.

  • “My soul longs for you, O God,” cries one voice.
  • “Where is your God?” taunts another.
  • “I remember songs of thanksgiving,” insists the voice of hope; but mournfully, because
  • “My tears are my food, day and night.”
  • “Why have you forgotten me?” the first voice asks in lament.
  • Wanting to rise above this despair, our night-wrestler asks “Why are you so cast down, O my soul? Why? Hope in God.”
  • But unable to rise above despair, it can only hear the taunt “Where is your God?” and ask again, and again, “Why are you cast down?”

Tears, fears, hopes, questions. Psalm 42 (and 43) is the lament of one whose pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem (where the presence of God sits enthroned) has been prevented by illness.

The initial image in the psalm is that of a deer desperately looking for water in a riverbed in the dry season, a riverbed called in Palestine a ‘wadi.’ The image fits the hilly area of northern Galilee. Thirst is a powerful biological drive. Without water a person can die within a very few days. [Indeed, as the water protectors reminded us at Standing Rock two years ago, water is life.] Our psalmist uses this as a metaphor for their thirsts for God. Their “soul” (nephesh, inner being) ‘longs’ for God, especially to ‘behold the face of God.’ … At the moment, however, this thirst is not quenched. [Instead,] tears have come both day and night.”[vii]

How many of you know this experience, lying in bed – or wherever – restless, wrestling, alternating between despair and hope? All of us know this, of course, even though each one of us has a unique balance between the two. Our distractions fail. “The madness of our lives … hurried schedules, worries and resentments, preoccupations with events that will certainly pass away – all conspire to rob us of the joy of living.” Broken relationships, regrets for decision made or act committed, a doctor’s dire diagnosis, shifting circumstances beyond our control, all can leave us insecure. Almost every one of us has experienced the absence of God in times of despair. There are times in all of our lives when we desperately long to sense the presence of God but instead experience only God’s absence. And we should not be surprised. Even Jesus knew this. On the cross he cried out, “My God, My God. Why have you forgotten me?” Why should we be exempt from these moments? We can find ourselves, like the psalmist, counseling ourselves to hope, while watching amazed as our own souls simply cannot rise above despair.[viii]

The invitation on the first Sunday of Lent is to enter the wilderness with Jesus, and to enter without fear; to join Jesus on a quest for true life; to allow oneself to experience the unknown, unsettled and unfilled aspects of ones life so that our self-examination may be honest and so that God may fulfill our true needs.

Todd Wynward is a wilderness guide in New Mexico. His takes people on supervised trips into the desert wilderness of the American Southwest so that they may experience what we called in our liturgy this morning ‘the mystery of who they are, why they are, and what they are to become.’ As such, they stand a chance of encountering the God who is the source of all mystery. Todd suggests that Jesus went into the wilderness to experience “a radical emptying … prior to being filled with an incredibly deep assurance of identity, purpose, abundance, and radical grace. Could it be,” he wonders, “that Jesus lived into his divine potential because of his testing in the desert?”[ix]

This is the end, the purpose, the point of the Lenten journey – to be filled with God, not as the answer to every question, not in such a way as to remove our longing, or as some new ‘religious’ version of distraction, but to be filled with God precisely as mystery, so that we may live into our divine potential.


The liturgy for this day supported a safe place to explore our doubts and insecurities and the mystery of faith. Children planted seeds in soil fertilized with the ashes from Wednesday and watered with the waters from our baptismal font in which we baptized a child. Following the sermon we sang God is Here Today by Raúl Galeano, because someone needed to hear it. (God is here today; as certain as the air I breathe, as certain as the morning sun that rises, as certain when I sing you’ll hear my song).


[i] On Jesus’ desert experience as vision quest, with reference to Marvel’s Black Panther, see my sermon for the first Sunday of Lent 2018, “ Forty Days in the Wild with Jesus.” On Aboriginal Dreaming, see

[ii] Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death. (Harcourt Brace, 1974) Winner of the Pulitzer Prize. The quotation, however, is not actually Becker, but an apt summary in John F. Kavanaugh, The Word Engaged: Meditations on the Sunday Scriptures Cycle C. (Orbis, 1997).

[iii] Acknowledging our mortality is of course what Ash Wednesday is all about.

[iv] See Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, The Whole Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. (Bantam, 2012).

[v] Stephen Charleston, The Fours Visions Quests of Jesus. (Morehouse Publishing, 2015).

[vi] Kavanaugh, The Word Engaged.

[vii] Marshall D. Johnson, Psalms through the Year: Spiritual Exercises for Everyday. (Augsburg Fortress, 2007). p. 98ff.

[viii] “The madness of our lives…” from the Ash Wednesday mediation in Krin Van Tatenhove, Awakening to God’s Beauty: A Lenten Invitation to Pray with Art. Presbyterians Today, January/February 2019.

[ix] Todd Wynward, Rewilding the Way: Break Free to Follow an Untamed God. (Herald Press, 2015).

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