Angels in the Wilderness


There were angels in the wilderness. It's important to remember that.

After the same Spirit that descended on Jesus at his baptism like a dove, then turned into a dive bomber and drove him out to the desert, there were angels in that wilderness. Along with Satan, the wild beasts and everything else one finds in the desert--heat that burns your skin, thirst that makes your tongue stick to the roof of your mouth, plants crowned with thorns--there were also angels, "who ministered to him."

It's important to remember those angels as we hear again this well-known story for the First Sunday of Lent. They are easy to overlook. In fact, they usually are. Do an internet search for commentaries and sermons on this passage, and the two themes that surface most often are temptation and repentance. Angels never seem to make the cut.

Yet Mark remembered them. In his lean, spare Gospel--the shortest one of all--Mark included the angels that Jesus met in his lonely sojourn on the other side of the Jordan. In Luke's version of the same story, Luke leaves them out entirely. In Matthew's Gospel, the angels only show up at the end. But in Mark, they're there the whole time, all forty days.

It's not as if Mark has a thing for angels. He doesn't. Other than this story about Jesus in the wilderness, angels seldom show up in Mark's Gospel. When they do, they're simply part of God's royal court. They're not down on earth helping people. Unlike Luke's Gospel, Mark records no encounter between Mary and the angel Gabriel nor any angelic appearance to shepherds. Mark leaves out Matthew's angel telling Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife or whispering in his ear to take his family and flee to Egypt. In Mark, there's no angel who strengthens Jesus in Gethsemane, and it's not clear if it's an angel the women meet at the empty tomb or just a young man dressed in white.

So when Mark does include angels helping Jesus in the wilderness, we need to sit up and take note. To do so doesn't disregard the temptations or even the Tempter himself that Jesus confronted in those forty days. Nor does it negate Lent's call to repentance, to acknowledge our own temptations and to wrestle with our own demons. 

Certainly, we need to be honest about the trials and temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness and that we face in our own lives. We also need to acknowledge the wild beasts that surrounded him in that desert, just as we need to acknowledge the things that scare the bejeezus out of us. Lent is a time to do that. 

But it's also a time to remember the angels, in his wilderness experience and in ours. To remember, as Mark does, that they were there for him from the very beginning of his 40-day journey, just as God had been with his ancestors every day of their 40-year desert journey in the wilderness. Just as God promises to be with us in the wild, lonely places of our lives.

Lent can be a time to take stock of our lives, to come clean about the things that tempt us and the things that scare us. Part of our Lenten discipline can be to acknowledge, in the words of the old prayer, "the harm we have done and the good we have left undone"--or in the words of Step 10 of every 12-Step program, "to do a fearless moral inventory."

But I also invite us to do another Lenten inventory, an accounting of the angels we have known and loved and who have loved us, in the wilderness times of our own lives. To remember, as Mark remembered, those angels that show up when we're tired, thirsty and surrounded by wild beasts--just as they did for Jesus.

Our wilderness angels probably don't look like we think angels should. No long white robes, no rustling wings. Instead they may resemble the middle-school teacher who believed in us when we couldn't believe in ourselves. Or the coach who gave us a chance to play, even if we weren't very good. Maybe one of your angels is a colleague who had your back during a rough time at work or a friend who listened to your fears and grief after a relationship ended. Sometimes our wilderness angels are the people who accept our apologies when we've hurt them or others, the people who remind us through that acceptance that, in the words of William Sloan Coffin, there "is more grace in God than sin in us."

And sometimes our angels are simply the people who are willing to walk with us into the wilderness and deserts of our own lives. My friend Bill tells this story. The youngest of three children, he was in the sixth grade in 1964 when his father began to manifest signs of what turned out to be a severe mental illness. The day before Bill's fourteenth birthday, his father was committed to the State Hospital. Given the stigma that surrounded mental illness, neither his mother nor his grandparents wanted anyone to know what had happened. The family story was simply that his father was away on business. 

The silence around his father's illness and hospitalization only increased my friend's fears. In addition, because jokes about the mentally ill and places like the State Hospital abounded in that time, his friends often made cracks about the "Looney Bin." Bill would join in the laughter. What else could he do? None of his teachers, not even the minister at the church, knew of his father's situation.

The one exception was Mr. Moore, his 4-H leader and a trusted family friend. Bill never talked with him directly about his dad, but he knew that Mr. Moore somehow knew what had happened. That made a difference, Bill said.

The week before his dad's birthday, Bill's mother told him she wanted him and his sisters to go with her to the State Hospital for the day. Bill was terrified. He had no idea what to expect from either his father or the other patients. All he knew were all the stories he'd heard about "maniacs" and other crazy people. It was the 1960's, after all. He dreaded walking through the hospital gates with his mother and sisters. How could he protect them from what he imagined they would find? He told his mother he didn't want to go, he had other things to do, he didn't want to see his father there. He was ashamed--ashamed of his father, ashamed of himself.

But his mother insisted that he go. Bill dug in his heels. So did his mother. But then a few days before the visit, his mother asked Bill if it would help to have someone else come along. Bill immediately thought of Mr. Moore. His 4-H leader agreed to go. My friend said it was like a gift from God. "Going through the hospital gates, seeing my father for the first time in weeks--all of it was still scary," Bill said. "But having Mr. Moore along made a difference. He knew what to say and do. He simply gave my dad a big hug and teased him about getting old. He shared stories about all the funny things he and my dad had done together. He got him to ask me and my sisters about our 4-H projects and school. 

"We stayed until visiting hours were over," Bill continued. "It was actually hard to leave, which surprised me since I'd dreaded it so much. But as we walked out, I realized I was no longer afraid. Having Mr. Moore there made it seem normal, like we were all around the kitchen table at home and not in the visitors' room at the State Hospital. He made us feel normal, too. That my dad was still my dad, even if he was dealing with a mental illness."

"Mr. Moore wasn't anyone special," Bill concluded. "He wasn't trained in psychiatry or pastoral counseling. He was a just a friend who was willing to walk through those hospital gates with us and sit and eat birthday cake and talk with my dad. 

Lent begins with Jesus' 40-day journey into the wilderness, where according to Mark, he was "tempted by Satan and was with the wild beasts." Our Lenten journey also leads us into such wilderness times and places, be they in our own lives or in the world around us. Yes, it can be a hard journey filled with fearsome things, not the least of which are our own failings and the times we've let those fearsome things get the best of us. In our own deserts of Lent, we can feel beset by the wild beasts of despair or regret.

But even in such a time, don't forget about the angels in the wilderness. Mark didn't. My friend Bill didn't. And neither should we.

"He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him."

Even in the wilderness, according to Mark, the angels got the last word. May that be true for us in our wilderness journey this Lent, too.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Please join me in prayer. Thank you, God, for the angels who have been with us in the wilderness times of our own lives. May the remembrance of their presence empower us to be such bearers of your grace and courage in this world in this season. Amen.