As an undergraduate geology student, I learned that the
most interesting things happen at the margins – the places where two different
things interact: Sea and shore, air and water, people and places. Aside from a
tourism trip to float in the Dead Sea, our pilgrimage group spent the majority
of our time on Tuesday going to the margins.
We began by renewing our baptismal promises on the banks
of the Jordan River, which is both the baptismal site of Jesus and the boundary
between the State of Israel and the Kingdom of Jordan. Landmines line the long
driveway from the main road to the parking lot, giving all of us – especially
Andy Mathes, often our wandering sheep – a good incentive to stay close to the
Later in the day, we spent about an hour in quiet
reflection at the Wadi Qelt, the desert valley between Jerusalem and Jericho,
the boundary between Jerusalem’s temperate climate and the deserts that
encompass it from the east. The Wadi Qelt is overwhelming for its vastness and
its depth. The canyon must have been half a mile deep, and several of our
pilgrims were frightened by the very sight of it.
Jesus sets his Parable of the Good Samaritan in this
barren wilderness, a place that is known to be dangerous and foreboding. It is
also one of the places where he may have spent his own time in the desert. St.
Mark tells us that Jesus was driven out into the desert immediately after his
baptism, and that he spent forty days there being tempted by Satan. Sts.
Matthew and Luke add more detail: Jesus is offered enough food to satisfy his
hunger, he is offered the chance to show off his mighty powers, he is offered
dominion over all the nations of the world.
Our dean offered us a powerful reflection on Jesus’
temptations: All of the devil’s options were “second best” for Jesus, whose
mission was to inaugurate the peace-filled kingdom of God. He went on to say
that each of our “second best” options are always the most tempting and the
most dangerous. They’re good enough, but they are not the fullness of what God
wants for us.
As I looked out, reflecting on our Dean’s words and
imagining what it would have been like for Jesus to spend forty days in this
frightening place, a flock of sheep began walking the slopes across the canyon
for me – real sheep, not Andy. The slopes were steep, but each negotiated it
with ease, and the shepherd rode calmly ahead on his horse. The sheep knew just
what to do in their perilous surroundings. It was not the shepherd’s role to
tell them what to do, but to tell them where to go. I wonder if Jesus might
have seen sheep like this wandering through the wilderness during his season of
temptation. I wonder if he might have had them in mind when he described
himself as our Good Shepherd, the one whose voice is known to the sheep.
Aside from the words of the Apostles’ Creed, the most
significant words that we said when we renewed our baptismal promises were: “I
will with God’s help.” In saying these words, we affirm our shared
understanding of what it means to live the Christian life, but at the same time
we acknowledge that we have no hope of achieving these high ideals on our own.
Put another way, we may know how to live in the world – what to do, how to get
by, how to keep from tumbling down unstable slopes – but without God’s help,
our history shows that we have a hard time figuring out where it is that we
need to be going.