From the wilderness comes restoration.
The wilderness for Israel was all too often a place of dissension and lack of trust in God’s promises.
Exodus 17:7 says, “Moses called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, on account of the quarreling of the children of Israel, and on account of their testing Yahweh, which they did by saying, ‘Is Yahweh in the midst of us or not?'” (AKJV) Massah means testing and Meribah means strife or quarreling. “Whining” would not be an inappropriate translation for Meribah. Psalm 78 (go here and scroll down to 78) details the repeated lack of faith Israel had in their delivering God.
(Disclaimer: I am not claiming I would have done better or have done better in wilderness settings.)
In the Gospels, however, Jesus redeems and transforms the wilderness experience on behalf of the entire people of God. In the New Testament Jesus serves as a stand-in for the people of God, both in the wilderness and on the cross.
One of Mark’s first καὶ εὐθὺς statements has Jesus going into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. But unlike the people of God in Exodus, Jesus did not sin when he was tempted to walk away from God and worship another. I once heard a preacher say that where Adam failed, where Israel failed, and where all humanity failed… Jesus succeeded on behalf of all people when he refused to listen to Satan in the wilderness.
The wilderness, isolated place that it is, connects with hope to the whole of salvation history. John the Baptist, the “voice of one crying in the wilderness,” hearkens back to Old Testament prophets that “prepare the way of the Lord.” John self-identifies as the prophet par excellence who prepares the way for Jesus. The wilderness may be lonely and despairing, but it is also the place to which Jesus comes.
As R.T. France writes, “The wilderness was a place of hope, of new beginnings…in the wilderness God’s people would again find their true destiny.”
From the wilderness comes restoration—even if it’s only the beginning of the process of restoration. Saint Mark’s first listeners/readers saw the wilderness motif immediately at the beginning of the Gospel (no birth narrative!), with John as prophet in the wilderness and with Jesus conquering Satan’s temptation in the wilderness. This alerted them that something significant was about to happen.
“Is God in our midst or not?”
I confess I’m too quick to ask that question with Israel when I find myself in a proverbial desert. But the desert wilderness is the exact place to which God saw fit to send John, preaching the good news of forgiveness and calling people to a baptism of repentance. The desert wilderness is the exact place to which God saw fit to drive Jesus, so that he could resist the devil’s temptations, beginning to win for us a victory we could never win for ourselves. God in Jesus restores what we have made “Massah” and “Meribah” by our lack of trust and rush to complaint.
Next wilderness I come to, I’m going to try to ask myself… what restoration is on the other side of this?