The Desert Course
Written by The Rev. Gillian Barr
Jonathan Daniels’ House program director
We begin our time in ESC, as new Corps members or new Program Directors, with high hopes and ideals. The vision of ESC is compelling—being with other energetic young people dedicated to justice, service, and spiritual growth, all within close-knit Christian community. The sponsoring parish or diocese is excited; the partner agencies are enthusiastic. We get the House set up, we unpack bags and meet housemates, we get oriented to our new home and begin work at our service sites. The energy and newness and ideals carry us for a while. And then something happens. One of our housemates drives us up a wall. Our site placement is much more challenging, or boring, than we imagined. The Corps member who spoke in their interview about wonderful previous leadership experience actually has lots of growing edges. Whether in October, December, or March, there comes a time when we wonder why we signed on for this. We doubt our decision. What were we thinking? What was God thinking? Did God call us to ESC, or did we mis-hear?
The Gospel passage appointed for the First Sunday in Lent is the story of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan. In his maturing understanding of God’s call for his life, Jesus lets himself be plunged into the river, and hears God’s voice, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” What affirmation! What clarity! Who hasn’t wished to hear God’s voice speaking to us, declaring to all within earshot that God loves us, is pleased with us, and has a plan for us? I can imagine no more amazing way to be launched into a new ministry. But the story doesn’t end there.
“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan . . . “
Jesus cannot bask in the affirmation at the river’s edge. The Spirit who publicly blesses and calls him quickly drives him away from the flowing water, to the bone-dry desert. He must fight a hard private battle, wrestling with temptations and wild beasts. Alone, hungry, thirsty, tired, and besieged by voices trying to undermine the Voice he had heard at the river, he surely doubted, or came close. Maybe he’d misunderstood: maybe he should be a carpenter after all. Mark’s version of this story doesn’t detail the temptations or Jesus’s responses. All we know is that he withstood them, because next we hear that after John was arrested, Jesus goes to Galilee and begins his public ministry. Those desert days gave Jesus strength and wisdom for what was to come.
This is a near-universal pattern in the life of disciples of Jesus. God calls, blesses, and sends us, but the sending often leads us into uncharted desert lands. It is only later, after we have persevered, that we realize how the desert has prepared us for the fruitful ministry that follows.