I’m sure many people here know Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are. Max, a small boy in an animal costume, runs riot round his house until his mother tells him he’s a wild thing and sends him to bed without his supper. But in his room a forest grows, and a boat appears and Max sails away to a distant island “where the wild things are”. They have a wonderful wild rumpus together, until Max starts to feel a bit lonely, and wants to be where “someone loved him best of all”. So he sails home to his room, and there is his supper on the table, where his mother has left it for him – “and it was still hot”, says the story. What seemed like years was really only a short time. But in that time Max had found out a little about his own wildness, and realised that while it might seem like fun for a bit, being with “someone who loved you best of all” was far better in the long term.
I can’t help thinking of that book whenever we come to the beginning of Lent and to the story of Jesus going into the wilderness, because this too is a place “where the wild things are”.
“Wilderness” is a word we’re especially familiar with here in Seal, of course, because it is the name of what was once the big estate where the lords of this particular manor lived. It was given that name in the late seventeenth century, probably because it contained a deer park, a place where the wealthy could hunt, without having to cope with the vagaries of real wild places. Wildernesses like this became very fashionable in the century that followed, with artificial lakes and grottoes. Some estates even hired what were called ornamental hermits to live in caves in their grounds to add to the effect. They were paid quite well, on the condition that they didn’t shave and maintained an air of elegant melancholy. It’s an idea if you’re looking for a new job…!
Wildernesses were all the rage, but they were a bit like Disneyland or Center Parcs, places where the wildness was safely contained and domesticated.
By the early nineteenth century, the Romantic movement in art had begun to glamorise wild places. The Lake District and the Scottish Highlands became holiday destinations, places to visit, preferably with a comfortable carriage and some servants to carry your picnic. It was an antidote to the Industrial Revolution, for those who could afford it, a way of escaping the ever-expanding, dirty cities. But those who had to scratch a living from the harsh terrain of these wild places all year round knew that they weren’t romantic at all. They were unforgiving places, places of danger, places not to be treated lightly, just as they’d always been.
Romanticising the wilderness is a modern phenomenon, then, in the scale of human history. Our medieval, and more ancient, ancestors would have been baffled at the idea of taking a holiday in the wilderness, or seeing it as a place of beauty and peace. Wilderness, for them was a place of danger, not only physical, but also spiritual. It was a place where wild things were – wild weather, wild animals, and demons too.
So when we hear of Jesus going out into the wilderness it’s really important that we understand that it wasn’t for a bit of quiet reflection and peace. As the beginning of today’s Gospel reading pointed out, he went “to be tempted by the devil,” not to escape what threatened his ministry, but to confront it. You don’t have to believe in a literal devil to understand what Jesus went through. He had to sort out how he was going to carry out his mission, and that meant looking very closely at his own motivation. Was it all going to be about miracles, to make people love him? Did he think God would never let anything bad happen to him? Was his goal going to be secular power and glory? He could have set off on any of those paths, but he rejected them all, and instead took a route that would involve sacrifice, humility and costly love. In the end, the wildest things Jesus wrestled with and defeated weren’t supernatural beings, or savage beasts, or harsh physical conditions, but his own desires and fears, and it would matter that he had done. He went into the unknown, wild territory of the desert to prepare himself for the unknown, wild territory of his ministry and the wildest of all, of his death on the cross.
There are wild things in the other readings we heard today too. Eve comes face to face with a wild animal in the Garden of Eden. All the animals were wild at this point, of course, but this one, the serpent, was particularly crafty, capable of outwitting the trusting, naïve human beings he came across in the Garden. He knew the weak spots of the people God had made, and tapped into what might be seen as their perfectly good and worthy desires. What was wrong with knowing good and evil? What was wrong with wanting to be wise, like God? Eve was out of her depth. Unlike Jesus, she hadn’t got the skill or experience to recognise the trick that was being played on her. There were wild things in her own heart, her desire for knowledge and power, which she hadn’t got to know yet, and the result was disaster.
In the letter to the Romans, the wild things aren’t animals or demons. They are the power of sin and death, which wreak havoc in us. We are all born into a world which is tangled and scarred. None of us, however good by nature, however lovingly brought up, manages to avoid doing things wrong, being mean, hitting out when we feel threatened, clinging to things we should be sharing, because we grow up in a world that is already bent out of shape and mangled . And we then mangle it in our own way for the generations that come after us. The “wild things” we need saving from are the things which lurk unacknowledged in our hearts, waiting to ambush us when we least expect them. It’s as the life of Jesus takes root in us, says Paul, that these wild things can be recognised, named and known, that we can be straightened out and untangled, made right again.
Lent is a time when, traditionally, we try to go out into the wilderness in some way with Christ, to share some of what he experienced. We give things up, or take things up. We give to charity or go to study groups. But our “wilderness” experiences can very easily be no more real than those eighteenth century ones I talked about earlier, a Disneyland pilgrimage along a carefully pre-planned route that will bring us right round to where we started, unscathed but also unchanged.
Perhaps we’ve given up chocolate, or alcohol, because that’s what we always do during Lent. We know we can manage it. It’s only six weeks, and though there might be some tough times along the way, we know that when we get to Easter Day we can stuff ourselves with Easter eggs or crack open the gin bottle and think, “thank goodness that’s over for another year”. There’s nothing wrong with giving up chocolate or alcohol, of course. Our bodies will probably thank us for it. But if that’s all we do, it probably won’t make much difference to our souls. If we want real change in our lives, we’ll need to ask, “What is it about chocolate, or alcohol, which might get in the way of my relationship with God and with others? Why do I need to give this up?” We need to go out into the territory in us that isn’t tamed and known. We need to talk to the wild things that lurk there, just as Jesus talks to the wild thing, Satan.
It might be that chocolate is a comfort food that helps us to endure a difficult situation at work or home. If that’s the case, fasting from it is only really going to help if we also face the “wild thing” in our lives – that situation we’re being worn down by – and see what we can do permanently to change it.
It might be that alcohol is a prop we reach for in social situations, because we don’t feel confident enough to mix with others without it. If that’s the case, fasting from it will only make a difference if we use this time to confront the “wild thing” that is our lack of self-confidence.
It might even be that we discover that giving up things which we know we can do without is really just an easy substitute for giving up something else in our lives which we feel we can’t. The question isn’t just what we should do to observe Lent, but why we should do it, which wild places it will lead us into, which wild things it will bring us face to face with.
Lent is a time of self-discipline, and discipline often has a very negative vibe. We think it’s about punishment. But in fact discipline really means “learning”. The disciples were learners. Whatever we give up or take up during Lent should enable us to learn something we didn’t know already, and learning always means going out beyond our comfort zone, into the wild places, where the wild things are, the things we don’t understand about ourselves and so can’t yet control. And if we find something that we can’t deal with on our own, Lent’s a good time to talk to someone else about it. I’m always happy to listen – just ask!
Max, that little boy in the story, went “where the wild things are”, and he learned from his time in his own “wild place” that there was someone who “loved him best of all”, even when she was telling him off. He couldn’t really have learned that any other way. And when he got back, there was his supper, the nourishment he needed, “and it was still hot.” The promise of Lent is that if we have the courage to face whatever the real wild things are in the real wildernesses of our lives, we too will find ourselves fed with the supper that love provides, the Bread of heaven , the food we really need.