Native Australians, the Aboriginals, are a people who, so far as I understand it, still have a rite of passage where young men are driven into the wilderness and are expected to fend for themselves for as long as six months as a way of transitioning into full manhood in the culture. They’re set up and prepared for this trip, trained and taught in the years leading up to it, and when they’re ready, according to the opinion of the chief elder, then they’re allowed to make their Walkabout.
That’s what the trip is called, a “walkabout,” and over a span of years this word has come to carry extra meaning. While it’s describing a noble and arduous undertaking, the trip of transformation and the greatest change in an Aboriginal man’s life, the word has now come to be used in a derogatory tone; in Anglo-Australian culture, it’s used to describe directionless wandering, pointless travel, a waste of time.
Jesus himself wanders into the wilderness to fend for himself for 40 days, he was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him — so says our Gospel lesson this morning — he bereft of human company, alone, without friends to fall back on, no cell-phone service, as Satan licked at his heels and helped him hallucinate bread.
It seems like a crazy thing to do after the spiritual high of baptism in the Jordan river and hearing God boom from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” We’re given, too, an outline of what Jesus is up to after this time in the desert, he went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news. So stuffed between these two activities so familiar to us, baptism, and telling the story of God’s redeeming love in our lives through evangelism, there’s that weird Walkabout.
Like the Aboriginal custom, Jesus doesn’t seem to be going anywhere in particular. None of the accounts of this event in the Gospels says something like, “On his way from Houston to Austin, he spent 40 days walking the wilderness.”
The stories in the Old Testament that set us up for today’s passage reveal something about why Jesus spends his own time on a Walkabout trek. In the story of Noah, the rain pelts for 40 days and 40 nights, Noah’s faith is wearing thin, and you wonder if his trust in God will hang on till the waters recede. And after his great mountaintop experience, Noah falls hard, not using the residue of his life to God’s glory, but lying around, drinking on the couch.
For their part, too, Moses and the Israelites struggle with trusting God’s word and his leadership while they move through the desert for a generation — 40 years. Often they cry out to God, asking, “Were there no graves in Egypt that you’ve driven us out into the wilderness to die?!” They easily lose sight of the Promised Land for which they’re bound, and their rose-colored glasses diminish the suffering they underwent for generations of oppression in Egypt.
With those stories in the back of our minds, we can see the importance of Jesus’ trip as we come to this passage. Noah, though he’s had a mountain-top experience with God, can’t quite manage everyday faithfulness when the waters ebb and life goes on as usual; Moses and the Israelites spend a whole generation as wayfaring strangers, burying their dead by the side of the road as they live their forced nomadic life, wondering loudly and often if the journey would ever end, if they’d ever get where they were going.
Jesus, in his Walkabout, right at the outset of his ministry, redeems these failed sojourn stories. His ability to withstand the temptation of trusting in his own strength rather than God’s, his determination allow anything and everything to fall away if he would just keep clinging to the truth of God’s promises; he overturns the failures of these stories and makes it to the finish line, to show where true strength lies.
To be transformed, made from one thing — a boy — into another thing — a man — on a Walkabout trial is the same as any rite of passage. You emerge from the experience changed, made into something new, if only in an aspect of your life or in a facet of a relationship. A Walkabout changes your identity; in the Old Testament, people came through trials and still clung to their old selves, unwilling to part with the person they’d been in order to receive the person God wanted them to become. In Jesus’ trial in the wilderness, he learns first hand what humanity endures, and by undergoing it, he emerges to proclaim the good news of salvation in God.
What can we learn about what happens to Jesus when he undergoes this rite of passage, this change? What changes about Jesus, and what stays the same? What do we go through that might change us, and what does God promise us in the midst of these trials
The Gospels make clear that this Walkabout that Jesus takes isn’t just about a boy becoming a man or about letting Satan take a crack at him. This Walkabout, this rite of passage, strung up between Jesus’ baptism and the beginning of his preaching and healing work, is about God coming close to humanity.
One thing that we see in the Old Testament stories of Noah and Israel, one thing that we know all too well in our own lives, is the theme of feeling alone, of wondering if God has forgotten about us, of thinking perhaps we’re better off on our own, of determining that the world might be onto something rather than this inconvenient system of surrender and powerlessness and humility.
Have you ever been wandering around in the wilderness? Has there ever been a time when you didn’t know where you were going and God seemed to be giving you a busy signal, and your companions were dropping like flies, and your canteen was out of water to quench your thirst?
Have you ever found yourself abandoned by loved ones, disowned or forgotten, in pain from a tumor or an organ that wouldn’t cooperate, left gasping from an emotional wound or a deep psychological scar? Then, you’ve been on Walkabout, too.
Each and every one of us has had our own season in the wilderness, and Lent is the time which the church sets aside to honor that struggle each year. Some years you might remember an intense period in your life a few months ago, maybe this time around you’re coughing up sand and shielding your face from the scorching wind right now, wandering in your desert. Other years you might have some hard-won hope, a cherished deep-breath at an oasis in the desert, a momentary break from being a wayfaring stranger yourself.
This morning, I’ve been using the word Walkabout in a more positive light, holding this word in reverence for the suffering and work that Jesus underwent as he entered into our human experience, being tempted like Noah to forget God’s great power, being enticed like the Israelites to wish for the way things used to be, though they could never go back.
Rather than a waste of time or a worthless detour, our own struggles and suffering and sin can be melted down by the consuming fire of God’s presence and formed into something new and beautiful.
I’ve been reading this book, Everything Happens for a Reason, and Other Lies I’ve Loved, by Kate Bowler; I’m leading a book group on it in March — so grab a copy and bring a friend to talk more about this kind of thing. She tells the story of being diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, which means it’s in more than one place in her body, she’s in her thirties and has a toddler son and a doting husband, and a tenured position at her university. What a Walkabout she’s sent on when tumors sprout up all over her body.
She admits that she had been under the impression that everything would make sense and everything in life would work out in the end, but her diagnosis challenged that shiny conviction. She describes how she learned that people get sick and people die and marriages fall apart and people are put in prison and it’s not because that’s God’s plan or because God needed another angel, or because God is punishing you. Horrible things happen because our world is broken, but the good news, the news that God in Jesus Christ proclaims in our lesson from Scripture today and that he proclaims as he works in your life and that he proclaims in the history of the world is that God is there and God will be there, no matter what happens, no matter where you go or whatever weakness befalls your body or whatever relationship in your life is torn apart, God is right next to you. Jesus has been there. You are not alone. Amen.