Two months ago, my husband and I went to the Holy Land with a group of young clergy. It was an eye opening experience that has continued to bless me since we have returned. Something unexpected happened when I was there. I had a distinct impression of returning to somewhere familiar.
We were driving through the wilderness, and I realized through the narration of our guide, that we were in the Great Rift Valley. Now, the Great Rift Valley is the deepest and longest valley in the world. It stretches further and deeper than any other rift in the earth’s surface. And so as we drove through it, and got out to look at the wilderness, the biblical wilderness, I felt a strange sense of returning home.
See, the Great Rift Valley stretches all the way from Israel and Palestine, south through the Red Sea, through Sudan, Ethiopia, and into Kenya and Tanzania. I lived in the Great Rift Valley in Kenya for a year and a half. It looks the same. I wasn’t ready for that experience. I wasn’t ready to see the desolate hills stretch off into the distance, covered with nothing but rock and scrabble and bushes with more thorns than leaves. No one told me I was going to recognize the wilderness.
But I recognized the wilderness where Jesus was tempted, and where the children of Israel wandered for forty years. I recognized the wilderness that Jesus left, and to which he returned after he had been raised from the dead.
I wonder when else I have recognized the wilderness. Perhaps not a literal wilderness, not one where it doesn’t rain, but a season in my life where hope is scarce. Do I recognize it the same way that I recognized the land of temptation? When I arrive in the wilderness, do I feel like I have returned to somewhere familiar? Is this wilderness a place that is not quite home, but where at least I know what is going on?
Was Jesus tired after he had risen from the dead? Did he feel that he had returned somewhere familiar, but was he looking forward to returning to be with his Father, so that he could prepare a place for us? Will we feel more like we are returning home when we go out into the wilderness, or when we look forward to our new home?
For Christians, we claim that this place is not our home, but do we feel that way really? Or would we rather stay somewhere familiar, even if it is a dry, weary place. A wilderness for our souls, a not quite homecoming, that nevertheless we feel is better than venturing into the unknown.