Wilderness Joy: A Baccalaureate Address from Dr. Tom Kennedy

“The time has come to rethink wilderness.” That’s how William Cronon’s “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature” opens. I hope you’ve read Cronon’s essay while you have been at Berry. (If you haven’t, well, there’s a new assignment for you. We can have a quiz first thing Saturday morning.)

         Today, we think of wilderness as pure nature, a wilderness as a set apart place, an Eden. A place we protect and go to to escape the corruption, the busyness and ugliness of our everyday lives. Cronon’s concern is that if we think of wilderness as nature at its most pure, nature at its untouched best, we will neglect the nature in front of us and beside us; we will focus our attention on the wild areas and not on nature living and growing all around us. “Notice what is wild in that tree in your yard, in that bird you hear singing,” Cronon suggests. “Care for nature, care for wildness, care for wilderness wherever it appears.” “If wildness can stop being (just) out there and start being (also) in here, if it can start being as humane as it is natural, then perhaps we can get on with the unending task of struggling to live rightly in the world—not just in the garden, not just in the wilderness, but in the home that encompasses them both.”

         Those are wise words. To live rightly and well, we must be mindful of the wilderness, the wildness, where we live. That’s true of a different type of wilderness as well, of the wildernesses we experience in our everyday lives. A wilderness where we are not quite at home, where things are not right. Wilderness as a broken place which may further break us. A place and time where, if we are paying attention, we find ourselves put to the test and our lives hard. A hungry, lonely place. To live rightly and well, we need to be mindful of this wilderness, too.

         Most of you came to Berry four years ago expecting the Berry Bubble, grateful for the Berry Bubble—even if you weren’t as grateful for that Bubble as your parents. You came for the Bubble, but this last year and a half we’ve had not a bubble, but a wilderness. A wilderness of uncertainty—where am I going? When will this end and things return to normal? A wilderness of fear and anxiety. A wilderness of anger. A wilderness of masks and social distancing and too little contact, too little touch of those around us. A wilderness of the dark clouds of global climate change looming ever above us as we wander in and through and around the horrible destruction of Covid-19. Wandering lost, without a map, in our nation and on our campus as we have tried to make sense of racial injustice and one black death after another, death dealt by people who are supposed to protect us, as we have asked ourselves, “Do we really believe that Black Lives Matter?” A wilderness of wondering and wandering along our southern borders as our officers, people representing you and me, tore children from the loving arms of their brown parents who wanted for their children what I wanted for my children, what every good parent wants for his or her children, a safe place to raise a child. Do we really care about all children, all families? Wandering through an election with half the nation demonizing the other half of the nation, and with those who professed the deepest loyalty to a President displaying the greatest contempt for our Constitution and our Capitol and disregard for our national well-being, for our democracy. How do we make sense of things, how do we find our way through the apathy, the hatred, the horror? If we have been paying attention, we know the wilderness in which we have wandered, hungry and alone. Our wilderness may have been, may be, a Berry wilderness, but it is still a wilderness.

“When we are lost, hungry, and alone, it’s good to have a guide.”

         When we are lost, hungry, and alone, it’s good to have a guide. So, let’s start with a biblical text about wilderness, a passage in Luke just before Jesus’ first sermon, the inaugural sermon of his ministry which we just heard read. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Jesus preached. “God has sent me to the poor, to heal the broken, to free those locked in chains, to bring vision and clear sight to the blind, to deliver those who are crushed—crushed by others, crushed by systems, and crushed by the sadness, and sorrow, and worry that can bring one down. God has sent me,” Jesus declared, “to proclaim God’s favor, God’s blessing, God’s healing of this broken world.” Or, as the Apostle Paul summarized what Jesus preached, “The Kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

         Before that sermon, according to Luke, Jesus was in a wilderness, led there by the Spirit for 40 days of fasting, 40 days of wandering, lost and alone, without normal food, normal friends and companions. Forty days in a dry, threatening wilderness, alone and hungry.

         The devil, Luke tells us, approached the weak and worried Jesus and said to him, “Jesus, you must be hungry. Hungry for food. Hungry for companionship and friends. Hungry for happiness. You can escape the wilderness, Jesus. Turn this stone into a dozen hot Krispy Kreme donuts and then you will have food and more friends than you can feed. Turn this stone into money and you can have more food and more stuff and more friends, if you like. Buy a Mercedes-Benz S Class sedan, because friends follow a man who rides in luxury. Then you will be happy.

         Hungry and alone in the wilderness, Jesus tells the devil, “The Kingdom of God is moral uprightness, the Kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, not hot Krispy Kremes and luxury sedans and the stuff that money can buy.”

         “Hmmm,” says the devil. “Perhaps you are right, Jesus. Money can’t buy love…. But, power can! Worship me, and I will make you more powerful than anyone else. Everyone will either fear you or want you for their friend. It’s power you really want, and I got it.” But Jesus, still hungry and alone, responds, more or less, “The Kingdom of God is not wealth, and it’s not power, and influence, and control. The Kingdom of God is moral uprightness, the Kingdom of God is justice, and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Jesus, hungry and alone in the wilderness, shows the devil that God’s project, God’s Kingdom, the healing and re-creation of all things, comes not in arrogance, not in strength and power, but in humility, in meekness, in weakness. The Kingdom of God is justice and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.

         A third time, the devil comes to tempt the hungry, the lonely, Jesus. “God loves you Jesus. God has made you a leader. God trusts you to build the kingdom you want to build, to follow your passion. Show God how much you trust your plan, how much you appreciate God underwriting your project, by throwing yourself off these spires. The God who loves you will surely protect and save anyone who believes in themselves as much as you. Go for it, Jesus!” But Jesus replies, “Not my will, but God’s will be done. Not my project, but God’s project—of healing and re-creating this broken world. I have come to do God’s will, to enact God’s project, to love and care as God loves and cares.” The Kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

         So, the devil leaves Jesus, and Jesus leaves the wilderness and goes to Nazareth where he preaches, “The Spirit of God, the same Spirit that sent me into the wilderness, where I fasted, where I was tempted by riches, and power, and tempted by the freedom to do whatever I wanted, whatever projects I chose…, the Spirit of God has sent me to you to proclaim God’s project, to alert you to what God is doing in the world.” Jesus says, “I have come to those whose skin is broken and rubbed raw by their chains; I have come to release the captives.” Jesus says, “I’ve come to bring sight, to bring vision, to the blind.” Jesus preaches, “I’ve come to the broken-hearted and those whom others have crushed, to deliver them from their misery, to tell everybody that God is doing a great thing. God is healing this broken world. Do not despair,” the man of sorrows says to us. “Do not despair. The Kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

         “The Kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Joy in the Holy Spirit. Joy in the Holy Spirit? What is the Apostle Paul talking about? Look at our recent wilderness and our wandering. Joy? Isn’t this just Christian escapism? “The world sucks big time, but not to worry. You and I have a place in gloryland that outshines the sun?” Is that how it goes? Is that our good news?

         That’s not what Jesus is saying. That’s not what Paul is saying. They are advocating not escape from our broken wilderness of a world, but a love for this broken world and a joy in the Holy Spirit. Jesus in his life, and Paul in his witness, profess that God is with us, God is for us in our wildernesses and that God offers us a way through the wilderness, a way through the wrong, the injustice, the hatred and harm we see in our world. That way is joy.

         Think about joy. This joy that Jesus has, this joy Jesus must have, for how else could he wander, hungry and alone, and resist hot Krispy Kreme donuts? Or a luxury car? Or a power that others would envy and admire? How else, how unless the Kingdom of God is joy in the Holy Spirit, could Jesus experience his wilderness of sorrow and refuse to despair and say, instead, “Not my will, but God’s will.” How else can you and I resist the despair that has dogged us many times in our life, but, especially persistently, this last year and a half? Joy.

         We can distinguish between negative emotions, things like fear, and sadness, and grief, and irritation, emotions it is unpleasant to feel, and positive emotions, emotions that are pleasant, of which joy is a prime example. We enjoy rejoicing. We look forward to feeling joy. You expect to feel joy on Saturday. We feel joy, as philosopher Robert C Roberts puts it, when something we care about, some concern we have, is satisfied, when something we are disposed to welcome comes about or we think has good prospects for coming about. You have wanted to graduate. On Saturday it will be so, and that will bring you joy. People who love you will feel joy on Saturday because you are one of their cares and your receiving your degree is something they care about. That’s your parents, perhaps, your grandparents. Your kid brother, by contrast, will feel joy if he sees you trip walking down the ramp. We have a special name for that type of joy: schadenfreude, joy in someone else’s bad fortune.

         Now, back to Jesus and his joy in the wilderness. His joy in his sacrifice, in his suffering and death. What sense does it make to think of Jesus as joyful? Jesus is hopeful, full of hope. Roberts suggests that hope is a type of joy, a sub-species of joy. Hope is having a concern for the future and believing that the prospects for the future satisfy that concern. Hope is caring about the future and believing that all shall be well again. Hope is the joy you feel upon being offered a job that, so far as you can tell, is just what you’ve been looking for. You see the world as a place in which your concern, a job you love, will be satisfied.

         And now we can see the hope, the joy, that sustained Jesus through the wilderness, through his anxious night of prayer, through his trial, his crucifixion, his death. And now we can see the joy, the hope, that can sustain and energize us in our wilderness wanderings. Jesus sees what God is doing in the world, sees what God is doing in the lives of people who love God, what God is doing to heal, to re-create, to make new our broken selves, our broken world. That is the hope of Jesus, that God will finish this work of healing that God has begun.

         Jesus sees a different future than the one to which the wilderness leads. He sees the kingdom of God in which the gospel is preached to the poor, the brokenhearted are healed, prisoners are set free to love God and to love all that God has created, the blind are given sight to see the wonders and the woes of God’s amazing creation. Jesus sees God lifting up those who have been beaten down. Jesus sees that the acceptable year of the Lord, the time of God’s redemption and re-creation of all things is near enough for us to touch. That is Jesus’ hope: the kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. That is Jesus’ joy: the kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Behold, God is making all things new. Look, can you see what Jesus sees? Can you see what God is doing!

         Look, my Brothers and Sisters in Christ, and see, and may that hope, that joy, sustain you and energize us as we wander through our wildernesses, seeing what God is doing, seeing what God’s projects and plans are and aligning our own projects and plans, our loves, with God’s. Brothers and Sisters in Christ, may God heal our eyes so that we see what God is doing—for us, and for the poor, for the brokenhearted, for the captives, and the crushed. And seeing, pray God that we may hope, that we may act as agents of God’s kingdom, agents of justice and peace, agents of joy in the Holy Spirit. Come Lord, and open to us the Gates of your Kingdom. Amen.

Thomas “Tom” D. Kennedy joined Berry in 2007 after years at Valparaiso University in Indiana. Kennedy has also taught at Calvin College, Hope College, and Austin Peay State University. At Berry, he is responsible for the oversight of the Evans School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences and for courses in philosophical and Christian ethics.

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