I hope you were able to take advantage of the beautiful weather earlier this week. I found myself with an open couple of days after the busyness of Christmas and the new year, and decided to put together an impromptu camping trip. Winter camping in Arkansas is just about the best kind there is. The cool temperature during the day makes for nice hiking, and the near-freezing nights can make for ideal sleeping conditions (if your sleeping bag is up to snuff, of course). So, last Thursday afternoon my dad and a couple of my kids packed up our gear, climbed into the car and made our way to the Richland Creek Wilderness, about an hour up Highway 7 out of Russellville. Forgive me for not getting too detailed about the exact location, because I like to think of this area as one of Arkansas’ best kept secrets. It’s remote and not often trafficked—in fact, the trail gets a little sketchy on occasion and it’s easy to wander off if you’re not paying attention. The camping spot, about an hour’s hike in, is called the Sandstone Castle—a stunning stone cliff network spanning several miles with countless caves and crevices to explore. Anecdotally, its remote location made it a popular hideout for outlaws and Civil War deserters, and I’m certain the area was occupied for generations by Native Americans.
I love the fact that the Sandstone Castle is remote and wild—it ads to the allure and majesty of the territory. I’m not sure, though, that my kids felt the same way. Remoteness can bring quiet and peace, but it can also bring anxiety—even panic—to those who are less familiar with the wilderness. As we hiked in together and distanced ourselves from civilization, I became aware of a slight uptick in worry among the kids, and I had to field questions like, “Now, what kind of wild animals are out here again?” Their granddad and I downplayed concerns about Arkansas’ coyotes, bobcats, bears, and snakes. “They’re hibernating, encounters are rare, you might hear a coyote in the distance, but it’s really nothing to worry about. They keep to themselves.” The kids seemed to take this in, reassured for the time being.
We reached our destination, found a spacious cave in witch to set up camp, and got a roaring fire going. The purposeful work of gathering firewood, scouting the caves, and building a temporary home in the wild kept everyone busy, and talk of wild animals seemed to fade away. But, after our fine dinner of ramen and cheese-filled brats, night began to fall and the concerns resurfaced. The topic of scary movies came up (thanks to granddad), and the list of wilderness worries expanded rapidly beyond what might actually be living in the woods to its more theoretical, fantastical inhabitants. At one point, one of my sons had to use the bathroom and had delayed wandering alone out into the dark for as long has he could. He eventually built up the required courage, left the cave, and about a minute later came running back in. We’ve all been there—those times when we have had to turn off the basement light at the foot of the stairs, and then we find ourselves running up as quickly as we can, certain to be grabbed from behind at any moment. When my son, out of breath, took his place again at the fire, I jokingly asked what was following him. He replied, “There were definitely some wolves and grizzlies, and I’m pretty sure I saw an alien or two.” We all had a good laugh at that. My son knew just how absurd his fears were, but he was spooked all the same.
In today’s passage from Matthew, we heard the story of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River, the event we traditionally recognize and celebrate today, this First Sunday after the Epiphany. Given the way we tend to baptize people now, from a font in the middle of a Church building, we wouldn’t typically think of a baptism story as a wilderness story—but it is. Jesus travels away from Galilee, out into the wild, wades into a flowing river, where God, descending like a dove, names him “beloved son.” And immediately following Jesus’ baptism, he is thrust out into a deeper wilderness beyond the Jordan to face his fears for forty days and forty nights. We’ll hear that part of the story in its entirety in a few weeks, when Lent begins, but today we recall Jesus’ baptism—the essential event that prepared him to face and overcome his real and imagined adversaries in the wild. The metaphorical wolves, grizzlies, and aliens did not get the best of Jesus. And, in this story, it wasn’t well-honed survival skills that saved him, it was the deep knowledge of God’s persistent, unfailing love—gained at his baptism—that enabled him to see the light, even though he was surrounded by darkness.
You and I have periods of darkness in our lives all the time. It’s one thing to hike out into the woods when the sun is shining, but it’s an altogether different affair when night falls. Wilderness experiences such as loss, grief, change, and loneliness can be debilitating. The Christian tradition, though, gives us something to grab onto when the going gets rough, or when the light gets dim. Just as Jesus was declared God’s beloved during his baptism, we are “marked as Christ’s own forever,” in ours. That man who journeyed out into the wilderness to face his fears, journeys with us wherever we go—even into the darkest of places when our fears become sharp and irrational, like when harmless bobcats and distant coyotes turn into savage wolves, grizzlies, and aliens.
The next morning, we concluded our trip with a hike to Twin Falls, about a mile on down the trail. As I’m sure you know, Arkansas has more than its fair share of breathtaking waterfalls. The Ouachita and Ozark Mountains are full of hidden hollows that take some dedication to get to—but the payoff is worth the trek. Twin Falls is my favorite, and this time of year it’s roaring, the sound reverberating through the landscape for what seems like miles.
The temperature noticeably dropped as we descended into the hollow, the morning sunlight just beginning to filter through the trees above. And then, there they were, two nearly identical 20-foot waterfalls pouring into a pristine pool below. We took some pictures—I got an impressive selfie of all of us with one of the falls in the background! And I couldn’t help but think, as sure as these beautiful and powerful waters flow, so do the waters of our baptism. Like the sound of the falls, the sound of our baptismal waters reverberates through our lives, regardless if the sun is shining or if it’s as dark as night. We are marked as Christ’s own forever—a promise of protection and love that will withstand the threat of wolves, grizzles…even aliens.
First Sunday after the Epiphany; The Baptism of Our Lord