Hope and Help in the Wilderness

Meditation on Mark 1:9-15

The Presbyterian Church, 142 N. 4th St., Coshocton, OH 43812

Pastor Karen Crawford

First Sunday in Lent

Feb. 21, 2021

Christ in the Wilderness, 1898, by Briton Riviere

Audio of the message:

Hope and Help in the Wilderness

 “You’re not good enough.”

That’s what Gladys Aylward heard when she tried to answer the call to serve as a young missionary to China in the 1930s. The poor parlor maid from North London had accepted Jesus Christ as her Savior in her teens and wanted others to have eternal hope in Him. Gladys was rejected as a missionary by the China Inland Mission organization when she failed to make progress during a 3-month Chinese language class.

She didn’t give up. She was saying yes to God! She had a willing spirit, even as conventional doors and pathways remained closed. Gladys would find a job serving as a housemaid for Sir Francis Edward Younghusband, a British Army officer, spiritual writer, explorer of the Far East and Central Asia, and president of the Royal Geographical Society.

    Although Sir Francis did not encourage Gladys to go to China as a young woman alone, working for him allowed her to save up enough money for her journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway. After she died in 1970, The New York Times wrote of Gladys, “In 1930, a petite parlor maid told her parents: ‘Never get me out or pay ransom for me. God is sufficient.’ She then set out from London to China with a bedroll, a kettle, a saucepan, a suitcase of canned food, a little change and much religious fervor. Her zeal to carry the message of Christ to the Chinese led her to Yangcheng in northern China where she joined Mrs. Jeannie Lawson, an old‐time China missionary.

Together, they started an inn for mule drivers. The first Chinese Miss Aylward learned was a chant, ‘We have no bugs, we have no fleas. Good, good, good—come, come, come.’

“The Chinese came to eat and rest and were told simple Bible stories. Miss Aylward learned the dialects, eventually became a naturalized Chinese citizen and earned the (nickname), ‘The Virtuous One.’ Her mentor, Mrs. Lawson, died within a year of her arrival but Miss Aylward persevered as a missionary despite the fact that she hadn’t passed the missionary training course…”

In spite of being told she wasn’t qualified. Not good enough.

Gladys’ story was told by Alan Burgess in a 1957 book called, “The Small Woman.” And it was wildly romanticized by Hollywood in a 1958 movie starring a very un-Gladys-like Swedish actress named Ingrid Bergman.

The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958)

What really happened on that first journey was that when she needed help, the Lord provided it through unexpected sources. When the Russians detained her, she “managed to evade them with local help and a lift from a Japanese ship. She travelled across Japan with the help of the British Consul and took another ship to China.” (Wikipedia)

Here is the real Gladys in China in the 1930s.

After her mentor died, a government official asked her to work as a foot inspector. The dangerous job took her around the countryside to enforce the new law against foot binding.

Gladys was able to share her faith and the love of Christ as she unbound the feet of young girls. The painful, traditional practice was a mark of beauty and made a woman more desirable for marriage, while it resulted in lifelong pain and disability for women.

Gladys was often called upon to be a peacemaker. She was sent into a prison when there was a riot. Terrified, she went to witness to her God by listening to the men’s concerns. The prison warden was stealing their food and selling it. Gladys told government officials, the warden was removed, and the hungry were fed.

What gained her fame was in 1938, when, she “led almost a hundred children, mostly between the ages of four and eight, on a 100‐mile trek to safety from advancing Japanese invaders” (NY Times, 1970). This is Ingrid Bergman as Gladys with the children.

“At the end of the 27‐ day march, … the brown‐eyed, modest missionary was virtually unconscious and delirious with typhus and fever.” (NY Times, 1970) The orphans were saved.

There was always hope and help in the wilderness.


The wilderness is where the Spirit drives Jesus, shortly after he is baptized in the Jordan in our Mark reading today.

Christ in the Wilderness, 1898, by Briton Riviere

 In the wilderness, Jesus would begin his suffering and struggle to get ready to serve God with his life. So often, we focus on Christ’s divinity, as we did last week when we remembered His transfiguration. While this passage begins with his baptism and the revelation of His identity as God’s Son, it also underscores his humanity—how he is like us! Christ must be fully human to become God’s perfect sacrifice for our sakes.  Paul in 1 Cor. 5:21 says, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

God provided hope and help in the wilderness in unexpected places. In Mark 1:13, we learn that the Lord is “with the wild beasts.” Now, scholars often take that to be a threat and connect that phrase to the one that comes before it: “He was in the wilderness for 40 days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts.” But this week, when I was crunching through the snow to feed the birds and squirrels in our backyard, I began to think that the presence of “the wild beasts” may have been comforting to Jesus in his long period of isolation, just as they have been comforting to me during the pandemic.  I see something positive in the phrase when I read it with the phrase that follows: “and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

Isaiah spoke of the peace that would fall on Creation with the coming of “the root of Jesse.” When we read this passage through the lens of Christ’s fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, we have a whole new perspective on Jesus being “with the wild beasts” in the wilderness.

“The wolf shall live with the lamb,
    the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
    and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
    their young shall lie down together;
    and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.”

–Isaiah 11:6-7

And what of the angels waiting on Jesus? The word for “waiting on” is διακονέω, the root of which is the origin of our word “deacon.” If you imagine some of our deacons’ acts of love and compassion, you can imagine the angels providing more than just food! After 40 days of hunger and social isolation, they offer Christ nourishment for the mind, body, and soul. This emphasizes, once again, the humanity of Jesus, who, like us, needs many forms of help in the wilderness to ease his suffering. Hebrews 4:15 says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”

The suffering and struggle Christ endures in the wilderness is only the beginning of trials and persecution as the Son of Man obeys God in his calling to “seek and save the lost.” (Luke 19:10). Immediately following the wilderness trials in Mark, John the baptizer is arrested, and Christ’s public ministry begins. “….Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;  repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:14b-15)


Friends, each one of us has a call from God to use our gifts for His purposes. The Spirit is leading us into a wilderness that will prepare us for our ministry. Don’t be afraid. As James 1 says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Allow perseverance to finish its work, so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

Help often comes from unexpected sources, as it did for Gladys, assisted by convicts, thieves, and bandits, as well as a Chinese missionary, though the mission organization had rejected her application. Jeannie Lawson mentored Gladys in a ministry of hospitality at the inn, a place of warmth, food, and rest for the stranger and where the stories of Jesus were told in the native language of the people. The inn would also serve as a home for many orphans.

In 1950, Gladys was forced to flee China for Taiwan. She established an orphanage there and later set up a mission in Hong Kong. The one known to the Chinese as “Virtuous One” went home to be with the Lord just shy of her 68th birthday.

I know it was no accident that we encountered and were inspired by Gladys’ story in our women’s book group that meets on Thursday nights, studying Joanna Weaver’s Having a Mary Spirit.  Like Joanna, I believe God is preparing all of us to share the gospel—near and far, like Gladys. Let us seek the mind of Christ and be ready for the wilderness experience God will use to prepare us for our ministry, as the wilderness prepared our Savior, Jesus Christ for his. We have to have a willing spirit, even if conventional pathways to what God is calling us to do may be closed to us and others say we are not good enough.

Joanna Weaver writes, “…I believe God is still looking for willing people through whom He can work His purposes and perform His plans. People who say yes instead of asking how. People willing to sell all they possess in order to buy an ordinary field that just might hold the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:45-46). Mary was that kind of person. And so was Gladys Aylward.

The young missionary had no idea what lay before her when she said yes to the call of God to go to China. She had no way of knowing that because of her willingness to be spent for the Lord, Chinas heart would be turned to God… Gladys once said, “I wasn’t God’s first choice for what I’ve done for China….I don’t know who it was… It must have been a man…a well-educated man. I don’t know what happened. Perhaps he died. Perhaps he wasn’t willing…And God looked down….and saw Gladys Aylward…And God said, “Well, she’s willing.”

“I have been a fisher of men,” Gladys said in a sermon stateside in 1959 (NY Times obit, 1970). “I went to China because God asked me. I did not have missionary training or missionary status. I was answerable to Him and no one else.”

Let us pray.

Heavenly Father,  thank you for the gift of our faith, which assures us that there is hope and help in the wilderness. We hear your Son calling us to join Him there to be tested by Satan and strengthened to do your will and waited on by angels, sometimes in human form. Equip us with the message, dear Lord, of your salvation through belief in your Son’s very human experience of suffering and death for our sakes so that we may be restored to right relationship with you. Thank you for examples of missionaries, such as Gladys, who never gave up on her call, though people told her she wasn’t good enough. Let us persevere and do your work, seeking your wisdom and creativity even when conventional pathways to ministry may be closed. Let us be answerable only to you and no one else. In the name of your Beloved Son we pray. Amen.

Published by karenpts

I am the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, New York on Long Island. Come and visit! We want to share God’s love and grace with you and encourage you on your journey of faith. I have served Presbyterian congregations in Minnesota, Florida and Ohio since my ordination in 2011. I am a 2010 graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and am working on a doctor of ministry degree with Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. I am married to Jim and we have 5 grown children and two grandchildren in our blended family. We are parents to fur babies, Liam, an orange tabby cat, and Minnie, a toy poodle.

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