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In the Wilderness

Reverend Philip Stringer

Mark 1:9-13

LET US PRAY: Almighty God, we pray for your living, creating presence among us today; that the worship which we offer to you may be the work of your hands.  Strengthen us in our worship, that we may be fed by you and have strength for our journey through the coming week.  AMEN

 

Are you feeling a sense of Deja vu?   You might be asking yourself, “didn’t we just have this lesson?”  Yes, we also heard it at the Baptism of our Lord.  We also had a portion of it in our gospel reading for the Third Sunday After Epiphany, too.  Three times in two months? It’s not a mistake.  


Lent is the oldest season in the church’s liturgical calendar and is often referred to as a season of “Spring cleaning,” in which we sweep out the clutter that distracts us from a life of faith.  The word, “Lent,” refers to the lengthening of days that signals the coming of spring -- it is obvious -- it is in the air.  We are on our way toward Easter, and it can’t be stopped!


So to take this springtime imagery another step, Lent is not only the time to sweep out the dusty clutter -- you might also spruce up the place with some spring flowers!  Namely, you might bring life and refreshment to your life by doing those things that nurture your faith.


We have the same gospel reading again because the focus this morning isn’t on the baptism event, but on what the baptism event leads to.  Lent is a pilgrimage season, and our gospel reading is the beginning of the pilgrimage of Jesus toward the cross.  As you and I follow Jesus’ journey throughout this season, we will explore our own journey along the way.  Life after baptism is a life lived in the wilderness.  And if there is one thing for you to remember about the message today, it is that Jesus is in the wilderness.


Jesus is in the wilderness, and that’s good news, because it’s Jesus.


Mark tells us that after Jesus’ baptism, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”  The Greek word translated as “drove” literally means “casting out” or “throwing out.”  That’s pretty rough language! Matthew and Luke are a little softer -- they say that the Spirit “led” him into the wilderness.  The first question to come to mind is wondering how many people TRULY want to be led by the Spirit if this is the place to which we are led!


Jesus is in the wilderness.  And the wilderness is a complicated place.  We are told that Jesus is met by Satan there and that he is with the wild beasts.  It is a dangerous place and full of hardship and suffering.  Luke tells us that he has no food or water.  It is a rough and rugged place.  But it’s even more complicated than that.  For the wilderness is not all bad.  Yes, the devil and the wild beasts are there -- but Jesus also meets angels there.  And following Matthew and Luke’s accounts, if the Holy Spirit leads him there, then that is to say that the Holy Spirit goes before him.  Throughout scripture the wilderness is a place of new beginnings -- a place where God is at work.


Your life is a wilderness, isn’t it.  Not all good.  Not all bad.  A place of hardship and suffering, but a place of goodness, too.  


And Jesus is in the wilderness.


This world we live in is a wilderness -- it seems more a wilderness now than it has seemed in a long time.  But Jesus is in the wilderness -- and that’s good news.

 

Jesus is in the wilderness.  And our reading tells us that while he was there he was tempted by Satan.


It is worth our taking a moment to consider what this means.  The Greek word that is used here can mean two things:  to test or to tempt.  


To test someone is not the same as to tempt someone.  A tester is not trying to make the testee fail -- they’re trying to find out what the person knows, or what they’re made of. 


A tempter, on the other hand, is trying to make the person fail.  Regardless, Jesus is the one who can withstand either.  And that’s good news for you -- because you are in the wilderness, and Jesus is in the wilderness, too.


You are born into it, like it or not.  And in your baptism, you are cast out into it -- like it or not.  Some people DON’T like it at all.  Some people want their religion to help them escape the reality of this world.  If they do good works and believe hard enough, they’ll be rewarded with a peaceful life, a good job, beautiful children, no suffering.  They are hoping that the “rightness” of their religion will spare them from the wilderness.


But that’s not really true.  Bad things happen to good people, too.  Because the wilderness is a dangerous place — and this world is a wilderness.   Jesus is in the wilderness . . . . and to those who would be his disciples, he says, “come.  Follow me.” Don’t deny that the wilderness is here.  In fact, Jesus calls us to turn to it and face It — dive into it, even. That is not simply an invitation.  You are cast there.


Jesus was cast into the wilderness.  Jesus was already in the wilderness -- he was born into it.  That the Spirit casts Jesus out into it means he has a purpose to fulfill there.  God has a plan and a purpose.

 

You are in the wilderness -- you are born into it.   But the story of your life is more than that.  As one baptized into Christ, you are thrown into it because God has a plan that is unfolding in the wilderness, and you are a part of that plan!


Don’t be afraid, though.  Jesus is in the wilderness, too.

 

While Jesus is there he is tempted by Satan.  As I have said, there are two ways to go with the translation of the world.  Here, the translators say that Jesus was tempted by Satan.  But in every other instance in the gospel of Mark, the translators prefer the term “tested.”  The difference?  In the wilderness, the one doing it is Satan.  In the other instances it is people who are testing Jesus.  Specifically -- virtually every time, it is the Pharisees questioning him.


Is it that way in your life, too?  Most of the time, it isn’t the Devil overtly tempting us.  It is people.  Maybe they are testing.  Maybe they are tempting.  You are in the wilderness, and the people who see you want to know what you are made of as a Christian.  Some want to see you fail.  But most want to see if Christianity can survive the test, because they’re looking for answers themselves.

 

When I was a pastor in Richmond, Indiana, I initiated a Police Chaplaincy Program with the city police department.  In the beginning, the officers didn’t know what to do with me, and none of them wanted me around.  They were sure that once I saw what they dealt with, and who THEY were -- I’d quickly disappear, unable to reconcile what I saw with the goody-goody world of my faith.


The shift sergeant assigned me to ride with one unlucky officer (he must have drawn the short stick).  I rode with him for 8 hours a week . . . . for three months!


But over that time, something interesting happened.  I didn’t go away.  I saw some terrible things.  In fact, there were a number of times when I jumped into a scrape with the officers -- and the word quickly spread that I wasn’t so bad after all.  Soon, if I asked to ride with an officer they would agree, and before long I didn’t have to ask to ride with an officer anymore -- they would ask for me. 


And they began to talk — to probe — to ask questions to test the waters — because they saw that I didn’t run away — and I didn’t try to pretend that it wasn’t so bad — and I didn’t even try to fix it.  I just came and was present with them in the wilderness — and brought with me an assurance that there is something bigger than the wilderness that is not afraid of it and cannot be changed by it.


 I learned in that experience that the gospel has its own power to communicate itself through us.    The officers thought that being a Christian was inconsistent with what they were called to do as policemen -- that Christianity was unrealistic.  When they saw someone come in the name of the church who didn’t run away -- when I stayed in the wilderness with them, they began to see that those ideas maybe weren’t true.  They began to consider that they didn’t have to go somewhere else to “find” Jesus -- because he comes into the wilderness to be with them.  And he doesn’t get scared away.

 

You are in the wilderness.  But don’t be afraid.  You are there because God has a work to do through you.  For Jesus is in the wilderness, too.  He came into the wilderness to give his life as a ransom for all. 

 

After 40 days, in one sense Jesus stepped out of the wilderness of Judea -- but in reality, he remained in the larger wilderness of this world to the day of his crucifixion.  And because we live in a wilderness world, Jesus is STILL in the wilderness. 


The world seems more like a wilderness today than it has in a long time.  There is a lot that seems to fly in the face of the gospel.


We were baptized into Christ to give us hope, personally, for times like these.  But also, we were baptized into Christ to be a light shining in the darkness of these times.  


It is in this time that the world may look to us and see that our hope is not in governments, or in power or our own successes or rightness.  Our hope is in Jesus, because he came into the wilderness and did not run away.  He came into the wilderness, and he stayed -- and he died -- and he rose victorious over it.  


And because we are in the wilderness, he is in the wilderness still. AMEN

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