Finding Jesus in the Wilderness


A Sermon on Mark 1:9-15

Early in my time here at Abiding Peace, I had a conversation with one of you about the words of the Lord’s Prayer – specifically about the petition that God “not lead us not into temptation.”

This person asked whether this prayer is effectively saying that we think God would lead us into temptation. As though God would intentionally put us in situations where we will be enticed into evil, a kind of Divine entrapment. And moreover, that the necessary remedy for this danger, is for us to ask God NOT to lead us there. That, in some way, we have to beg God to do right by us.

And that … feels wrong. It is inconsistent with our theology of Grace, and the revelation of the Cross that tells us God reaches into our mess and our guilt and our pain to pull us out! God doesn’t push us in! If I remember correctly, I think that’s pretty much the response I gave in the conversation about the Lord’s Prayer.

But I have a problem … I have today’s gospel text, in which Mark tell us (as do Matthew and Luke in their gospels) that the very first thing God’s Spirit does after descending on Jesus in his baptism, is to drive Jesus into the wilderness for 40 days, where he is tempted by Satan.

And, yes, technically it is Satan who does the tempting… but it is God’s Spirit who drives Jesus into that situation. The way Mark tells it, Jesus is not just lead there… the language in the text has an undertone of violence.[1] Jesus has zero choice in the matter. He is forcibly thrown into the wilderness; into a place of desolation, and vulnerability, and aloneness where dangerous wild beasts surround him, and the Enemy of all Enemies harasses him.

WHAT is God doing?! WHY is this necessary?!

I have asked parallel questions in the silence of my heart more times than I like to think about recently…

I’ve asked them when I get a call about one of you facing an unexpected medical crisis, or the loss of a loved one taken too soon;

I’ve asked them when I see the evidence of gender- or race-based violence that are still so rampant in my country in 2018, and for which there appear to be a lot of defenders, including in the Christian church;

I’ve asked them when friends share with me about heartbreak for a child being bullied, or a sibling who seems lost, or a seemingly endless battle with depression or anxiety;

And, of course, I asked them this week. When I heard about 17 dead at a High School. And saw the images of grieving parents with ashes smudged on their foreheads. And, then, when I was drawn into the social media vortex of self-righteous condemnation and dismissive defensiveness that does not seem to be getting us ANY closer to a society where innocent people DON’T regularly get mowed down by guns in the hands of angry men.

And I want to cry out: “God, what is going on? There is wilderness everywhere I look, and it hurts, and it’s dangerous, and I don’t understand why?

Why so much pain?

Why so much vulnerability?

Why did You promise to not destroy the world by flood again, but left so many other ways for us to be hurt or to hurt each other?

These questions are made all the harder by my skepticism about faith-filled aphorisms that find “redeeming value” in tragedy. There is this weird Christian arithmetic that assumes every negative event must, somehow, be balanced out by a “greater good.” Which can have the effect of telling the suffering that their pain isn’t as important as whatever God is going to achieve as a result.

But that doesn’t match my understanding of Jesus – the One who knows our pain from the inside, because he cried out in agony from the cross. Jesus doesn’t offer us false platitudes about “everything happening for a reason.” NO. Jesus weeps with us. Jesus knows the wilderness is real. He struggled there. He faced trials and temptations there.

Which is why Jesus is the only guide I can follow into the wilderness. I trust him to show me what the wilderness can offer… not as a compensation for, or balance to its pain and danger, but in spite of it, ... and maybe through it.

Because we have to go through it. One thing Jesus teaches me about the wilderness, is that it can’t be traversed in a weekend. He spent 40 days there. I can’t imagine that time went quickly. I had my house to myself for all of about 36 hours this weekend, and I discovered how quick I was to interrupt the silence with whatever convenient distraction was close to hand.

But the real wilderness strips away those distractions. The wilderness shows us the lie behind all the comforts to which we cling. The objects of idolatry in which we put our trust and hope; or in which we bury our attention so that we won’t notice our lack of trust and hope.

This loss of our sources of comfort and distraction is one of the things we fear about the wilderness, but maybe in the barrenness there is a gift, because it shows us the thing we can’t lose.

The only thing Jesus took with him into the wilderness was the affirmation he received at his baptism: The assurance that he was a child of God. And that he was Loved. The same promises that we each receive at our baptism.

That doesn’t feel like enough to survive on, but when we spend real time in the wilderness it strips everything else away. And when our sources of security and comfort are gone we discover that our identity as loved children of God is the only thing that CAN’T be taken away. It is permanent. It is WHO we are, regardless of were we are, or how we feel.

And that identity assures us that we are never alone in the wilderness. Not only because Jesus walked the road before us, but also because he wasn’t alone.

God’s Spirit may have driven Jesus into the wilderness, but I don’t believe for a minute that the Spirit just dropped him off and hightailed it back to civilization. The Spirit called for angels to serve Jesus, so that he could make it through his ordeal. The Spirit didn’t magically transport him back to safety, but neither would it let him starve, or die of thirst, or succumb to depression, or fall into temptation.In the midst of the barren wasteland, God provided for Jesus’ needs.

And in that provision, I do see a redeeming value in the wilderness’s desolation: It is through the loss of access to all of the comforts that define the not-wilderness, that we can recognize where our trust really belongs. In the wilderness, we can see our needs being met in a way that only makes sense if God is behind it. We can learn to trust that God sends angels into the wilderness.

Which, in a way, is what our wilderness guide says when he finally makes it out. He says

“God has come near. Turn around. Trust.”

I realize that this is now the fourth sermon since the beginning of January in which I have drawn our attention to Mark 1:15, but that’s how important Jesus’s summary of the gospel is.

God is near. Change your perspective. Trust.

That’s the summary of Jesus’s teaching in Mark, and it is also the summary of what Jesus learned in the wilderness. Because that is what he experienced.

God is near. That changes our perspective on everything, from deprivation, to violent threats, to temptations. This is a God we can trust. Even in the wilderness

Which is not to say, the wilderness is easy. I still struggle with praying “lead us not into temptation.” I much prefer the translation that has us pray “save us from the time of trial.” But, on the other hand, my lived experience is not an experience of being saved from trial. My life, and my experience of our world, is that there is a fair amount of wilderness, and trials and, yes, even temptations.

No matter how I phrase it, I can’t pretend like I’m not desperate for God’s protection. I can’t domesticate the wilderness or decorated it in a way that denies the intrinsic barrenness and danger. But, as Debie Thomas writes in reflecting on this passage, “our deserts can become holy even as they remain dangerous.”[2]

Because we find Jesus in the wilderness, and we can follow his example.

We can engage the struggle that confronts us for as long as we find ourselves in the wilderness;

We can hold to the one thing the wilderness can’t strip away: our identity as beloved children of God;

We can receive the service of the angels God sends;

and when we get a chance to witness, we tell the good news that we CAN trust God through anything, because God has provided for us in the wilderness.

Thanks be to God.

[1] ἐκβάλλω, ekbállō – See the extended definitions provided at: https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G1544&t=RSV

[2][2] https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=1660

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