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Following an Example of Preparation

A sermon on Mark 1:9-15

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash.]

Forty days. Forty days the text tells us that Jesus spent in the wilderness being tempted by Satan.

Forty days that mimic, in their number, the days that Noah and his family watched the waters pour down and drown the earth.

Forty days that echo the forty years the Israelites spent wandering in the wilderness because they had not trusted God to lead them to victory when they first approached the Promised Land.

Forty days that set, for us, the parameters of our Lenten practice of preparation for Holy Week, as we imitate Christ’s time preparation for his public ministry.

Forty days… and Mark covers it in three short sentences:

At once the Spirit forced Jesus out into the wilderness.

He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan.

He was among the wild animals, and the angels took care of him.

That’s it! Should be a short sermon this week!

Especially because I have this whole thematic preaching plan for the season of Lent that sort-of pre-determined my focus for each sermon:

You see, the first reading each Sunday in Lent this year will be taking us through the various covenants, or promises, of God to the Israelite people.

So, I decided I was going to pair that with an exploration of the five promises that we make when we confirm our baptisms: one each week.

And I outlined it all out, figuring out which gospel reading sort-of topically matched with each of the baptismal promises.

And, in that planning it absolutely made sense that on the first Sunday of Lent, (when we, by the way, hear the story of Jesus’ baptism to set up the whole theme), as we are starting our forty-day journey of Lent, just as we hear about Jesus’s forty days in the wilderness, that we should focus on the baptismal promise to “serve all people following the example of Jesus.”

It all looked so clear and organized in my Lenten Planning documents… until I started working on this week’s sermon, and I looked at those three short sentences about Jesus’s forty days in the wilderness and asked myself… how do I find an example to follow in that?

Especially because Jesus is actually demonstrating very little personal agency in those three sentences!

He is forced into the wilderness by the Spirit.

And he is tempted by Satan.

And he is taken care of by the angels.

So the example is…be passive? That doesn’t seem right.

Not to mention that the baptismal promise is not just follow the example of Jesus…. It is serve all people following the example of Jesus.

And… as it happens, there were no other people out in the wilderness with Jesus.

At that point I was starting to think that the sermon was not only going to be super short, but also fairly incoherent.

But I took a breath. And I took a step back. And I tried to look at the whole picture.

My thematically-oriented mind had focused in on the time in the wilderness, because that is the 40 days that Lent is based on… but our gospel for today is bigger than that.

And the lectionary selection includes the scene of Jesus baptism before the wilderness, and the scene of his initial proclamation of God’s kingdom in his public ministry when he returns from the wilderness, because these scenes are all part of the same story: the story of his preparation to serve others.

So, even though I did not plan it this way, my time with our gospel story this week has actually taught me quite a bit about what is involved in serving all people following the example of Jesus.

The first lesson being is that our service starts before we encounter a single need in the people around us.

If we do indeed wish to serve as Jesus did, then that means that we begin with intentional preparation.

We can’t just jump in assuming that we have all the answers and know what to offer another person, much less “all people.”

If even Jesus, Son of God, source of all creation, needed to prepare for his public ministry, marked as it was by his ability to see and respond to the needs of those around him, then we do as well.

And the preparation depicted in today’s gospel suggests some of the lessons we might need in order to follow Jesus’ example in service.

In Jesus’s baptism, we see his willingness to come alongside others in their vulnerability and brokenness.

The baptism of John was not the adorable photo op of precious babies in satiny-white gowns that can mark our experiences of baptism. It was a baptism of repentance.

The people flocking to John at the Jordan came confessing their sins: confronting their guilt, and their shame, and their need for God to transform them.

And when Jesus arrived, instead of claiming the superiority that John had proclaimed for the one who would come after him… Jesus joined the people in the river.

He went down into the muddy water with them, sharing in their sense of need, making no distinction between himself and those to whom he was sent. If we want evidence that “he gets us,” it’s right there in the waters of the Jordan.

Immediately after that experience of solidarity, Jesus was then sent into the wilderness, and I think the lesson there was one of dependence.

Jesus was forced away from the relative safety of society, knowing he could not meet his own physical needs in the isolation and exposure of the Judean desert.

And he faced temptation from his enemy in that depleted state.

Mark does not give us any details of that interaction, because the nature of the temptation is not the point of his story.

The point is Jesus’s weakness. He was alone, exposed, attacked, surrounded by wild animals… and he needed the angels to take care of him.

If I had asked any of you before worship today what you would need to do to prepare for a life of service, I very much doubt that any of you would have said:

“I would need to strip away all sources of strength in my life, really wear myself down to the point where I couldn’t even take care of myself.”

Of course you wouldn’t! We all believe – with good reason – the oxygen mask metaphor. When crisis comes, we need to put on our own masks first. We need to keep ourselves strong so that we have the strength to care for others.

But there’s another way of seeing that metaphor: it’s a reminder that we need the mask. We need a source of renewal and life-giving air that comes from outside ourselves… and we need to KNOW that we need that source. Otherwise, we might try to hold our breath.

That’s what Jesus learned, at the spirit-deep experiential level during his time of preparation in the wilderness. He learned that his strength alone was not enough. He needed to depend on the help God provides.

And I think that lesson is why he could do what he did when he left the wilderness.

There are just four words of transition before Jesus’s work of service starts… before he begins announcing God’s good news… just four words… but they are significant words:

“After John was arrested.”

This is the first foreshadowing of what Jesus is moving towards… the confrontation with those in power who would eventually arrest and execute Jesus himself.

But even so, those words are the introduction to the life of service that will carry Jesus through to the cross… and they give profound weight to the message that he proclaims:

“Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change you hearts and lives and trust this good news!”

Trust is an easy word to say, and to exhort others to embrace. “Just trust me.”

But Jesus isn’t just saying it. He is doing it. The moment he begins to speak he is leaning into trust that the God whose message he is sharing will not abandon him.

He can turn toward the needs of the people around him because he has total trust that God is turned toward him.

Forty days, in just three sentences (and two or three more tacked on on either side).

It doesn’t seem like that would offer much of an example to follow in learning how to live into our baptismal promise to serve all people.

But it offers us some powerful lessons about how we can prepare ourselves to serve:

Come alongside those who are vulnerable, with no illusion of our superiority.

Learn dependence on God, with no illusion of our self-sufficiency.

And lean into trust that we can do whatever God calls us to do in service to the world God loves, because God is there with us.

Thanks be to God.


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