The Wilderness is Not what We Think

Mark 1:9-15

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. (Read the whole passage here.)

Sermon

We have come a long way from the mountain of Transfiguration. Last week, Jesus stood on the mountain with Peter, James and John, and was changed into dazzling white. Moses and Elijah showed up and God spoke to all gathered there. Yet, by Wednesday, we had come down from that mountain, and we were faced with our own sin, our brokenness and our mortality on Ash Wednesday. And as we begin Lent, Jesus is tossed into the wilderness. 

This pattern of Transfiguration to Ashes to Wilderness is one that we repeat each year as we move from the season after Epiphany into Lent. On the first Sunday of Lent of each year we hear the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, which sets the tone for our Lenten journey. The story of Jesus’ temptation represents both the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry, but also is the first step of Jesus’ path to the cross.

Yet, in the year of the Gospel of Mark, the story seems to lack key elements. In fact, the temptation part of the story is obscured by two stories that we have already heard in the past few weeks. In January, we heard the story of Jesus’ baptism and we heard the story of Jesus entering Galilee to preach his first sermon, “The Kingdom of God has come near to you.”

The temptation part of the story is told in only 5 words by Mark, “He was tempted by Satan.”

And that is it.

No stones to bread. No power over all the kingdoms of the earth. No jumping off the temple.

In fact, Jesus is in the wilderness for 40 days, tempted by Satan, but also hanging out with the wild beasts and being waited on by Angels. Where is the fasting and praying? Where is the stoic resolve? Where is our example of resisting temptation? Mark’s version sounds almost like a spa vacation.

However, Mark remembers something that we have largely forgotten over time. The wilderness is not the place of trial and tribulation that we imagine. In fact, before Jesus arrived on the scene, the wilderness was actually the place where God met God’s people. God sent Abraham into the wilderness with the promise of land and descendants. Moses and the Israelites wandered the wilderness for 40 years, while God provided water from the gushing rock, and manna and quail to eat. Elijah was sent out as young man to save the people of Israel, and along the way God provided water at the stream and food delivered by wild ravens.

While the wilderness was a place fraught with danger, it was the place where God’s people met their God. God always showed up in the wilderness, and God’s people were not left to suffer alone.

When we imagine wilderness, we don’t usually think of it in these terms. We think of wilderness as the times and places, the experiences in our lives when God seemed absent. The times of illness or suffering, the times of workplace strife or family conflict. The times of addiction and doubt, of grief and depression. And yet, wilderness is no such thing. Wilderness is where God meets God’s people, while all these other things are simply part of the experiences of human life. They are part of the baggage we carry everyday.

Wilderness, as we hear about it in Mark’s gospel today, is the place where we go to leave our baggage, our troubles behind. Wilderness is where we are stripped of our burdens and our comforts, where day-to-day living, joys and sorrows, are left behind. Wilderness is where God takes us when we need to be renewed and refreshed, where we can let go and be cared for by God.

When the spirit tosses Jesus into the wilderness, it is not really about temptation like we usually hear with this story. In fact, the wilderness is the place where God goes to meet God’s people. And as Jesus waits in the wilderness with Satan, the wild beasts and the angels, there is something, or someone one curiously missing.

Human beings.

Jesus goes out to the wilderness, God goes out to the wilderness, just as God has always done and God waits. God waits for God’s people, and we don’t come. It is just the wild beasts and angels. And if there is any temptation on Satan’s part, perhaps it is tempting God to keep waiting and waiting for us. And just has God has always been, God waits for us in the wilderness. God waits the obligatory 40 days, long enough to be sure we aren’t coming.

And when God’s people don’t show up, Jesus does something new. Jesus breaks the pattern, God recognizes that waiting for us to come out to the wilderness isn’t working. We just can’t drop our baggage, we just can’t let go of life in order to find God.

And so Jesus gets up and leaves Satan, the wild beasts and the angels behind. Jesus goes to Galilee, goes to civilization, goes to where the people are. Goes to the place where they are living, where they are suffering, where their baggage is keeping them in place. God finds the people stuck in lives, stuck in their details and burdens, stuck with their obligations, their work, their family, their relationships. God comes to the place where human life is happening. God goes to where the people are and declares,

“The Kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the Good News.”

The wilderness is where God meets God’s people, and when the people won’t come to the wilderness, God brings the wilderness to us.

This is what our Lenten journey is about. God coming to us, bringing the wilderness to us. God’s coming and stripping us of our burdens, of our obligations, of our suffering and shame, of our self-centred focus. And God comes to meet us in whatever dark places we are in, whatever dusty, ashy places we exist in.

Jesus comes into our lives and delivers an ashy Lenten promise. 

Jesus promises that wherever we are, whoever we are, whatever we do, the Kingdom of God’s love is near to us, and that God’s enduring love will find us as we head toward death and resurrection. Towards crosses and empty tombs. From the first step of Lent, all the way to Easter.

Amen.

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