A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY on the First Sunday of Lent, February 18, 2018 on Mark 1:9-15.
Once, while hiking deep in the heart of Texas, the shrubby, short mesquite trees had broken away, and the path that once was clear and became unmarked. In the midst of the wilderness of Texas I had been on this trail just long enough to begin to wonder if I was still on the right path, and while overlooking the Colorado River from the top of this high bluff was beautiful, the thought that perhaps I had lost my way and that I was in the wilderness alone began to worry me. Then I came upon a cairn; a cairn is a pile of rocks, balanced on top of each other. They are used by hikers to indicate to those who come after you that they are on the right path. Coming across this cairn helped me realize that I was not alone in the wilderness, even if in the moment it felt like I was.
Our gospel lesson, typical to Mark, moves quickly through a lot of action. We hear, once again, the story of Jesus’ baptism. The Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus like a dove. God speaks to Jesus and affirms his sonship. The Spirit then drives him out into the wilderness, where he spends 40 days, tempted by Satan, surrounded by wild beasts, but with angels waiting on him. Then John gets arrested. Jesus returns to Galilee, proclaiming the news about God’s kingdom being near and then offers an entrance into it: repent and believe the good news.
Being the first Sunday in Lent, it seems fitting that as we begin our walk with Christ to the cross, that we begin where he begins, in the wilderness. The wilderness in the Bible is a standard scene; it is one that indicates that the person or people found there are lonely, on the brink of isolation, or that they are no longer a part of the community. Tales of the wilderness may not hit our ears the same way it did to the first hearers of the gospel according to Mark, but when we take a second to pause and to think about what our own wildernesses might be, we are given a chance to be present with Jesus in this moment.
I don’t know about you, but I have known the wilderness.
The wilderness is the death of a child, or a parent, or a sibling, or someone else you love. The wilderness is the way illness can ravage our lives in the blink of an eye. The wilderness is the lost opportunity that seemed like a good fit. The wilderness is the 18th school shooting so far this year. The wilderness is the way in which we are so unable to communicate to each other, despite our shared faith. Our wildernesses can take on a variety of forms and shapes, but one aspect that is almost always true: in our wilderness times we feel alone.
In Mark’s version of Jesus being driven out into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan, we get no details. We don’t get the long form versions of the three varied attempts to tempt Jesus, and it could be easy to fill in the blanks. It could be easy to assume that perhaps Mark left out those details because Mark’s always in a hurry, but what if we take seriously Mark’s version of the wilderness?
What if we take Mark’s recounting of Jesus’ temptation as is and don’t feel the need to fill in the blanks? To do so would force us to keep from having something tangible to hold on to; to do so would force us to consider that perhaps the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness was not for power, or wealth, or prestige, but perhaps the temptation that Jesus went through was to believe that God has abandoned him in the wilderness?
The wilderness is full of thorns and sharp pieces and has dark corners beyond our imagination. But we also know, that in the wilderness, even in the deepest, darkest parts of our wilderness that God is present.
God is present and the temptation to believe that we are alone in the wilderness is only resolved when we are able to have faith that God and God’s kingdom are drawing near. This faith that God’s kingdom will come near and a willingness to draw near to it as well requires something of us. It requires us to be vulnerable, it requires us to acknowledge where we are. This kind of faith requires us to admit that we are scared and tired of being in the wilderness. For me, it requires that I admit my anger that mass shootings have happened so much I have a “routine” after a school shooting. To have faith that God and God’s kingdom are drawing near requires that we admit times when God’s kingdom feels very far away. It requires us to know deep within our souls that God is present even in this wilderness.
After Jesus resists the temptation to believe that God is not present in the wilderness, he returns proclaiming the nearness of God’s kingdom and tells us how to enter into it: repent and believe in the good news. There are days and times, especially wilderness times, where it is hard to believe in the good news. For Mark, the good news is always about Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ is always about the good news.
The good news that we see in Jesus’ venture into the wilderness in the gospel according to Mark is that God is with us. God is present with us, and part of our callings as Christians is to make sure that others, in their own wilderness times know that God is present with them, too. Each of us will be in a different place; some of us here in this congregation, no doubt, have only recently come out of the wilderness and some are in the midst of it. During this holy Lenten season, take stock of the good news of God’s kingdom drawing near; pay attention to ways that you can manifest the good news for the world. During this holy season, repent and believe that God is present, even in the wilderness.