Somewhere along the way I picked up that the key to a good sermon was to craft a tight clear theme sentence and stick with it throughout your sermon. I sometimes succeed at this and sometimes I don’t, but when I do, I think it is something that hopefully sticks with you. Sometimes I myself don’t have a tight sentence and I leave you with many thoughts. But today, I want to leave you with one sentence or thought clearly in your minds.
Here it is: The same Spirit that descends upon Jesus at his baptism now drives him into the wilderness - and it is that same Spirit that is with you.
Keeping with the brevity of Mark’s Gospel and his somewhat truncated version of the temptation, immediately after his baptism, Jesus is driven, not just led - but driven - into the wilderness by the same Spirit that had just earlier descended upon him and conferred to him God’s profound blessings.
Jesus’ baptism came immediately before his temptation. He received his identity as God’s child. And is it possible that receiving this identity was essential to weathering the temptations and struggles to come?
Identity is something that is important for all of us. To know who we are and whose we are. To know where we come from and where we think we might be going. What do we stand for?
In Jesus baptism the heavens were torn apart and a voice shared “You are my Son, the Beloved.” Jesus’ identity became abundantly clear to those around him. It was proclaimed. In our baptism a similar identity is given to each of us. We become identified as the children of God and this identity can guide us through the challenges and struggles that await us on our journey as well. Knowing who we are gives us strength.
In Mark’s truncated version of things, these three paragraphs, there seems to be three big things: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
And immediately the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness.
And then (after the 40 days in the wilderness was over) he proclaimed the good news of God, “the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe…”
Immediately after Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. The wilderness - the place of challenge and struggle and purification and testing and temptation. The wilderness is where we are forced to see ourselves as we are, without filter or finery. It is there we wander and wait to encounter the holy. Like Jesus, we are sometimes driven against our will, by the Holy Spirit, to the wild places we would rather not go.
Why? Did Jesus need to be in the wilderness for some reason? Did this wilderness period of struggle and temptation provide something essential to his ministry or accomplish some end that isn’t immediately apparent? We don’t know for sure. Mark doesn’t say. But I don’t think the Spirits prompting is random. I imagine that the Spirit drove Jesus to the wilderness with some purpose.
And if we can imagine that, then might we also look at some of the wilderness places where we have been and where we may end up one day and wonder the same? Is there some purpose for this wilderness time?
Here is the rub. Truth be told, we rarely volunteer to go to wilderness places. We don’t often look for opportunities to struggle. Which is probably why Mark reports that the Spirit drove Jesus rather than simply made a suggestion.
And the same is true with our periods of trial, temptation, and struggle. We don’t choose these – they happen to us. Even when the challenges in front of us are of our own making – let alone those put upon us by others or the misfortunes of life – we rarely want or actively seek such hardship. But can we possible imagine ways in which the Spirit might make use of these times? (and quite honestly the knowledge or understanding may come much later, if at all)
At this point, I want to be absolutely clear: I am not suggesting that God causes us misery or suffering. Not to teach us something, and definitely not to punish us or put us in our place. I do not say nor will I ever say that God has a purpose for suffering. Notice that the Spirit doesn’t tempt Jesus, but rather drives Jesus to the wilderness. Similarly, I don’t believe that God even wants us to suffer, let alone causes suffering. But I do wonder if we can imagine that perhaps God is at work both for us and through us during our wilderness times. I do believe that it is during these times that we can be drawn closer to God - to see and experience God more closely, and to get to know ourselves better- for better or worse. God can use the wilderness to refine us.
God wants only good things for God’s children - but the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, so the wilderness served some purpose in Jesus’ life.
Wilderness times can abound in our lives. Many in our congregation are experiencing wilderness times of their own right now - sickness, isolation, personal struggles– abound. So I wonder if we can look at the struggles around us in light of this story and ask, “Even though I did not wish for this, how might God be at work through this difficult period? What can I get out of this? How might God use me to help someone else?” These kinds of questions aren’t meant so much to redeem struggle and suffering, but rather to remind us of God’s presence during those wilderness times that leave us feeling stretched beyond our abilities.
The same Spirit of God that descended upon Jesus at Baptism and drove Jesus out into the wilderness also accompanied him during that time and brought him back again.
That same Spirit accompanies you and will bring you back again.
So also, God will not abandon us during our sojourns in the wilderness but might even, from time to time, drive us there for our benefit or that of someone around us. God is, after all, in the business of taking that which seems hopeless and somehow wring from it resurrection life. And that’s not a bad thing to remember at the beginning of Lent.
Look at your struggles. Hear the promise of God’s presence with you in the midst of them. Look for God at work in and through them for the sake of this world and God’s kingdom.
There is temptation to not enter the wilderness at all. The wilderness is a scary place. I never desire to go there. But the wilderness may be calling. During this Lenten season of fasting and focus, of praying and preparing, we are tempted to simply go through the motions. We are tempted to skirt the wilderness, to turn away from encountering the wild places in our lives and in our world. But if we are to be renewed for new possibilities and prepared to hope once more, we must face and go into the wild. Throughout history we see people wrestling with God. The wandering of the people of Israel for forty years. For forty days God watched over Noah. For forty days God stood with Jesus and the angels tended him. The wilderness is a place of refining and self-discovery. We may need the wilderness. Our church, our community, our world - we may need the wilderness. We need to spend time looking at ourselves in order to find new life, new ministry, and new ways of being the people of God. During this pandemic, our world has changed. The church has changed. We may not go back exactly to what was. We need to be prayerful about this. What do we need to keep? What things may be things of the past? We long for the way things were in the past, but God may be calling us, like the people of Israel to a new future. We cannot get to the future if we do not let go of the past. God has work for us to do, and that work may begin when we are driven to the wilderness like Jesus for a time of discovery. Knowing whose we are and to whom we belong. Understanding why we are here.
In the wilderness we can discover anew the joy of being beloved.
In the wilderness we can listen for the voice of God calling us.
In the wilderness we can see Christ more clearly in the world around us.
We go because it is there that we can encounter God.
And when our time in the wilderness is over, God may be saying to each of us, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Amen.