February 18, 2018

Preached by Rev. George Yando on February 18, 2018.

Genesis 9: 8-17
Psalm 25
1 Peter 3: 18-22
Mark 1: 9-15

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Wilderness Times

Today is the first Sunday of Lent, that forty-day long season in the life of the Church when we think about the life of Jesus in His last days as He journeyed toward the cross.  Our gospel lesson this morning tells the story of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness and of the temptations He endured.  There is, however, one detail in the story – as Mark tells it – that has to make you wonder.

After Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River, Mark says, And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan…”

What are we supposed to think about this, we who pray as Jesus taught us, “lead us not into temptation?”  We like to talk about being “led by the Spirit,” as though it were some kind of mushy invitation.  What then are we to think about the Spirit of God as driving” Jesus into the wilderness, or as some translations put it, “compelling Him to go”?

It’s quite a contrast to the image of the Spirit we read about just a couple of verses earlier in Mark’s story, the Spirit that descended upon Jesus like a dove, and the voice that spoke to Him from heaven saying, “You are My own dear Son. I am pleased with You.”

Think about that for a minute: The Spirit descends with blessings, and then drives the One who was so blessed out into the wilderness, into a barren place, a dangerous place, and allows Him to be tested, tempted, put at risk.

I suspect that a lot of us see the world that way – as a place of extreme opposites: filled with good and bad, righteous and evil, safe places and scary places.  A lot of us see life that way as well: a journey filled with high moments, and good times, God given – God filled times and moments like at Jesus’ baptism, and the scene on the mountain of Jesus’ transfiguration; times when the presence of God is real, tangible, convincing and assuring.

And then there are other times, times that are more like wilderness experiences, times when we feel alone, lost, surrounded by dangers and assaulted by the temptations; sometimes the temptation to give in and take the easy way out, or to just plain give up; moments that are bad, moments when the presence of God is not in the experience at all, when we wonder if – in those other times when we have felt the presence of God – whether those times were just a dream, and the feelings just figments of our imaginations.

The reality is that both kinds of times and moments and experiences are very much a part of life – and God is present with us through them all.

The journey of Jesus in this story from Mark’s gospel is much like our own journey; it progresses through stages:

  • growing to maturity,
  • being called to do the work that God wants us to do and being equipped for that work,
  • and then the wilderness – the time for the testing of our skills, our faith, our trust,
  • followed – we pray –  by a time of truly being able to serve God and truly being effective in what we do in God’s name.

We need to be clear that when Mark talks about Jesus being driven by the Spirit to enter the wilderness, it doesn’t mean Jesus went there against his own will, that the Spirit pushed him – or dragged him – kicking and screaming into that barren place.  That is simply Mark’s way of stressing the urgency that compelled Jesus to enter and embrace the wilderness time that was before him.

I wonder if the reason why Jesus was willing to be Spirit-driven was because of his willingness to enter into the wilderness? I wonder, is it because of the closeness of his experience of God and the clarity of his vision of God’s reign helped him to see the necessity of his time of preparation there, to strengthen his determination to embrace the wilderness willingly and then later in his life, to endure his trial and his cross?

The journey of Jesus into the wilderness, and then out of it again to perform his work in the world seems to have the quality of confident direction that our journeys sometimes lack.  Perhaps his knowing the reason and purpose behind his wilderness experience enabled him to embrace it and endure it.

Certainly we know from our life experience that it helps to be prepared to enter the outdoor wilderness; it helps if we have learned the knowledge, possess the skills, and carry the equipment that we need to survive in those places.

For Jesus – as he faced the wilderness time on his spiritual journey, his knowledge of the sacred stories that he learned from his youth, and the assurance of the presence and companionship of that same Spirit who drove him into the wilderness, were the resources he needed to survive and even thrive in his wilderness time.

It’s probably most helpful for us to know what to make of the wilderness experience itself in order to be better prepared when we enter those seasons in our lives.  Wilderness times in our lives are most often experienced by us as desperate times, times when we feel most alone, lost, without a sense of purpose or direction, and without the resources we need to survive.  Mark tells us that when Jesus was led – or driven – into the wilderness, he wasn’t simply taken there, dumped, and left to fend for himself.  The Spirit made him go, but did not abandon him there.  Mark tells us angels ministered there to him; amidst the wild animals and all that posed a threat to him, He received protection and provision.  He survived because he was not alone.

What’s more, the time he spent there was not without meaning.  Mark says that immediately following His return from the wilderness, Jesus began to travel through Galilee, preaching, proclaiming the Good News of kingdom of God, and the need to repent.  The time in the desert was not without purpose: it was a time of preparation, of being made ready for the work that God had for him to do.

As it is with the journey of Jesus, so it is with the journey for each of us.  Our journey – sooner or later, and sometimes, often –  takes us to barren, wilderness, desert places as well.  But the Wilderness – the aloneness, the solitude that the wilderness affords, the hardship – is actually an opportunity, literally, a blessing from the Spirit of God.  It is a time and place where we can be tested, a place and time where we can grow into the maturity that we require so that we can indeed face the world, in both good times and in bad, and do there those things that God would have us do.

Jesus matures in the wilderness.  He listens to his inner voice, he connects the blessings of the past with his need to rely upon God and God alone for the day at hand and for the days to come.  He comes to understands who God has called him to be and what is required of him.  Only after Jesus has gone through all this is he able to move back out into the world and be fully ready to serve. In the loneliness of the wilderness Jesus discovers in his own experience that he is not really alone, that God goes with him, that the angels care for him, and that with the aid of God’s providence and power and the promises of Scripture, he can survive – and in fact, prosper –  no matter what the situation.

The journey of Jesus is like our journey.  But it is also true that our journey is like that of Jesus.  How often have we had experiences like his? How often have we experienced the fullness of the Spirit, such that, with confidence we are determined to go forward with a commitment and serve God?  How often have we gotten pumped up and ready to take on the world after a special experience of God, a special blessing; and then the difficulties begin, the time of testing comes, almost as surely as if we are being driven into it, and its coming was inescapable.

The reality is that we, like Jesus, are tested whenever we really try to serve God, to use our God-given gifts and powers.  It may not happen immediately (although it often does).

But despite appearances to the contrary, when that time of testing comes, it’s actually a blessing – or it can be, if we let it be so.  When that time of testing comes, if we let the angels minister to us –  as they ministered to Jesus, if we hold onto the faith that we profess and exercise it in the circumstances that come to us, as did Jesus, it can be a time of triumph, of growth, of renewed confidence, of affirmation, that we truly are in the will and way of God.

In closing I’d like to share a piece I came across years ago called “The Testimony of a Confederate Soldier,” a declaration or statement which comes from the period of the Great Civil War the United States.  It seems appropriate in light of what we’ve talked about this morning because of how it describes what God can accomplish in us through our wilderness experiences, through our times of testing.  It goes like this:

I asked God for strength that I might achieve

I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey.

I asked for health that I might do greater things

I was given infirmity that I might do better things.

I asked for riches that I might be happy

I was given poverty that I might be wise.

I asked for power that I might have the praise of men

I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.

I asked for all things that I might enjoy life

I was given life that I might enjoy all things.

I got nothing that I asked for – but everything I had hoped for.

Almost despite myself my unspoken prayers were answered.

I am among all men, most richly blessed.

May it be so in your life and mine, to the glory of God.  Amen.