Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent – February 18th, 2018

Text: Mark 1:9-15 Revised Standard Version (RSV)

The Baptism of Jesus

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; 11 and a voice came from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son;[a] with thee I am well pleased.”

The Temptation of Jesus

12 The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him.

The Beginning of the Galilean Ministry

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.”

In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. AMEN.

Today, we begin at the beginning. Jesus begins his earthly ministry, three years in which he changed the world.

When you remove the paragraph headings, today’s lesson is only 132 words long. And yet these 132 words recount an entire series of earth-shattering, cosmic, even cataclysmic events: We read about

1.) Jesus coming from Nazareth (in other words, nowhere) to be baptized by John on the Jordan;

2.) The spirit of God landing on him like a dove;

3.) God’s voice telling him that he has his favor;

4.)  The Spirit immediately driving Jesus into the wilderness;

5.) The temptations of Satan;

6.) The arrest of John;

7.) And finally, after all of that, we get to the heart of the Gospel: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.”

Unlike Matthew and Luke, who describe these events in rich detail, Mark’s account almost reads like a dispassionate news report. 132 words! But such words!

Yes, indeed, there’s a lot going on here!

The first thing we’re reminded of is that Jesus is not just another rabbi.  Right off – after Jesus comes on the scene from Nazareth – we read that, when he comes back up out of the water after being baptized, he hears the voice of God telling him, “Thou art my beloved Son;[a] with thee I am well pleased.” You can’t get a better endorsement than that!

But then, right after this incredible declaration, we read that “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” Not “led,” as we read in Matthew and Luke, but drove – prodded, forced, compelled – Jesus to leave the Jordan and to go out into the trackless, hostile wilderness. The Greek verb Mark uses – ἐκβάλλει – is the same verb used when Jesus casts out demons, or when a person is banished, expelled from his or her family. It is a verb that stands for a forced and involuntary action imposed on another.

And, once Jesus is out there in that wilderness, he’s tempted for “forty days” by Satan, the Adversary. The number 40 appears a lot in the Bible, and it can mean anything from 40 actual days to simply meaning “a long time.” So, in this case, it could even be that Jesus was out there for a longer period than 40 days.

But 40 almost always signifies testing. And certainly throughout Christian history, Jesus’ time out there in the wilderness has most often been described as just that: A period of trial and probation.

No argument from me there. On the other hand, that seems a little odd to me, though. After all, didn’t God himself just say to Jesus that he was his “beloved Son”?  That being the case, why would God then literally kick Jesus out the door?

It may be that this was a way for Jesus to get his “bona fides” and establish his “street cred” in the society of his day. Even the wilderness wasn’t quite as desolate as we might think – the word used here, ἔρημον, while giving the sense of “desolate,” can equally mean something closer to “uncultivated” or “unpopulated”; so it could be that  there were people travelling through it all the time, which also means that it’s entirely possible that people would witness Jesus undergoing his trials. Then they would report back to others what they had seen. In other words, this might well have been the way Jesus demonstrated that he was not just “talking the talk,” but also “walking the walk.” And, make no mistake: Whatever temptations he faced, whatever trials, whatever hardships, were real.

They had to be, in order to back up Jesus’ bold declaration that God’s Kingdom was truly at hand, and people needed to listen and act accordingly.

Something new had come into the world. And that something was Jesus, the Christ. But it wasn’t time yet for that to be fully revealed. People needed to be convinced by example, not by decree.

Remember again that Jesus came to our world and knew exactly the life we know. I think that’s partly at least what’s going on here – Jesus, in his humanity, goes out into that wilderness and experiences the same kinds of tests and temptations that beset each of us every single day. And so Jesus, who is God, understood and understands what human life is like. And this is so important for us to keep in mind!

When Jesus goes out into that wilderness to experience life as we know it, he does so in order to, at long last, show that the gulf between God and humanity has been bridged.

As Pastor Scott Hoezee of Calvin Seminary puts it: “Jesus could not say the kingdom was near until he had been to the front lines, until he had engaged the evil of this world head on in the wilderness. Because then when he spoke words of hope and promise, everyone could know that these were not the sunny predictions of some starry-eyed but finally unrealistic optimist. No, this was someone who had engaged the jagged edges of real life in a fallen world and had even so emerged victorious. The features to this world that make us need the coming of God’s kingdom will not thwart the advent of that same kingdom. The post-wilderness Jesus was living proof.”[1]

Whatever the physical reality of the wilderness was that Jesus experience, there is other, even more challenging, wilderness that we’ve all been in at one time or another, and this is the wilderness of the soul, the desert of the spirit.

And that’s the worst wilderness of them all. There’s no Rand McNally road atlas that can help you find a road out, no GPS device, no Lonely Planet guide. We never volunteer to go into the wilderness of illness, or job loss, or broken relationships, or isolation. We rarely choose the hard and rocky, steep path. We don’t go out of our way to look for opportunities to struggle and suffer. So, when we’re stumbling through our own Valley of the Shadow of Death, or experiencing our own “dark night of the soul,” we often feel alone and lost.

But that just is NOT the case! We are never alone! God, you see, is with us, God is at work, both for us and through us, during our sojourns in the wilderness!

And we are blessed to have our companions and our ministering angels, just like Jesus did. We are privileged to be those ministering angels to others.

Even when we feel that we are totally alone, we are not. Just as God, through those ministering angels, was with Jesus, God is with us, too.

Even when we seem to be hip-deep in piranha-filled waters, though it is hard, perhaps even then we might ask ourselves “Even though I didn’t ask for this trouble, how might God be at work here? What might God be trying to teach me? How might God be calling me to use this experience to help someone else?” Thinking this way won’t change the nature of the suffering or the struggle, but it might remind us that, even in difficulty, God is still present. God’s Spirit is still active in us and working through us.

God has a calling for each one of us. Some of us have heard that Call. For others that Call is still in the future. Some have answered their Call and haven’t yet realized it. But it is as certain as the hearts beating within us that we have been called. And, wherever we find ourselves, in whatever situation or circumstance, when we answer that Call, we push back the borders of the wilderness.

And finally, let’s consider the possibility that, sometimes, God’s Spirit might deliberately drive us into the wilderness for our benefit or for the benefit of someone else – maybe someone we don’t even know. God has a habit of taking things that seem to lead only to suffering and death – like a Cross, for example – and turn them into means of salvation and life.

That’s worth remembering in these days of Lent!

In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. AMEN.

[1] Hoezee, Scott,