Mark 1:1-4, 9-15
Jesus in the Wilderness
You’ve heard me say before that the gospel of Mark is my favorite gospel. Part of the reason I love it is because of Mark’s brevity. I don’t love that he’s short on details, exactly. I love that he seems practically breathless in getting the good news of Jesus to us, and that he seems to believe that the news is so good it isn’t even going to take very many words to convince you of his message! His frantic style strikes me as showing both how important and how convincing he believes Jesus’s message to be.
But, then we arrive at a Sunday like today, and I find myself a little frustrated perhaps, or at least a little challenged by Mark. In the lectionary, the series of the first Sunday in the season of Lent always focuses on the temptation of Jesus – his time in the wilderness, where he confronts Satan, and commits to God’s path rather than the flashy alternative Satan presents. This is the focus for the first Sunday in Lent because it one of the major texts that provides the basis of our Lenten season of 40 days. We, like Jesus, are called to spend 40 days in deep spiritual reflection, because we are preparing to journey with Jesus, following as closely as we can as he draws ever nearer to the cross.
The problem? Mark gives us literally two sentences about Jesus’s forty days in the wilderness. “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.” That’s it. To make our whole gospel for today, we include the beginning of Mark’s gospel, Jesus’s baptism, to which Mark devotes a whopping three sentences, and the beginning of Jesus’s teaching and preaching: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” But the actual focus of today? Two sentences. Matthew and Luke tell us lots of details about Jesus’s conversation with Satan. But not Mark. We don’t get details from Mark. He thought he shared with us everything we needed to know about Jesus in the wilderness. And indeed, for the earliest Christians, before what we call the New Testament had taken shape as one cohesive collection, new followers of Jesus likely would only have access to one account of Jesus’s life. Mark is the oldest of the four gospels, the first written. So today, even though we could look at other versions of the temptation, I want us to stick with Mark. He believed he was telling us all we needed to know. So what can we learn from Mark’s breathless account?
First, we look before the short account of Jesus in the wilderness. Mark starts his gospel quoting Isaiah, who writes about a messenger who will prepare the way of God. Isaiah describes this messenger as a voice that will cry out from the wilderness, and the gospel writers agree that they see John the Baptist as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s words. John the Baptist appears on the scene to start baptizing people and preparing them for Jesus’ arrival, calling them to repent and receive forgiveness. And where does he appear? “In the wilderness,” of course. Jesus is coming, and the news of his arrival is coming from the wilderness. This makes sense, because for the Jewish people, their most significant identity story comes from the story of the Exodus, the story of Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. And to get to the Promised Land, the Israelites spend forty years in the wilderness. So John’s arrival, God’s voice emerging from the wilderness – this ties in with the story of the Jewish people. They already know that important stuff happens in the wilderness, that God tries to get our attention when we’re in the wilderness.
Jesus, like many others, comes to be baptized by John. When he’s baptized, the Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove, and God speaks to him: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus gets this irrefutable affirmation of his identity right at the start of his ministry. And it is grounded with that affirmation, secure in that knowledge that the very same Holy Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. Jesus is gently led. Like Mark’s own tone, the Spirit’s action is urgent and demanding.
After Jesus’s time in the wilderness, we immediately hear that he begins preaching in Galilee. His message, the good news, is short and clear. Jesus is ready. He is clear about his purpose. He gets right to work. He seems to have the kind of urgency that Mark conveys. The time is here. God’s reign on earth is here already, and at the same time drawing ever closer. Repent, turn your life around, and believe this fantastic message of grace.
As I shared with folks on Ash Wednesday, this Lent, we’ll be talking all season about what it means to be in the wilderness. And we’ll hear stories from throughout the scriptures of people who spent time in the wilderness. They ended up there for a variety of reasons: sometimes lost, sometimes desperate, sometimes with a plan, sometimes with no idea what they were doing. But today, as we think about Jesus in the wilderness, we see someone who enters the wilderness with a clear sense of who he is, and someone who leaves the wilderness having confronted temptation, and come out ready to live out his purpose.
Of course, it is Jesus’s wilderness time that is our true model. In the season of Lent, we go into the wilderness on purpose. The same Holy Spirit that just reminded Jesus of his identity as God’s beloved child at his baptism is also the Spirit that leads him to the wilderness. In Lent, heading to the wilderness is an on-purpose, on-God’s-purpose thing. It’s not an accidental thing, one of the times in our lives where we’re in the wilderness because we’re lost, or in the wilderness because things are falling apart. God finds us in those wilderness times too, but that’s not what we’re talking about today. In Lent, we head for the wilderness on purpose, because it is part of the way of Jesus, part of our path of discipleship. In Lent, we set out for the wilderness intentionally, because we choose to confront anything that seeks to separate us from God, anything that ends up being an obstacle between us and God. In Lent, we set out for the wilderness intentionally, because we recognize that being in the wilderness puts us in that vulnerable, risky, open place where it might be easier to hear God’s voice, might be easier to listen to what God is saying, might be easier to answer God’s call. In Lent, we set out for the wilderness, expecting that we can emerge from our time with a clarity of purpose, refocused, ready to lives as disciples, live as Jesus lives, loving God and neighbor with all our hearts.
The Lenten practices in which many people choose to engage in this season are meant to help us with just these tasks in our purposeful wilderness travels. In Lent, we are called to take up the disciplines of prayer, fasting, and giving. In prayer, we seek to grow closer to God, to listen for God’s voice and God’s direction. We can practice the discipline of prayer through worship, through studying the scriptures, through individual prayer and praying together with others. In fasting, taking an intentional break from something, we are seeking to remove from our lives anything that keeps our minds off of God, anything that would keep us from meeting God in the wilderness. This is where we confront, in the wilderness, whatever prevents us from giving our whole hearts to God. We can practice the discipline of fasting by removing a meal, or a particular food or type of food or drink from our diets for a period of time. Or we can take a break from unnecessary spending. That’s a discipline I’ve engaged in periodically, and have been alarmed to realize how many times a day I think about buying something. Many find it helpful to tune our hearts to God by fasting from electronics, from social media, or from television. In giving, we seek to demonstrate our love for God with our actions, loving others as God does through acts of service. We can engage in a discipline of Giving by giving our time, by giving our money, and by giving our hearts to God and neighbor. I hope you will consider engaging in a spiritual discipline this Lent. These aren’t New Year’s Resolutions. It doesn’t matter if you start late, or have to regroup and refocus. The purpose of Lenten disciplines, these tools for our wilderness journey, is to draw us closer to God, and give us strength and grounding in God that helps us confront anything that conflicts with our purpose.
Remember, one of our priorities as a congregation is Spiritual Growth, Spiritual Formation. We’re working on being clearer about how we help people who are just exploring faith grow in their journey, and how we help new followers of Jesus grow, and how we help seasoned disciples continue to mature in faith. Are you growing spiritually? What specifically are you doing to grow in your faith? You know I’m a fan of being specific! Lent, our time in the wilderness on purpose, is a time where we seek to grow in our spiritual lives. It’s challenging, no doubt, our wilderness expedition. But we’ll find Jesus there, and where he is, we want to go too. Know that you go into the wilderness as Jesus does, named a beloved child of God and accompanied by God’s spirit. Commit with me this Lent to confronting what is keeping you from giving your whole heart to God. Open your heart, let yourself be vulnerable to God meeting you in the wilderness. And be ready for what God can do with your life not only in the wilderness, but on the other side. May we emerge from our time here with the same clarity and urgency that we see in Jesus. Amen.