Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, Year B, Feb 22, 2015, on Mark 1:9-15
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 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.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
I attended a seminar in which we were all given a piece of paper and instructed to make a timeline of the significant events of
our lives. Maybe you have done that. If you did that now, what moments of your life would you consider significant? Many of us would include graduations, getting hired, getting married, having children, and probably we would include significant losses as well, because loss changes us too.
Then we were asked to look at our timelines and to try to find the red line that connected the dots. What was consistent about ourselves through all the changes and the meandering paths our lives had taken? I guess the idea was that our essential selves would emerge from that effort to connect the dots.
The Line Stops at Today
But it made me think of where the line stopped. Of course whenever you do the timeline exercise, it stops at today. And what is ahead? What will tomorrow hold? We all wish we could say for certain, but we cannot. We do not know what will happen.
We know what normally happens, we know what we want to happen, we know what our plans are, but there are no guarantees. We are all one slip and fall away from the hospital; one distracted driver away from disaster; one microscopic virus away from serious trouble.
So, in that way, we are often in the experience of wilderness. We have a clear view of the footprints behind us, but there are no
certainties ahead. The one thing we all know for certain is that someday the timeline that stops today will not have a tomorrow. We are mortal. We will die. The timing and circumstances we do not know, but the result, we know.
If you were here for the evening of Ash Wednesday, you heard Sara Miles say, in the video, that the church is about the only place we say the truth of our mortality. Our culture is full of messages telling us that this product or diet or pill or treatment will not only keep us alive, it will keep us young.
Most of us here know better. So, in the church, we face our mortality, we receive ashes, and we speak of death and we acknowledge the wilderness-like uncertainty of our lives, and the temptations that condition creates.
So the question then is how do we live? We have all received the terminal diagnosis that we do not live forever down here, so, how do we live as terminal patients?
The Jesus Paradigm
In the first Sunday of the season of the lengthening days, the season of Lent this year our gospel reading is from Mark, who shows us the way to live by showing us Jesus as the paradigm, the pattern.
Mark’s short gospel has none of the details we get in Matthew and Luke. From Mark we hear that Jesus was tempted, but get no specifics – no bread from stones, no jumping off the temple tower. That is not Mark’s focus.
What we are left with in Mark are cryptic notes about the event. Notes about timing: when Jesus went out into the wilderness and how long was he there. A note about why he went, and who or what was out there with him. We hear about what happened out there, the temptations, and what Jesus did following the whole experience. So we will take a look at each of these elements.
Timing: Beginning with Baptism
First, timing; this is important: it was immediately after Jesus’ powerful, mystical experience of being baptized, and seeing a vision of the heavens being torn open and God’s Spirit descending on him in a nearly palpable way. In that experience, Jesus heard God name him as God’s beloved son.
Jesus is the paradigm for us: the spiritual journey for all of us begins in baptism, and becomes real for us when we come to know ourselves as sons and daughters of God. When we embrace that identity as children of God, created by God, loved by God, known personally by God, the spiritual journey has begun.
Upon knowing himself as God’s Son, Mark tells us the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. The picture to have in our minds is not the chauffeur as driver, the picture is a herder, driving an animal. There is not a lot of choice involved.
This is simply how it is. From the first cry we make, fresh out of the womb, to our final breath, we live in a world without certainty; wilderness, and therefore, of temptation.
Jesus spent forty days there, as Mark tells us; a day for each year his Jewish ancestors spent wandering in the wilderness after escaping Egyptian slavery. The journey with God is all about a journey in the wilderness of uncertainty and temptation.
While all of life is wilderness, in that it is uncertain, there are periods of time that are more intensely wilderness than others. Times of rupture, disruption, of unexpected events that throw us into the dark valleys of the wilderness. There is something significant to looking back on a period of time and realizing it as an episode that has concluded.
I experienced one of those the first year we were home from Croatia. I knew things were going to change for us, for all kinds of reasons, but the future was not a all clear to me, and it was a difficult year. But now I look back on that time as an episode, a period of intense wilderness that had a conclusion. The “forty days” which lasted a year for me, finally ended.
You have, I’m sure, gone through periods of intense wilderness as well. And probably there will be more ahead. But they do come to an end. This is helpful to remember when we are in the middle of one of those “forty day” periods. One day, we will be able to look back on this episode.
So, the question is, what do we want to see when we look back? How do we live in wilderness?
Let us look at Jesus’ experience as a model. Mark tells us that Jesus was not entirely alone out there. Though there were no other people, Jesus was joined by Satan, the tempter, and there were “wild beasts, along with angels who waited on him.”
You are welcome to read this as you like; I read this Satan character as a metaphor of the spiritual struggle with temptation that Jesus endured, and that we all endure. This too is a paradigm of the spiritual life.
There is no one I know who does not struggle with all kinds of temptations, and the forces that allure us seem strong. We have desires. Usually, the desires we feel on the surface are merely ciphers for the deeper desires of our hearts.
For example, below the desires of the flesh are deep desires for human intimacy. Beneath the desire for wealth is the angst of insecurity and the quest for respect and admiration. Even the desire for food is often a manifestation of the need to sooth deeper hungers and longings.
How should we satisfy our desires and the temptations they bring? We all know right from wrong. We know that there are healthy, life-giving, life-affirming ways of pursuing our deepest desires, and there are the opposite. There are good ways and bad ways.
The good ways are the ways that promote our human flourishing as individuals and as communities. The bad ways always lead to destruction, division, conflict and illness. But the good ways are often long and hard, and the bad ways promise short-cuts and ease. So, yes, we live with temptations.
Besides the tempter, Satan, Mark cryptically tells us that the “wild beasts” were there too. I take the beasts, which seem scary to me, to be symbols of fear. Fear is the source of many temptations. We all have them: the fear that keeps us from really living our lives, from being our true selves, from getting out of our comfort zones. And the fear of taking risks, like the risk of loving, and the fear of failure that keeps us from attempting anything.
The beasts are also the forces that tempt us into hopelessness and despair. They are the forces of cynicism that smirk at the idea that there are life-giving alternatives, that there can be a morning of joy after a night of weeping; that forgiveness, reconciliation and redemption are possible.
Besides Satan the tempter and the fear mongering, cynical wild beasts, Mark says that angels waited on Jesus in his wilderness time. I take these ministering spirits as a metaphor for the constant, active presence of God’s Spirit who is there with us in wilderness. This is the key to overcoming the temptations.
We can only make it through the wilderness with the knowledge that we gained at baptism, that we really are God’s beloved children. That’s why the timing was important. Yes, we are in a place of uncertainty and temptation, but we are not abandoned there. God is there, with us all the time.
Alone all Night?
I am told that some native American traditions have a male initiation ceremony which concludes with an all night experience. The young man is led into the forest blindfolded and taken to a log or stump to sit on. There, he must spend the night alone. During the night he has to confront his fears as he hears the hooting owl in the distance, the leaves and grass rustling in the wind, and as his imagination plays with the forest sounds and their unknown origins.
In the morning, he is allowed to remove the blindfold. As he does, he discovers his father who has sat through the night behind him, observing him, there to protect him if the need arose. He was not ever alone, though he did not know it.
We are never alone, though we often feel as though we are. But when does God our Father ever abandon his children? Look back at each of your periods of intense wilderness – were you abandoned? In fact the opposite. I have heard many of you describe how you have felt supported and accompanied by God in very difficult times – wilderness times.
Good News After Wilderness
The next thing Mark’s gospel shows us what happened after Jesus’ time of wilderness.
“Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Somehow, after the powerful experience of baptism, and following the 40 days of intense wilderness temptation, Jesus was newly energized to proclaim the good news of God. The good news is that God’s kingdom has come near.
Invitation: Make a Change
The offer of the kingdom comes with the invitation to make a change, to “repent” to change our minds, to embrace a wider reality. To leave a narrow conception of the God-abandoned life, and to accept a vision of a life lived in the presence of a loving God, in the kingdom of God, in sight of the father who stays up all night in the wilderness with us.
The invitation to repentance is implicit acknowledgement that there are times we have succumbed to the temptations of wilderness. There are times we have chosen against the life-affirming path and have opted for the short cuts of self-protection.
There times we need to repent from and change; times when we acted out of selfishness and xenophobic-tribalism, neglecting the needy, apathetic at injustice, wishing for revenge instead of making peace, and falling into cynicism and despair. Times the beasts have gotten the best of us.
So, the season of Lent is an invitation to embrace a wider consciousness. To believe the good news of God. To see that the line that connects our timeline’s significant moments is a close parallel line; that God was there for us and with us each zig and each zag that wandering line took.
The lines stop, so far, at today. Today we have choices. We are not guaranteed tomorrow, but we can choose how we will live, if given another day. Lent is the time we look at our spiritual practices and ask if they are rigorous enough to sustain us in faith and hope during wilderness periods.
In Lent we hear the invitation to make changes. Perhaps we are being called to a life of contemplative prayer.
Perhaps we are being called to new forms of action, or to new courageous advocacy on behalf of the powerless, on behalf of victims, and on behalf of voiceless ones, on behalf of our fragile planet.
Some of us may be called to reconcile relationships by initiating forgiveness.
All of us are called to repent, as the necessary pre-condition for receiving the good news of the kingdom.
So hear the call and believe the good news. Respond as children of God. Today, the timeline is still in motion. And the line, even in the wilderness, is parallel.