Sunday, March 1, 2009

On the Road to the Cross: Through the Wilderness

(A sermon for the first Sunday in Lent based on Mark 1:12-13)

[Image: Christ Served by the Angels, Jacques de Stella, c. 1650]

This is the first Sunday in Lent, that forty day period that culminates in the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord, and so we are at the beginning of our journey to the cross. On each of these Lenten Sundays I want us to take some steps toward the cross, some of which will be tentative, some of which will be audacious, and all of which will require faith.

We begin with a trip through the wilderness.

How do we think about the wilderness? In asking that question what I am really asking is how do we think about times of trial and testing, about times of deprivation and desperation, about times of wandering and wondering? What have such times to do with faith? What have such times to do with God? What have such times to do with mission?

First off we need to admit that sometimes we put ourselves in a bad place in life by virtue of the choices we make or because of the sins we commit. We also need to acknowledge that sometimes hard and empty times come to us out of left field or due to circumstances that are beyond our control. God can use and work through such times to teach us and to help us and we need to know that.

But our text is about Jesus’ sojourn in the wilderness, and Jesus was not there because of sins committed or because of the randomness of life. No, Jesus’ stay in the wilderness was more purposeful and intentional and it is his kind of wilderness sojourn in which we are interested today. So, what does Jesus’ time in the wilderness teach us about our times in the wilderness?

It teaches us that sometimes God’s children need to go through the wilderness and that sometimes we have to go through the wilderness. It teaches us that being God’s children does not protect us from the wilderness; indeed, our identity as God’s children can drive us into the wilderness.

There are some fallacies into which too many people still buy. One fallacy is that baptism is the end of the process when in fact it is just the beginning of the long way that we have to go; that long way may include some very dry and difficult and dangerous routes.

Another fallacy is that baptism is a coronation when in fact it is an abdication; while it true that we gain membership in God’s family when we become Christian and while it is true that there is laid up for us a crown of life it is also true that baptism causes us to start laying stuff down rather than picking stuff up—we find ourselves called to lay down our pride, to lay down our self-centeredness, to lay down our privilege, to lay down our protection.

And so it came to pass that Jesus went out from his hometown of Nazareth to be baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptizer and as he came up out of the water he saw the heavens torn open and the Spirit of God descending on him and he heard the voice of his heavenly Father proclaiming, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (1:11). It sounds like the end of a process, doesn’t it, since Jesus hears those powerful validating words. It sounds like a coronation, doesn’t it, since Jesus hears himself proclaimed the Son of the great King and hears in addition that the great King is pleased with him. It sounds like Jesus ought to be able, having been baptized and having heard those amazing words, to sit down and to enjoy his status as the beloved Son of God.

But look at what happened instead: “At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert” (v. 12) and you should know that the NIV translation “sent” is much too tame; the sense of the word is that the Spirit “drove” Jesus into the wilderness—it’s a very strong word. That’s something, isn’t it? One minute the Spirit is descending on Jesus and he is being affirmed as the Son of God, the next minute the Spirit is driving Jesus out into the wilderness. But you see, that’s part and parcel of being the Son of God and, just in case you find yourself thinking “I’m glad that’s about Jesus and not about me,” let me hasten to add that it’s part and parcel of being the child of God in these and in all days, too.

As Fred Craddock put it, “Still wet from his baptism, Jesus struggles, apparently, with the burden that lies within the words, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’" Let me suggest that we, whether we are still wet from our baptism or whether we were baptized lo so many decades ago, whether we are, spiritually speaking, wet behind the ears or long in the tooth, can and do still struggle with the burden that comes with being a child of God.

That’s because we are baptized into what God is up to in the world and what God is up to in the world is firmly opposed to what Satan and the forces of evil are up to in the world.

The Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, which is usually in the Bible a place of trial and testing— think of the Israelites’ forty-year sojourn in the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land or of Elijah’s forty-day sojourn in the wilderness on the way to Mt. Horeb—and in that wilderness Jesus in fact encountered Satan and he was, as only Mark of the three Synoptic Gospels tells us, “with the wild beasts,” which symbolically underscores the wildness and danger of the wilderness. And in that wilderness Jesus was “tested”—which in Mark’s narrative is probably a better translation of the word than “tempted”—by Satan; in other words, the battle that was necessitated by the arrival of Jesus in the world was now joined, and that battle will be played out over the course of Jesus’ ministry and it will be finally won on the battlefields occupied by the cross and by the empty tomb.

But before Jesus could go out to preach and teach and heal, before he could go to pour out his love and grace, before he could begin moving toward his final sacrifice and ultimate triumph, there was the wilderness. The wilderness was for Jesus necessary preparation; it was for him necessary practice; it was for him a necessary revelation of what was to come. It was a confrontation with the very real struggle that was going to be a vital part of his life. The trial that he underwent in the wilderness prepared him for the trials that he was going to undergo in his life as he did the Father’s will and as he continued to confront the forces of Satan.

And so we go into the wilderness; we are driven there by the Lord when we become his disciples. It is for his kingdom—we must be prepared to fight and to serve and to persevere. It is for our good—the Lord disciplines those whom the Lord loves and Lord knows we need the discipline.

As we journey toward the cross, it is good to be reminded that sometimes it is God who drives us into the wilderness, not because he doesn’t love us but because he does, not because he is not pleased with us but because he is, not because we do not belong to his family but because we do. It is in the wilderness that we learn to face what must be faced, to fight what must be fought, and to overcome, with God’s help, what must be overcome; it is in the wilderness that we come to grips with what must be laid down—our pride, our self-sufficiency, our selfishness—and with what must be picked up—trust, service, and sacrifice. It is good to learn those things in private and in quiet and in solitude because we are going to have to live them in public and in chaos and in the crowds.

But as we sojourn in our wilderness and as we live in our world, let us never, ever forget the fact that, while Jesus was in the wilderness, “angels attended him.” Jesus was not alone; his Father was with him, providing for his needs, undergirding him, encouraging him, feeding him, and supporting him. Never, ever forget that whether we are in the wilderness or whether we are in the crowd, our God is with us, nourishing us, encouraging us, and strengthening us through it all.

In the wilderness we face what must be faced—but we never face it alone.

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