by Sharon Marr
(Based on Mark 1:9-13, Gen 8:15-22)
Well, my dear family, today is the first Sunday in Lent but you will be forgiven for thinking, “Ground hog day” – You’re right! This was the reading for the second Sunday in Advent, repeated with a couple of additional verses in early January and again today we find ourselves, just like in a knitting pattern, dropping a couple of verses and then adding a couple to the same very short passage in Mark.
However, in all good stories it is what happens next that matters. Mark, using one of his favourite words, says immediately the Spirit drove Jesus 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 …..”
Mark, the man of few words, says little about the temptations of the wilderness themselves, which creates an interesting opportunity for us to reflect on them as we ponder on our own personal wilderness experiences.
Where, during these times, do we find Satan most plausible in our lives? We do have an extraordinary capacity for rationalizing our decisions as being sensible and unselfish. Godly even. But are they really?
What can we say about our wild beasts? The things we fear, both spoken and the ones we suppress and choose not to face: what do these look like when seen in the light of the gospel.
What do your angels look like? Do you recognize them when they show up in all their sweet and secret guises? When they minister to you, hold you, brace you, do you hear a new version of God’s voice, calling you “beloved”. Our much-loved Chris Ison said this of angels: “For myself, I would suggest they are here in this place, in this community of faith. Angels remind us of the way in which the will of God is done in heaven; by praising him. It is when we are cast down and feel least able to give thanks that the membership of this faith community carries us, or at least it carried me, forward.”
Wonderfully generous words to us from a man who surely experienced deep wilderness periods.
At his baptism, Jesus had heard the absolute truth about who he was. God’s beloved Son. That was the easy part. The much harder part now comes in the desert wilderness, when he has to face down every vicious, mocking assault on that truth. As the memory of God’s voice fades, and the isolation of the wilderness plays tricks on Jesus’s heart and mind, he has to learn that his belovedness will still hold. That God’s deep and unconditional delight will never depend on external circumstances.
We too don’t choose to enter the wilderness. We don’t volunteer for pain, loss, danger or terror. But the wilderness happens anyway. Whether it comes to us in the form of a devastating pandemic, a frightening hospital stay, a broken relationship, a hurting child, or a loss of faith, the wilderness appears, unbidden and unwelcome, at our doorsteps. And sometimes it is God’s own Spirit who drives us there. Sometimes, like Jesus, we may need long stints in the wilderness to learn what it really means to be God’s children. Does this mean that God wills bad things to happen to us? That God wants us to suffer? No. Does it mean that God is ready to teach, shape and redeem us even during the most barren periods of our lives? Yes.
In the startling economy of God, even a dangerous desert can become holy. Even our wilderness wanderings can reveal the divine. This is not because God takes pleasure in our pain, but because we live in a chaotic, fragile and broken world that includes deserts, and because God’s way is to take the things of shadow and death, and wring from them resurrection. It is only by going through the wilderness of Lent we have the joy of Easter.
In the Old Testament reading we hear the story of Noah and his family also being taken aside by God for a period of time of testing, a time for them in the wilderness, albeit a stormy wet sojourn rather than the desert experience of Jesus. Like Jesus they return restored, renewed and repurposed to a world that had lost its way because now the family have God’s covenant, His promise of inherent relationship.
The world remains a scary place, prone to violence and disorder. It is a world of wild beasts, literal and metaphorical. The problems haven’t changed but the family has. They have the promise of God’s enduring relationship; He will never leave them. They are His beloved children.
God did not leave Jesus in the desert, any more than he left Noah in the ark. Just as the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, the Spirit also led him into his ministry in Galilee. Sometimes that same Spirit pushes us into the wilderness where we can learn to depend on God’s provision and we can learn to face our trials by depending on God’s strength, not our own, and then we can perhaps join with Christ in proclaiming to all the good news that the kingdom of God is here.
The amazing African-American preacher S. M. Lockridge preached these wonderful words and I think they fit so well as we dwell today on wilderness times.
I know it’s Friday. But, thanks be to God, Sunday’s coming!
It’s Friday. Jesus is praying. Peter’s a sleeping. Judas is betraying. ……But Sunday’s comin’.
It’s Friday. Pilate’s struggling. The council is conspiring. The crowd is vilifying. They don’t even know ….. That Sunday’s comin’.
It’s Friday. The disciples are running like sheep without a shepherd. Mary’s crying. Peter is denying. But they don’t know …… That Sunday’s a comin’.
It’s Friday. The Romans beat my Jesus. They robe him in scarlet. They crown him with thorns. But they don’t know …… That Sunday’s comin’.
It’s Friday. See Jesus walking to Calvary. His blood dripping. His body stumbling. And his spirit’s burdened. But you see, it’s only Friday ….. Sunday’s comin’.
It’s Friday. The world’s winning. People are sinning and evil’s grinning.
It’s Friday. The soldiers nail my Saviour to the cross. And then they raise him up next to criminals. It’s Friday. But let me tell you something … Sunday’s comin’.
It’s Friday. The disciples are questioning. What has happened to their King. And the Pharisees are celebrating that their scheming has been achieved. But they don’t know, it’s only Friday. …… Sunday’s comin’.
It’s Friday. He’s hanging on the cross. Feeling forsaken by his Father. Left alone and dying. Can nobody save him? Ooooh … It’s Friday …… But Sunday’s comin’.
It’s Friday. The earth trembles. The sky grows dark. My King yields his spirit. It’s Friday.
Hope is lost. Death has won. Sin has conquered. And Satan’s just a laughin’.
It’s Friday. Jesus is buried. A soldier stands guard. And a rock is rolled into place. But it’s Friday. It is only Friday … Sunday is a comin’!
Dear family, regardless of what today brings, regardless of today’s problems, challenges or defeats, may we enter with courage the deserts we can’t choose or avoid. May our long stints amidst the wild beasts teach us who we really are — the precious and beloved children of God. And when we strain to hear the angels …. in all their sweet and secret guises …. whisper the name “beloved” into our ears, may we listen, and believe them … because, remember …. it’s only Friday …. but Sunday’s a-coming! Amen.