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Driven Into the Wilderness (w/audio)

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Mark 1:9-15

 Sermon:

Who am I to correct the writer of one of our four gospels? But it seems to me that if I were Mark it would have been easy enough to cut out that section in his first chapter that tells of Jesus being driven into the wilderness by the Spirit where he was tempted by Satan and was with those threatening wild beasts. It seems a smoother transition to go from Jesus’ baptism by John where Jesus sees a vision of the heavens being torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And then he heard that voice from heaven, from God himself, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

At that point, after this grand spiritual experience, it would seem appropriate for Jesus to begin his public ministry in Galilee, as the gospel of Mark tells it, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

That seems like a much better transition, from baptism to proclamation of the good news, than what Mark gives us: from baptism to the Spirit driving Jesus out into the wilderness to spend time being tempted by Satan and living with those threatening wild beasts that are out there in that wilderness.

And this whole business of the Spirit actually driving Jesus out into the wilderness? The Greek word used here for what the Spirit does to Jesus is the same Greek word Mark uses when describing what Jesus does to demons—he drives them out. It’s a word that speaks of being pushed, of being compelled. Not a word that speaks of being invited or enticed. So, says Mark, the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness. The Spirit didn’t invite Jesus out into the wilderness.

Yes, of course, the wilderness was a place of special meaning for Jesus’ people. It was the place where the Hebrew people wandered for 40 years, finding themselves and what God wanted them to be in the process. It was the place where Moses climbed Mount Sinai and spent forty days and forty nights receiving the law of God. It was the place where the prophet Elijah journeyed to Mt. Horeb, where he had his meeting with God. It was even the place where John, who baptized Jesus, had his ministry of repentance and renewal for so many of his people who came to him out in the wilderness.

But the way Mark describes it the wilderness was a threatening place. It was a troubling place. It was the place where Jesus met with Satan and was tested, where the most important things that he believed and felt called to do were threatened. The wilderness was where forces hostile to God were found. The wilderness was the place where what was said at Jesus’ baptism, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased,” was met with indifference at best.

And the question in my mind every time I read this first chapter of Mark is: Why the Spirit would drive Jesus out there? To be tested? To be threatened?

I wonder: Does the Spirit still drive people out into the wilderness? I mean, good people. People like you and me, many of whom came to this baptismal font just a few weeks ago to affirm that we belonged to God. That we have been sealed by the Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. That, as Paul wrote to the Christians in Galatia, we have been baptized into Christ and have clothed ourselves with Christ (Gal. 3:27). Does the Spirit still drive people out into the wilderness? I’m talking baptized people. I’m talking people who have committed to live in the way of Jesus. I’m talking good people, like the ones sitting around us now.

The Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. Does the Spirit still do that? To you? To me? To all of us? I wonder.

I was talking on the phone this past week with our oldest son Will who teaches Middle School in Burbank, California. “How’s school going? How are the kids doing?” I asked him. “They’re pretty bummed right now, Dad, about what went down at the school in Florida. We all are,” he responded. I guess a lot of kids across our country right now are wondering if something like that horror could happen in that school where 17 students and teachers were killed, maybe it could happen in their school. A lot of us who are adults are wondering the same thing. The shooting in that Florida school has been the occasion when we have been reminded that there have been 18 school shootings in this nation this year. It has been the occasion when we have been reminded that since the year 2012 when 20 first graders and 6 adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut there have been 239 school shootings in our nation with 438 people shot and 138 killed.

And a lot of us are wondering: Is there something wrong with us? With our culture? With our laws? What is it? We are in a wilderness. And, if it is not the Spirit that is driving us there, we still are being warned that the worst thing we can do is not to grapple with what has happened. The worst thing we can do is to assure people of our thoughts and prayers and then to move on again as if nothing has happened. Painful though it may be, it won’t hurt us to wander in a difficult wilderness for a while—to struggle, to live with the uncertainty and threatening nature of things, to let the whole sordid situation get under our skin long enough that we will find a way forward, that we will find a solution to the problem.

Wildernesses are not all bad. But the question is: Does the Spirit drive people there?

The first Friday night of each month, some of us gather for a discussion of Colby Martin’s book Unclobber—Rethinking Our Misuse of the Bible on Homosexuality. The book weaves together a treatment of the so-called six clobber passages in the Bible used to exclude LGBTQ people from meaningful participation in the church and in society with Colby Martin’s own spiritual journey as a pastor in an evangelical church. His story is a bit depressing, I was sharing with one of you. He gets fired from the evangelical mega-church in Arizona where he is one of the pastors for being an ally of LGBTQ people, for taking a progressive and affirming approach in his understanding and treatment of a rejected minority of people.

As Colby Martin tells it, he and his wife (who are the parents of four young boys) go through a difficult time because of the firing. He wonders whether he should cease being a pastor. He wonders whether he has had enough of the church. He gets mad. Anger gets the best of him at times, as he tells it. He goes through a wilderness. And, as I was sharing with one of you, maybe as a pastor I find his story particularly disturbing. “But that’s his journey,” that person responded. “It’s not sad. It gets him to where he most needs to be.” And, as I thought about his story, that was true. Colby Martin needed a wilderness to get him to where God most needed him to be—to a church and a place of service that is meaningful and productive now.

The Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. Does the Spirit still do that to the likes of you and me? While waiting for my time to get a radiation treatment this past week, a man who had just received his treatment came into the waiting room where we were and went to his locker to get the clothes that he had to take off to wear the hospital gowns that all of us getting the radiation treatments have to wear. As he stood at his locker I heard him offering a prayer of praise ever so quietly: “Thank you, Jesus. Thank you. Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”

 He looked over at me, and I smiled. “Yes,” I said. He then asked me my name. I told him. “I am praying for you, William,” he said. “And tell the man who was in here a while ago that I am praying for him. Will you do that?” “Yes, I’ll do that,” I said. Which I did.

I didn’t know that man with praise on his lips, and promising to pray for me and the other man who was getting his radiation treatment as we spoke. I’d never seen him before. I’ve never seen him since. But, having gone through at least a bit of what he has gone through, I wondered whether that faith of his was prompted by a wilderness. I wondered whether facing his mortality and the forces that threatened to undo him had helped to deepen his faith, had made praise a more intimate part of his life.

The Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. Does the Spirit still do that to the likes of you and me? I’m not one to blame God for the bad stuff that happens to us. I’m not one to say that God never puts on us more than we can bear, or some such nonsense. But often God lets us struggle. Often God sends us, even drives us, out into some wilderness of testing where we have to struggle with some things. Maybe it is a relationship or marriage gone bad, or a struggle prompted by the faith we hold that leads others to reject us or want nothing to do with us. Maybe it is the consequences of bad decisions by others or ourselves. Maybe it is an existential struggle prompted by something unfair that has happened to us or someone we love.

Jesus came out of the wilderness having found God in the angels who cared for him there. He came out of the wilderness with good news on his lips. He came out of the wilderness with the proclamation that God is near, the kingdom of God for which the world hungers will break in and, in fact, is already breaking in. 

Where would Jesus be without his wilderness? Where would we be without the wildernesses we have gone through and perhaps are going through? No one would choose a wilderness. I think you have to be driven there. But the faith and new life that has emerged among us through coming to grips with our own failures or the failures of our society (or even the church), the faith and new life that has emerged among us through dark nights of the soul prompted by a divorce or job loss or death or rejection for being the persons that we feel God is calling us to be, the faith and new life that has emerged among us because we were driven into a wilderness and we found God’s good news presence there has made all the difference in who we are and our awareness of God’s living presence. Of this I am sure.

—William E. Warren, Cumberland Presbyterian Church of Germantown, February 18, 2018

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