From Pastor Kenny's Desk
February 18, 2018
“It was then that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan River by John. Immediately upon coming out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. Then a voice came from the heavens: ‘You are my Beloved, my Own. On you my favor rests.’
Immediately the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness, and he remained there for forty days, and was tempted by Satan. He was with the wild beasts, and the angels looked after him.
After John’s arrest, Jesus appeared in Galilee proclaiming the Good News of God:
‘This is the time of fulfillment. The reign of God is at hand! Change your hearts and minds, and believe this Good News.’” Mark 1:9-15
Somewhere along the line … whether in a college English course or seminary preaching class, I can’t quite remember … I was taught to craft a tight, clear theme sentence to guide the whole of the essay or sermon. I’ll confess that I don’t do that every week, but I will this time around. And keeping with the conciseness of Mark’s story … and, indeed, his somewhat abridged version of the temptation … I’m going to keep it short: the same Spirit that descends upon Jesus at his baptism now drives him into the wilderness.
It’s wild to realize that immediately after his baptism Jesus is driven … not just led but driven … into the wilderness by the same Spirit that just earlier had descended upon him and proclaimed to him God’s profound blessing.
To be honest, I had only noticed half of that. That is, I noticed that Jesus’ baptism came immediately before his temptation and concluded that receiving his identity as God’s child was essential to weathering the temptations and struggles to come. Similarly, I would suggest the identity given us in baptism and acknowledging we are people of God, is what guides us through the challenges and struggles that await us on our journey as well. And I still stand by that. But this week it struck me that it is Spirit that drives Jesus into the wilderness, that place of challenge, struggle, purification, testing and temptation.
Why? Did Jesus need to be in the wilderness for some reason? Did this wilderness period of struggle and temptation provide something essential to his ministry or accomplish some end that isn’t immediately apparent?
We don’t know for sure and Mark’s story doesn’t say. But I wonder if one possible approach to this text might be to assume that the Spirit’s prompting wasn’t random … that the Spirit drove Jesus to the wilderness with some purpose. And if we can imagine that, then might we also look at some of the wilderness places we have chosen to go in our lives and wonder the same.
But there’s the rub, isn’t it … truth be told, we rarely volunteer to go to wilderness places. We don’t often look for opportunities to struggle, to be stretched, or challenged or even to grow when the feelings and experiences might be painful or even difficult. Which is probably why Mark reports that the Spirit drove Jesus rather than simply make a suggestion. And the same is true with our periods of difficulty, temptation, and struggle. We don’t choose these … they happen to us. Even when the challenges in front of us are of our own making … let alone those put upon us by others or the fortunes of life … we rarely want or actively seek such hardship. But can we perhaps imagine that the Spirit might make use of us during these challenges? That’s a whole other question.
I want to be absolutely clear: I am not suggesting that God causes us misery or suffering. Not to teach us something, and definitely not to punish us or put us in our place. Far from it. Notice that the Spirit doesn’t tempt Jesus, but rather drives Jesus to the wilderness. Similarly, I don’t believe that God even wants us to suffer, let alone causes us to. But I do wonder if we can imagine that perhaps God is at work both for us and through us during our wilderness times. Question: Can we hold on to the fact that God wants only good things for ALL God’s children?
And yet, in all our lives struggle, difficulty, even misery … that is, wilderness times … happen. I wonder if we can look at the struggles around us in light of this story and ask … “Even though I did not wish for this, how might God be at work through this difficult period. What can I get out of this? How might God use me to help someone else?” These kinds of questions aren’t meant so much to redeem struggle and suffering but rather to remind us of God’s presence during those wilderness times that leave us feeling stretched beyond our abilities. Because, you know what? The same Spirit of God that descended upon Jesus at Baptism and drove Jesus out into the wilderness also accompanied him during that time and brought him back again.
So also, God will not abandon us during our journey(s) in the wilderness but might even, from time to time, drive us there for our benefit or that of someone around us. After all, God is in the business of taking that which seems only to cause death and somehow bring from it redemption and resurrection life. And that’s not a bad thing to remember at the beginning of Lent. Our challenge is to look at our struggles, hear the promise of God’s presence in them, and then look for God at work in and through them for the sake of this world God loves so much.
Just think: dealing with our wilderness realities with equal measures of sensitivity and courage, this passage might just help us not just to survive the wilderness times of our lives but to emerge from them with renewed hope, faith, and confidence. From my personal and professional experience, I have come to believe this is a process that takes time but also an incredible, life-giving and life-transforming blessing.
Welcome to this holy, blessed, wilderness journey of Lent. Be blessed, knowing you are a brilliant gift, you are loved and you are a blessing!