Mark 1:9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 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. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
And the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness. How…disappointing. I mean, think about where Jesus has just been. He’s just been baptized and as he comes up from those cool, refreshing waters, the heavens literally opened up, the voice of God bellowed to all creation, “This is my son, my beloved, in whom I am well-pleased,” which is language that in Psalm 2 is used for the coronation of a new king; and on top of that, the Spirit descended like a dove, hovering over those waters to say that in Jesus, God is remaking the world.
When you read the baptism scene, you can feel that we’re on the cusp of something, a grand new beginning. Can you think of a time when you received a new beginning? When after years of struggle, a new opportunity, a new friendship, or maybe a renewal of something you’d really missed comes along? (Obviously, I was reminded of that feeling this week when baseball Spring Training got started.) Jesus and his people need such a moment. Life had been hard. Jesus’ community worked and didn’t receive the fruits of their labor. They couldn’t go about their lives without seeing instruments of violence on the hips of soldiers. Many people believed that God’s presence had left the Temple: their religious institutions were in some ways decaying, or at least not as effective as they had been and no one was really sure why. For years and years they asked God to give them life, to give them freedom, to give them hope, and yet all they heard was silence…until the baptism! And all of the sudden, God was speaking again, descending again, dividing waters and raising someone up again. Maybe, just maybe, we can allow ourselves to hope, to believe that God really will make us free, make us alive, maybe even happy again.
And the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness. Why? Why now? It’s a little like hearing you’re up for a promotion, only to find out you’ve been relocated to a branch no one wants to work at. It seems like Jesus’ ministry is accelerating down the runway and just when it’s going to take off, we slow back down and find ourselves grounded.
God does the opposite of what we would expect. That’s what it means to be anointed. Right when it feels like Jesus is about to ascend, like things are finally going to go well for the children of Israel in an obvious way, God sends Jesus into the wilderness, just like God sent the Israelites into the wilderness after their baptism in the Red Sea.
Maybe you’ve had an experience like this, where it seems like things are on the up and up, you were transitioning into a new phase of life that bodes well for you—you retired, you got sober, you had plans to reconcile with that loved one—and then all of the sudden, right when you get time to rest you start getting sick, or you relapsed, or they canceled on dinner, and you’re left right where you were, only now disappointed. Maybe you look at our life as a church, you remember good times and then times of decline and over the last 5-10 years you’ve seen signs that we might grow again, signs that haven’t quite come to fruition.
Sometimes that’s even harder than bad news, to see hope bud but not flower, for things to come together and then fall apart right before your eyes. This is why the Israelites did so much grumbling during their forty years in the wilderness. We like to give them a hard time for that but when you’re hungry and thirsty and things don’t seem to be much better than they were before, can we really blame them? God divided the Red Sea and brought them to the other side…for this? They just wanted to arrive, to finally make it home, where there lives weren’t so precarious for once. We got through the bad time. Why aren’t the good times here yet?
In those moments, we can’t help but start asking questions. What did I do wrong? What are we doing wrong? In a world of cause and effect, bad effects come from bad choices and so if I’m in the wilderness I must have made choices that got me here. If I am struggling that must say something about me. I’m in the wilderness because I did something wrong and now my task is to get out of the wilderness.
But it’s so important we remember that’s not how things work in this story. The Spirit is the one who drove Jesus into the wilderness. The devil might be waiting to tempt him there, but the Spirit is the one who sends him there. Jesus isn’t in the wilderness because he did anything wrong. The disappointment of that moment is not something that is supposed to be corrected or overcome. Because the wilderness is not a place of punishment or divine retribution. The wilderness is a place of becoming, where God’s chosen transition from who they were to who they will be next, and becoming is hard.
At the baptism, God declares that Jesus is king, but in the wilderness he has to do the work of becoming the kind of king God’s calling him to be. There is more than one way to be a king. The temptations that meet Jesus in the wilderness are really about finding a short cut during that time of transition and so becoming the devil’s kind of king. Mark doesn’t record the temptations but Matthew and Luke do: at the end of those 40 days the Devil comes to Jesus and tempts him to turn stones into bread, to avoid his hunger; then he tempts him to throw himself from the pinnacle of the Temple to make God prove God’s love for him; and finally, he tempts him with the kingdoms of the earth, that he can have the promise God made to him at his baptism right now. Each of these temptations represent a short cut to the kingdom of God. If Jesus will just cut a deal, make a compromise, bend the knee to the Devil, who already rules the world, he can have everything he hoped for and he can skip over the disappointment of the wilderness. Don’t do the work of becoming. Apply cosmetic fixes that get you the appearance of results without any of the struggle. The wilderness is a hard place, and the temptation is to skip over the struggle for the comfort of what we already know.
But Jesus resists this temptation, and wants us to do the same. He lets himself hunger, he lets himself cry out to God, he lets his desire for God’s Kingdom grow. The wilderness is a difficult place, but it can be a good place, however hard life might be there. A writer named John of the Cross wrote of something many people of faith experience that he called “the dark night of the soul.” This isn’t just a time of existential anguish. Sometimes as we grow, we outgrow things that were helpful to us (words, beliefs, practices), but we haven’t yet found new words, beliefs, and practices to nourish us. And so we are disoriented, disconnected from who we’ve been but we aren’t yet who we’re going to be. We’re caught in between, wandering on our way. Individually, many of us experience this dark night as “doubt.” Growing up, I was taught that doubt is a problem that you need to get rid of, the opposite of faith. But sometimes we need to sit with doubt, to ask our questions and learn from them, because “doubt” isn’t always (or even usually) the loss of faith, but faith’s growing pains. When I was a child I thought as a child, but when I grew I put away childish things. This in between time of transition is what John means by the dark night of the soul, and it is hard, but it is good. It’s not a punishment, it’s a passage.
Sometimes communities go through dark nights in the wilderness as well. And it is not a sign that we are doing anything wrong. It is simply a time of transition where we are becoming who God needs us to be in the future. And sometimes those times of transition go on longer than we might think is reasonable. I’m sure Abraham was long past ready for his dark night to end, but he waited and waited and wandered and wandered until God blessed him with Isaac, long past the days when anyone thought his family could reasonably expect to grow. But there was an end to the dark night, a new, new beginning on the other side of the desert. There is a resurrection at the end of these forty days.
This dark night, these forty days in the wilderness, are really a kind of training. In the early church, groups of monks would go out and live in the wilderness in imitation of Jesus in this story, and these believers were called ascetics. That word comes from the Greek works askesis which referred to the kind of training athletes undergo as they prepare for their event. That training might be difficult, or even at times painful, but it was never supposed to be damaging. The purpose is to make it so that you can run your race, so that you can become the kind of person who can run your race.
My friends, this is why we practice the season of Lent, why we go with Jesus into the wilderness for these 40 days before Easter. After the glory of Christmas, Lent is a little disappointing. A lot of us would rather skip right on to the Resurrection. But here we are, caught between birth and new birth. So if you find yourself a little disappointed, tired, not quite OK, doubting, or wondering where we are going as a community, Lent is a time to sit with those thoughts, to acknowledge them without trying to “fix” them; to train ourselves through prayer and fasting so that we would desire more, not less of God.
I hope we have the courage to go into the wilderness this season, the wilderness of our world and the wilderness of our hearts, the wilderness of expectations unmet, so that we might find God there. Let us go into the wilderness in the Spirit, so that when the Spirit moves us back out the other side, whenever that might be, we are ready to proclaim that the Kingdom of God is at hand because we have become the kind of people who are truly ready for it. Amen.
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