Mark 1:9-15 • 1st Sunday of Lent
Elizabeth M. Deibert • 22 February 2015
Emily had a pacifier. Catherine had a soft toy called “blue baby.” Andrew had his thumb, and Rebecca had her blankie. All security objects. Why did they need those objects? Because they were going to be left in the dark – all alone. Because their parents were going to leave them, and it turns out that learning to settle themselves in the dark was a good life lesson – even at 1.
All of life is a process of getting secure and then moving out to more dangerous places. Think about it – your first journey is from the security of your mother’s womb. You must enter the big, bright world, where nourishment only comes if you cry out. So we come into the scary world and learn to trust, by crying and then having our needs satisfied. So most of us have the privilege of being secure with a family, and then we have to face the larger world of school, church, camp, and extra-curriculars, where teachers and friends test us, make us feel less secure. And we grow by learning to get our needs met by people other than our families. Then we leave home completely. We go to college, military service, or out on our own to work. And there we learn and grow by recognizing our needs, confronting temptation, and finding out who we really are. And then we have career and relationships that challenge all our assumptions. We have seasons of adult life that are troubling or isolating. Some of us have children and their needs demand that we find our own security so we have some to give to them. And then as life marches on, we find we need to care for those who provided security for us in the beginning, our parents. And the final wilderness is the death of lifelong partners and our own death. Growing up requires that we keep moving out from personal security to a new wilderness. And in that new wilderness, that new area of potential growth and security, we can easily fall into the temptation of leaning too hard into other people, we can rest too well in the power of our own personal strengths or we can try desperately to secure ourselves with worldly comforts, which are pleasurable, but have no lasting power to satisfy.
But if we are growing up in Christ, we can discover in the time of testing, in the wilderness, the presence of God which deepens our security. The first Sunday of Lent is when we read the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. This story of his forty day struggle is what frames our forty days of Lent. We are called to volunteer to engage in the struggle with him, because we know the end of the story. We are called to engage in the struggle with him, because it draws us closer to him. Testing, trials seem to be a normal, necessary part of growing up.
We talked last week of becoming, of recognizing that we have been given the light and the power of Christ. Last week we ended the season of Epiphany, Baptism, Transfiguration – a season of identity formation -- our belonging in Christ, our call to listen, follow, trust, and become like Christ. And the forty days of Lent started on Ash Wednesday with the mark of the cross on our foreheads and the words to remind us of our mortality and our need to repent, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” It could seem an ominous night but because of the Resurrection we know that returning to the dust is returning home, to our God, so we find a remarkable security there.
Listen now to the Gospel of Mark. Hear now the narrative of Jesus’ temptation is so concisely told that our reading takes us from baptism to wilderness to ministry. It is helpful to see that this is the cycle of our lives too.
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.” (NRSV)
The Spirit drove him into the wilderness. The Greek word there is dramatic – it is drove, threw, or hurled him. But we like to think of the Spirit as our Comforter. The Spirit seems to know that Christ needs to be in the scariest, riskiest place in order to grow and be prepared for the challenges of his ministry. Christ needs to go all the way to hell (remember he descended into hell and rose again on the third day) to be able to provide comfort to those who are in a wilderness or hellacious experience themselves. Christ has been all the way for us and thereby with us.
How many of you remember the TV show MASH? In it, there is a chaplain who is trying to minister to a young man who has been injured but even more wounded emotionally by the fighting on the front line. He is scared, and the chaplain is saying all the right-sounding compassionate words, “Yes, I know. I understand.” But then the soldier finds out that the chaplain has never been anywhere near the front lines and he stops talking. He realizes that the chaplain does not know and does not fully understand, even though he truly cares.
We have a Savior who does know and does understand. He has lived among us, and experienced trials and temptations, betrayals and abandonment, even death and hell. Christ knows what it means to suffer and die.
And we by hearing about his life, know what it means to be secure and live. Gregory of Nyssa said, “Sin happens whenever we stop growing.” Our security is found when we enter the desert, dry, wilderness, frightening experiences of our own lives, and we grow instead of veering off into temptation. “The wilderness journey is resisted by most people. We find the terrain of the wilderness inhospitable (whether a physical, emotional, mental or spiritual wilderness) we We do not want to be there. The worst thing about the wilderness is our fear of being alone in it.
We run out of it instead of giving God a chance to help us find our security there. God is trying to teach us to have the mind, heart, and soul of Christ, but we jump off the boat, run in the other direction like Jonah, return to our easy chairs, and distract ourselves with entertainment, lust, greed, and even bitterness. We know that the Israelites spent forty years in the wilderness after they were secured by God in the baptism of the escape from Egypt. They had not been free long before they began to complain. They were given the Ten Commandments but Moses came down the mountain to find them worshipping false gods, idols. That’s what happens in the wilderness places, when life gets more challenging and we avoid the opportunity to grow, we tend to retreat into short-cuts, easy answers, too much dependency on the things of this world, which will not last. Christ did not complain in the wilderness nor did he take shortcuts. He did not put God to the test.
To spend forty days and nights in the wilderness fasting and praying and to be tempted by the Adversary had to be exhausting, depleting, taking him right to the very edge of collapse. But Mark tells us that Jesus was cared for by angels. Are you open to being offered support, care, love, ministry? The incarnate God shows us that this is the way to grow more secure. Jesus was not a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” kind of guy. He was receptive to the care of others – Mary and Martha, the woman who washed his feet with her hair. He expressed in the dark night of Gethsemane his need for the disciples’ to stay awake and pray with him. “We need both stress and renewal, if we are to grow up in Christ” says Deborah Rundlett in her book “The Journey.” “We need acts of giving to be balanced with acts of receiving.” (p. 85)
Mark’s Gospel does not go into the specific temptations, so we won’t either -- this year. But the point of the forty days is that we, like Christ, should be forged by the struggle, by the crucible, into the new creation. None of us wants to walk through the deep waters of despair or discouragement. None of us wants to endure the fire of failure, of divorce, or of disease, and especially not death – our death or the death of someone we love.
“Knowing our reluctance to experience pain, I expect the Spirit is still driving us into the wilderness,” because as much as we hate it, we need it. It takes a crisis to force transformation. “Those who seek to follow the Way of Jesus should not be surprised to find that trial and temptation are part of the spiritual journey. All growth involves a certain amount of suffering, pain, and even deep struggle.” This is all the more true with spiritual growth. (D. Rundlett, p. 73)
And when we come through the fire, the wilderness, the crucible of danger to the other side, we appreciate more deeply our security is in Christ. We know even more than we did in baptism, that we belong to God. It’s in the wilderness we find in Christ our strength to endure. We discover faith and the courage to hold onto to hope. So why do we try so hard and want so much to avoid suffering? Well, because it is no fun, is it? Yet failure, weakness, suffering has the power to bring us right where God needs us to be – a place of utter dependence.
Remember Paul’s words from Romans 5, “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance character, and character, hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” Forged by the power of security learned in our suffering with Christ, we gain what we need to engage in real ministry -- caring for others in their wilderness experiences. As good Calvinists, we understand that God is sovereign, so we can say confidently that the Spirit takes us into the wilderness for our seasons of struggle, where we have the opportunity to grow in character. And in that wilderness, the angels of God minister to us – sometimes those angels are human beings and sometimes they are beyond our ability to see and touch, but real nonetheless.
And we know that Christ sat in that same scary wilderness and emerged from it to become the Savior of the world. Lean into the suffering strength of Christ this Lent and be courageous in faith. You can endure the hard times with hope. Do not be deceive by the Adversary to take sinful shortcuts, to become someone you are not. Don’t run from the wilderness. Stay there and wrestle with God through your darkest night, until you come out stronger on the other side, even if you limp, like Jacob did. You belong to God, who gives you ultimate security, even and especially in the wilderness experiences of this life.