This is the message I shared with the people of God at St. Timothy and St. Mark's. It is based on the gospel reading from Mark 1:9-15.
In the Gospel of Mark, the desert is a lonely and frightening place. It is the place where evil spirits were thought to dwell. The desert can be described by what it is not. It is not a place of flourishing plant life. It is not a place where we find an abundance of water. The wilderness is desolate and uninviting.
There is little in the desert that draws us to itself and yet it is just where we need to be from time to time. As the day passes and the sun is low on the horizon, the bland beiges of the dessert become rich hues of pink. At the right time, it has its own beauty. During the rainy season, the desert blooms with color and foliage.
At times Jesus sought the desert because of its simplicity and isolation. The throngs would not find him there. Jesus could commune in peace with his Father. In today's gospel, the desert was a place of preparation for Jesus, not just for his earthly ministry, but especially for the ultimate trial—his death on the cross.
Today, we find Jesus as he begins his ministry in God's way and in God's time. Before Jesus begins his ministry, he is baptized and commissioned by his Father.
We would think that once Jesus is anointed with the Holy Spirit and commissioned, he should be good to go and begin his ministry. However the Holy Spirit had a different idea. It's called preparation. Without a chance to take a breath, immediately, the Holy Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness where he is tested. To me it seems Jesus has been dropkicked or booted out into that desolate place. This was no gentle nudge or leading by the Holy Spirit.
So,, Jesus is going to spend, just a little time in the desert, right? that's not bad, is it? Just because he went into the desert quickly didn't mean he gets out of there quickly. Jesus was there for forty days and forty nights.
The number forty is used often in scripture. The number forty has significance in biblical numerology. 40 denotes a period of preparation for something big. It is always an in-between time, the necessary span of time between God's calling and commissioning and the gracious conclusion. God's people wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Forty days numbered the rain in Noah's flood. Moses was on Mt. Sinai for 40 days. The spies scouted out Canaan for 40 days. Israel was in the hands of the Philistines for how long? 40 years. Jesus appeared after Easter for 40 days.
We too, are in an in-between time, the 40 days of Lent as we journey with Jesus to the cross. At the end of those 40 days we can celebrate our Lord's victorious life over death on Easter.
The wilderness was a place of testing for Jesus. However, He was not alone there. Jesus encountered evil in the presence of Satan. Wild beasts inhabited the desert. God's angels were there as well. God did not leave his Son on his own during the desert testings. And what can we glean from this when we go through our time in the desert? Even in the worst of times God is there with us.
The other gospels emphasize Jesus' faithfulness in the wilderness. Mark, on the other hand, uses the occasion to show us glimpses of what God can do once Jesus has been endowed with theHoly Spirit
Satan was confronted and served notice, the wild animals were kept at bay and John the Baptist's public ministry was coming to a close.
The wilderness time had served it's purpose. Now the time is right for Jesus to begin his ministry. You have to love the economy of words in Mark's gospel. He describes Jesus ministry in 2 verses: "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.'"
Jesus is announcing the dawn of a new era, one in which God rules. The kingdom of God is not some far away place that people are taken to. To those who listen, Jesus says that God is bringing new realities into being. These realities are demonstrated by Jesus' words and actions. His very presence has given humanity a vision of God like never before.
That does not mean that life in this world will be all smooth sailing for God's people. We will still encounter danger as followers of Jesus. The kingdom of God has broken into our lives and our world. However, we have not yet experienced the consummation of that kingdom and will bnot until Christ returns in glory. That is why we talk about the now/but not yet of the kingdom of God. I like the way the late theologian, William Placher explained this. "What Jesus is beginning is the transformation of this world. That is why those in charge of this world as it was ended up killing him" (William C. Placher, Mark Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010, 35).God doesn't test us to be mean to us. Testing is to help us grow in faith and to show us that in the power of the Holy Spirit, we can successfully come through the test. The end result of the test is to bring us closer to God and to make us more Christlike. During such a time, Satan has his own agenda, to turn us from God so we will succumb to temptation and sin. We need to remember during difficult times that God is right there with us.
Our journey through the wilderness of 40 days of Lent can be a spiritual experience. It can be one of solace and nourishment. If we want to be effective in ministry, we have to go through the desert experience, just as our Lord did.
Can we learn the truth of all that it means to be the Beloved of God? It's not easy. God challenges us to confront the trials that we will experience in the desert, but once we come out of the desert, we will be prepared for the challenges of our ministries that will lead to the cross and subsequently, to the brightness of Easter. Amen.