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In the Wilderness

This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, 2/18/18 at St. Timothy Lutheran Church. The gospel text was Mark 1:9-15


This has been a hard week. Once again our hearts have broken as we heard the news of violence and death at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. We wonder how long will this insanity go on? Why doesn’t someone do something? What can be done?

Some would say that gun control is the answer. Others suggest arming teachers and other authority figures in the schools. There are so many issues that surround the continuing horror with no simple explanation or solution. On some level, we have all been touched by this. And in the midst of it all, we may wonder where God is and why did God allow this to happen?

God does not force people to do the right thing. We have our own wills, as do those who commit such horrendous acts. Don’t even suggest that “everything happens for a reason,” because that just isn’t so. However, one thing I can assure you of is that even in the midst of terror and horror, God was there with those suffering and will continue to be with the families and community that are now deprived of these lives and their potential.

In fact, God is deeply aware of the hardships and hurt of this world. We see this in today’s gospel, which concerns  Jesus’ baptism and the affirmation of his Father, the temptation in the wilderness and the launching of Jesus’ mission. We would think Jesus’ baptism would be the ideal launching pad for his ministry, but it was not. Before Jesus’ work begins, he has one more place to go—the wilderness, which is where we will spend our time today. A possible theme for this message could be “Life after Baptism,” because it’s a life full of testing.

Right on the heels of Jesus’ baptism, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness” (v. 12). There was no time for Jesus’ to bask in the Father’s love and the Spirit’s empowering. There was no time to enjoy the moment. “Drove” is actually a very mild way of translating the Greek. It means thrown out or cast out. It is the same word used elsewhere in Mark when Jesus “cast out” demons. It is a forceful word.

In Mark, the wilderness is a dangerous, wild place, one of death, foreshadowing the cross. Ironically enough, it was in the wilderness that Jesus was baptized. Later, Jesus also finds comfort in the wilderness. This wilderness time was a time of preparation for our Lord.

Jesus was tempted or tested for forty days and forty nights. Forty is a very symbolic number in scripture. Can you think of any other events that happen in forty days or years? To name just a few, we have Noah and the flood, Moses on Mt. Sinai, Israel in the wilderness, Jesus’ appearance after Easter and so on. For us, it is forty days until the resurrection.

Does anyone still believe in the devil? Satan comes from the Hebrew verb meaning “to be hostile, to oppose.” The noun means “adversary.” In the Old Testament, the adversary is usually a human being, but there are instances where it is a heavenly being and is transliterated as “Satan.” This adversary was very real.

Was Jesus tempted or tested? The same Greek word could be translated either way. It is often used of God testing people, such as God testing Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son (Gen. 22:1). The children of Israel were tested when God gave them only enough manna for each day. In a test, the one giving the test is not trying to make those taking the test fail. The purpose of the test is to determine what they can do.

The antagonists in Jesus’ warfare in the wilderness are not human ignorance and religious-political authority; they are spiritual forces—that oppress human bodies and minds and defy human attempts to subdue them. This world Jesus finds himself in is dangerous.
Jesus was with the wild beasts in the wilderness. One way of looking at this is that Mark is portraying a restored or new creation coming into being where the beasts would pose no threat to Jesus. It is as Isaiah tells of the lion lying down with the lamb, with no harm being done and “a little child [leading] them” (Isa. 11:6); illustrating God’s
peaceable kingdom.

Another way to understand the wild beasts is that God’s provision for Jesus is demonstrated by his being protected from them. God’s “beloved Son” is not left entirely vulnerable to the ravages of the world. Here the animals are not made safe but are kept at bay.

In the last verse of the temptation part of the gospel, “the angels waited on [Jesus]” (v. 13). The verb for “waited on” means served. The whole sentence is in the imperfect tense, meaning that everything was occurring at the same time. While Jesus is fighting the devil, he is with the beasts and the angels are there helping him. It was an intense time of total spiritual warfare in the wilderness (Rob Myallis).

Angel means “messenger.” Earthly rulers used messengers to carry messages to others before we had snail mail, so it was thought that God needed heavenly messengers to carry his word to earth. In Malachi, the messenger goes ahead…preparing the way” (Malachi 1:2), which is quoted in Mark. We may present a contrast between the wild beasts and the angels. The beasts would devour Jesus, while the angels are those who “serve” or “minister” to him.

The Holy Spirit works in the real world of temptation and testing. The universe is made up of unseen beings who influence our lives. Our text mentions a voice/God, the Spirit, Satan, and angels. From our faith perspective, these are part of the real world. It’s a world involving more than what we can simply see with our eyes (Brian Stoffregen).

Do we find ourselves in a wilderness today? Maybe we are in a sea of confusion due to the violence in our world. Maybe we’re trying to make ends meet or mourning over the death of a loved one or a whole host of other things. Somehow in the midst of our wilderness, we experience times of testing. God’s purpose in testing is to help us grow, to show us that in Christ, we have the faith and ability to stand up to the testing, that we will trust God to strengthen our faith and character. At the same time, Satan, the enemy, has his purpose, to turn us from God in difficult times and to tempt us to sin. No matter where testing comes from, the tester does not have the power to make us do something we shouldn’t do. “Temptation is not coercion” (Stoffregen).

Testing is a time we need to be assured of God’s presence and constant love for us. Our own trials prepare us for what we have yet to face. In all of this, can we learn the deep truth of what it means to be the Beloved of God?

Jesus’ baptism does not give him a free pass on the fight against evil. Neither does our baptism. “Baptism into the Spirit of Christ is to be called to, indeed driven into, an adventure that will include testing, challenge, and temptation” (David Lose). After a  time of testing, it can be helpful to share the experience. Maybe that’s why Jesus’ first public announcement follows the wilderness testing. Maybe there is a connection between the Holy Spirit leading us into times of testing and the Holy Spirit speaking through us.

One of my great testings was after my first marriage ended. Not only was my heart broken into a million pieces, but I was struggling financially. I was working at two jobs, sometimes as much as eighty hours a week. It was very tempting to throw in the towel and give up on everything. I had little to show for my many hours of work. What came in went out and I was so tired. I worked my day job, at times taking a nap during lunch in my car. I would go home, eat and nap until I had to get up to go to my night job. I was stuck in a frustrating cycle. It was only because of my brothers and sisters in Christ, with the assurance of God’s presence, that I could keep going.

Meeting Ray gave me someone special to share life with—the good and the bad. I’m not saying that marrying Ray was the answer to all my troubles, but it sure helped! It is like the saying, “Friendship divides our grief and multiplies our joy.” This is particularly true of spiritual friendships and what can be experienced in the deep bond of marriage.

Together, we are the body of Christ, the family of God. As family, we can help each other through our wildernesses. Don’t be afraid to share with other members of the family. Paul tells us to “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal.6:2).

In our own baptism, we follow the path of our Lord into testing, but that’s not where it ends. We too can come through on the other side of testing into the mission God has for us. During our Lenten mid-week, Dinner Church, we will be discussing baptism and the promises we make. This is a time for all ages to come share a meal and conversation together. This week, we will talk about the promise “To live among God’s faithful people.”

Throughout this season of Lent, let us make room to behold the coming of God’s rule and activity in and through the ministry, suffering, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus. We are easily distracted with all that goes on in our world. Lent helps us make room to refocus and recognize God at work. This work is not limited to long ago but can animate and illuminate our lives today, especially when we are in the wilderness. Remember, you are not alone in your wilderness and pain. Jesus is right there with you—and so are we.

Amen.

References


M. Eugene Boring, Mark: A Commentary

David Lose, …in the Meantime, davidlose.net


Matt Skinner, workingpreacher.org

Brian Stoffregen, Exegetical Notes, crossmarks.com




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