By The Very Rev. Sherry Crompton
March 1, 2009
Read: Mark 1:9-15; Genesis 9:8-17; 1 Peter 3:18-22
This is the first Sunday of Lent and the readings are simply packed full of meaning and are very nicely tied together. Lent is the church season, the 40-days, in which we intentionally focus on self-examination. Today we’ll focus on the wilderness experience as the basis for that self-eximation.
A friend once received a postcard. He said, “On one side was a picture of a teddy bear standing in a garden beside its wheelbarrow, trowel in paw. This bear had produced a bumper crop of carrots and lettuce that filled the wheelbarrow. Then, as he turned the card over, he found himself looking no longer at a garden but instead at a barren wilderness. The note read, do you think we could talk sometime? I’m going through a time with a lot of doubts, and it makes me very uneasy.
From garden of delight to awful wilderness with the flick of a card. It doesn’t take much to turn the most luxurious garden life into a very lonely wilderness, does it? We’re all of us just a turn, just an event away from the wilderness of testing and temptation.
Mark’s brief description of Jesus’ time in the wilderness is an excellent reminder at the beginning of the Lenten season. Any Christian walk will be diminished if it does not include personal time, time alone with God in a place apart. In today’s reading, however, Jesus provides a model for life and ministry that is founded on time alone and apart from the distractions of everyday life. Of course, the irony of this story is that Jesus is not really alone. While in the wilderness, he is tempted by Satan, encounters wild beasts, and is ministered to by the angels.
From this story, it is possible to draw some interesting parallels to modern experience. The constant activity of daily life often distract us from both positive and negative inner experience. Sometimes it is only when we get away and spend some quiet time apart from all the distractions that we can confront the demons within ourselves. It is instructive that Mark’s account of the temptation does not attempt to describe the nature of Jesus’ encounter with Satan. It is enough to recognize the struggle without trying to provide a narrative and dialogue. The honest struggle with the adversary is what counts for Jesus and for believers today. Yes, the time apart can be difficult. It can force us to confront demons that we avoid in everyday life, but it is also the time in which we can receive the ministry of angels. In the wilderness, we can learn that God will bless us and equip us for God’s service in the world. And, we don’t have to go to the Judean desert to find this wilderness. The opportunity to be alone and apart is all around us, and we should take advantage of it not only during this time of Lent but throughout our walk with Christ.
Wilderness. In this context, the word does not imply time spent communing with what we call “nature.” Wilderness is a place of danger, of ever-present threat, of the Great Unknown. Those who are in the wilderness know, at the deepest level possible, that they are not in control anymore (and possibly even realize that they never were!).
Wilderness times challenge us, not just by showing us that we don’t have all the survival skills we would like, but by calling into question our very identity.
The wilderness doesn’t ask us, What can you do about this situation? It asks us, Who ARE you in this situation? Which is why we avoid the wilderness. Which is why Jesus DOESN’T avoid the wilderness! Which is why the Spirit won’t LET him avoid the wilderness. Which is why the Spirit won’t let US avoid it, either.
It is in the wilderness of danger, where God seems to have abandoned us, that Jesus survives, and he – and we – discover who we really are in this situation. The desert is a wild and dangerous place. It’s very hot in the daytime, and it’s very cold at night. Sometimes the wind blows, and it blows so much that it completely changes the way things look. There is a true story told by Stephen Covey about a man who experiences a time in his life when everything seemed flat, boring, dull.
He went to this physician who found nothing wrong with him physically. The doctor then suggested that he take a day for some spiritual renewal. He was to go to a place that had been special to him as a child. He could take food, but nothing else. The doctor then handed him four prescriptions – one to be read at 9 AM, one to be read at noon, one at 3 PM, and the final one at 6 PM. The patient agreed and the next day, drove himself to the beach.
At nine AM he opened the first prescription, which read. “Listen carefully.” For three hours do nothing but listen??? Our friend was annoyed, but decided to obey. At first he heard the wind, the birds, the surf–predictable beach sounds. But then he found himself listening to his inner voice, reminding him of some of the lessons the beach had taught him as n child–patience, respect, the interdependence of the different parts of nature. Soon, our friend was feeling more peaceful than he had in a long time.
At noon he opened the second prescription, and it said, “Try reaching back.” His mind began to wander, and he discovered himself being overwhelmed by all the moments of joy and blessing and giftedness he had been given in the past.
At three he opened the third prescription. This one was harder. It read, “Examine your motives.” Defensively, this man listed all the motivating factors of his life – success, recognition, security – and found satisfactory explanations for them all. But finally it occurred to him, in a shattering moment, that those motives were not enough, that the lack of a deeper motive probably accounted for the staleness and boredom of his life.
“In a flash of certainty,” he wrote, “I saw that if one’s motives are wrong, nothing can be right. It makes no difference if you are a scientist, a housewife, a mail carrier, or an attorney. It is only when you are serving others, that you do the job well and feel good. This is a law as irrefutable as gravity.”
At six PM he read the final prescription. It said, “Write your worries on the sand.” He took a shell, scratched a few words, and then walked away, never turning back. He knew, with a great sense of relief, that the tide would come in, and his anxieties would be washed away.”
My friends, The Wilderness – the aloneness – the solitude that the wilderness affords – the hardship – is an opportunity – a blessing – from the Spirit of God. It is a place where we can be tested – a place where we can grow into the maturity that we require so that we can indeed face the world, in both good times and in bad, and do there those things that God would have us do.
Out there on the backside of the desert, a new garden is created. A new Israel merges. A new Adam arises. A new possibility is born.
Hear the Good News of the gospel: “As I walked with my beloved Son as he encountered Satan in the wilderness; as I raised him up from even the darkest hour, I will walk with you through the wilderness as well. I have a land of promise for you. I have a mission for you to accomplish. I will raise you up and bring you through every wilderness.”
While every garden is but the flipside of a wilderness, the good news of the gospel according to Mark reminds us that every wilderness can become a garden of life and growth and trust because one day long ago the Spirit sent Jesus out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. Amen.
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