This sermon was delivered on February 26, 2012.
Mark 1:9-15 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 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. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
This is the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, and he doesn’t waste any time on superfluous details. Jesus is baptized, sent into the wilderness, tempted by Satan, helped by angels, and then he’s back to preaching the good news. It’s so brief, such a small mention, that if we wanted to, we could gloss over the wilderness… we could go right to Galilee… but if we did, we would be missing an incredible opportunity.
This story, of Jesus entering into the wilderness, and staying for forty days, is at the center of our Christian practice of Lent. We take this time to go into the wilderness with Jesus, to consider what it is like to be alone with God, to be afraid, to be tempted, and to be rescued. It’s an experience we have many times in our lives, but we rarely recognize it, or appreciate the wilderness for what it can teach us. Instead of staying forty days, like Jesus did, most of us do whatever we can to spend as little time in the wilderness as possible. It’s understandable—we don’t like to be uncomfortable…we don’t want to be sad or angry or confused, or whatever the wilderness looks like for you.
We live in a world and a culture that tells us we are supposed to be comfortable and happy all the time, so when we aren’t, we try to remedy that as quickly as possible. We distract ourselves with TV or other entertainment. We numb ourselves with drugs or alcohol. We seek out cheap thrills through gambling or other risk-taking. We ignore our feelings and put all our energy into others. We do all these things because the hardest thing to do is to sit with the discomfort. To sit with, and feel, sad, depressed, angry, grieved, or afraid. The problem is, of course, that if we don’t sit with those feelings—if we put them off with some other distraction—we just postpone them. Being human means we will be uncomfortable sometimes. We need to feel those feelings, as hard and bad as they may be, and if we distract ourselves with something else, we will still have to deal with them eventually.
And this, I think, is what Lent is about., This is a season in the church year that is set aside for us to sit in the discomfort—to go into the wilderness, with the glorious promise that Easter is just forty days away. This is the good news—that our time in the wilderness will end. Perhaps there will be terrible times ahead, but in the end, ultimately, we will have Easter. We will have the promise of life and love overcoming death. Keeping that promise in the back of our minds, we are equipped to wander into the wilderness with Jesus, able to experience the discomfort, the temptation for distraction, the pain of being alone and afraid…because we know that Easter will come. We know that God is with us throughout the discomfort, the pain, the depression.
I have always had a deep connection to the wilderness of Lent. Lent has often been the hardest time of year for me. I returned yesterday from a wonderful ten-day vacation in Salt Lake City. I had a great time, seeing friends, relaxing, knitting for hours every day, eating at my favorite restaurants… It was just what I needed to recharge and relax. But, I am reminded today that Salt Lake City used to be my wilderness.
When I first moved there, I felt alone. I didn’t know anyone except my partner and her friends, and I felt like I was surrounded by conservative Mormons who would hate me. I was a housewife with nothing but time and worry on my hands. I knew I was called to be a minister, but I got rejection letters from churches across the country several times a week. I was in a dark place, despite the fact that from the outside, my life probably looked wonderful. I was with a woman who loved me, I had a beautiful home, adopted family and friends, gorgeous scenery, time to make art, and plenty of freedom to do whatever I might want. Many women would like nothing more than that life. And yet, I was in the wilderness.
Despite all the amazing things about my life at that time, I was terribly sad. I knew I was not doing what I was meant to do—I was not living out my calling—and so, I was not happy, even though my life and circumstances were seemingly perfect. Eventually, I found my own friends and a loving community in Utah, and when I moved to Santa Cruz, after a very long job search, I missed them—and everything else about Utah—terribly. Almost without realizing it, my wilderness had become my home. So when I go back for a visit, I feel so comfortable, relaxed, and at peace, that sometimes it’s hard to remember how hard it once was to live there. But that’s the thing, isn’t it? If you’ve been in the wilderness—the spiritual wilderness—and come out of it, you know that as hard as it once was, it can be a healing experience to go back, to be reminded of where you were and how far you’ve come.
If we learn nothing more from the story of Jesus, we should understand that the wilderness is necessary and inevitable if we want to move forward on our spiritual path. It’s not always easy to connect with God. Life gets in the way. So sometimes it’s not until we hit bottom, or enter into our own wilderness, that we figure out how close God is to us—how close God has always been to us…and realize that we just couldn’t see it before.
In our reading today from Mark, we only get a brief mention of Jesus going into the wilderness and being tempted by Satan, then being saved by angels. It would be easy to gloss over it, to assume that it was something Jesus needed to do, to go through, and wasn’t really that big of a deal…but, forty days?! That’s a long time! And why would the Holy Spirit send Jesus to the wilderness if it wasn’t important? But that’s the thing: it was important! It was a time for Jesus to embrace his humanity, to struggle with the temptation for immediate gratification in the way we all need to struggle, and then to reject it, to reject the fame, the power, the shallow kind of Messiah he could have been. Jesus knew he was more than that. He knew it was necessary to eventually go into the wilderness, to feel what it was like to be lonely, to be sad, to feel all alone…and then to realize that no matter how lonely you might feel, God is always with you. Always there, accompanying you on your journey.
Because that’s the thing about this story…Jesus didn’t decide on his own to venture into the wilderness for forty days. He was compelled to do it by the Holy Spirit…basically, God pushed him out into the desert. They key to this story is to remember what Jesus heard right before he left: "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." Despite being in the wilderness, being tempted and tried, being hungry and thirsty and all alone, God was with him, confirmed by those last words he heard.
The love of God saw Jesus through his wilderness, and it can see us through ours. We may not all hear an audible voice from on high telling us how much God loves us, or how pleased God is with us. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that. But, we do hear it from each other. Not only do we read it in the Gospels, we understand it through the love of our friends and family, through the beauty of creation, through the miracle of community. God’s love for us is incredibly obvious if we are open to seeing it, to accepting it, and that means that even when we are in the wilderness, God’s love is right there with us, seeing us through to the end…Seeing us through to Easter.