There is a movement in the gospel of Mark which repeats itself at the critical points of the gospel. That movement is from glory into the wilderness. Last Sunday we saw it in the story of the Transfiguration which is found right at the mid-point of the gospel: there is a moment of glory on the mountain top where Jesus becomes a dazzling light and is seen with Moses and Elijah, and the voice of God says “This is my Son, the Beloved.” Then, moments later, Jesus comes down from the mountain, and is immediately plunged into the wilderness of human need and suffering.
That movement will be repeated in Holy Week, at the climax of the gospel. On Palm Sunday, Jesus will be paraded into Jerusalem, with excited crowds running alongside him shouting “Hosanna, Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord.” And yet, only five days later, Jesus will be paraded to Calvary, and there he will enter the wilderness of death.
The movement from glory into the wilderness begins in today’s scripture, right here in the opening scene of Mark’s gospel. From the glory of his baptism, Jesus is driven immediately into the wilderness. Mark tells this story in a rush. There’s no time for us to imagine that just because he is named as God’s beloved, with whom God is pleased, that Jesus is going to have a comfortable, privileged life. Nor are we allowed to believe that it was Jesus’ initiative to go to the wilderness as the next step in his plan. No, we’re told that the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness, in fact the literal translation is that the Spirit threw him out into the wilderness. This is not wilderness by choice, like some weekend camping trip. This is wilderness that hits unexpectedly, that hits hard, the wilderness we don’t get to choose.
Because that’s how real wilderness hits us. We’re thrown into it. By sudden illness. By rejection. By job loss. By family breakdown. By our own mistakes. By people who drive us out. Even by death, as we reminded ourselves on Ash Wednesday.
Sure, there are moments of glory. But much of life is spent in the wilderness. If you haven’t been there yet, you will be. And the wilderness is hard. There is pain and suffering. There is isolation and loneliness. There is testing and temptation. There is fear and uncertainty. There is silence. It’s not something we choose, it’s something that we are thrown into. If you want an image of what that looks like, think of the pictures of those parents waiting outside the school in Parkland, Florida on Ash Wednesday this past week. Wilderness is hard.
After Jesus’ baptism, after that moment of glory when the voice from heaven said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased,” the Spirit immediately threw him out into the wilderness.
When we are thrown into the wilderness, what will sustain us? How are we going to get through it? One thing that sustained Jesus, that gave him the strength to stick it out was surely his baptism. At his baptism, Jesus learned who he was. He was given his identity as a child of God and then he was assured by the voice from heaven that he was both worthy of love and loved, and that he was of value and valued. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
And so it is with each of us. At our baptism, God gives each one of us these same gifts. You were given the gift of identity, you were named and adopted and re-born as a child of God, and then you were affirmed. You were told that you are worthy of love, and that God loves you, and that you are of great value, and that God is pleased with you. That is who you are, and that is how God feels about you. And if you can trust and accept these gifts, this God-given identity and this God-given affirmation, these will sustain you in the wilderness, just as they sustained Jesus throughout those forty days.
But there is more. Yes we are sustained by knowing who we are and by knowing that we are loved and valued. But when you are in the wilderness, when you are in a place of desolation and isolation, you also need to know that you are never really alone.
Mark’s gospel is so sparse, so lacking in detail that much of Jesus’ time in the wilderness is left to our imagination. He doesn’t fill in the details of the testing by Satan the way that Matthew and Luke do. But even in this briefest of accounts we are told that when Jesus was in the wilderness, even with nobody around, he was never really alone. He was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him. God is with us, wherever we are, even when we’re in the wilderness, even when there’s no one else in sight. One way or another, whether it’s the wild beasts or the angels or however else you might experience it, you are never alone, for God is always with us, just as God was with Jesus in the wilderness, just as God promises to be with us always.
And so, secure in our identity as children of God, assured of our worth and that we are loved, knowing that we are never really alone because God is with us, we can get through the wilderness.
And there is more. The wilderness is not just something to be gotten through. The wilderness can be redemptive.
I have never sought the wilderness, it’s too hard. But when I have been thrown into the wilderness, it’s at those times that I’ve known God’s presence and heard God’s voice with a clarity that eludes me amidst the distractions of everyday life.
Jesus is thrown into the wilderness. And he stays there for forty days. Why? Because he is a prophet, and that’s what prophets do. The two greatest of the Old Testament prophets both spent forty days in the wilderness. In the book of Exodus we are told that Moses went up the mountain and he entered a cloud and he was in that cloud on the mountain forty days and forty nights. And what happened after those forty days? God spoke to Moses. In the book of Kings we are told that the prophet Elijah, depressed and ready to end his life, was sent by God into the wilderness, and he went forty days and forty nights. And what happened after those forty days? The word of the Lord came to Elijah, and he met God in the sound of sheer silence.
There is a clarity in the wilderness, an ability to hear God’s word without it being drowned out by the distractions of everyday life.
Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days. And what happened after those forty days? He returned to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.
The wilderness is where we get to know God and to hear God’s voice.
I had a friend who was diagnosed with terminal cancer at a young age. Now that’s what you call being thrown into the wilderness. It was hard. But my friend told me in the midst of it all, that it was there that he came to know God. On more than one occasion, the place where he came to know God and hear God’s voice, was in the cancer ward, in the middle of the night, as he waited in the hallway to be wheeled into surgery. There is a clarity in the wilderness, an ability to know God’s presence and to hear God’s voice in a way that we often miss in the noise and distraction of everyday life.
Wilderness is not something we seek. But we know as children of God, loved by God, affirmed by God that when we are driven into the wilderness, we will not be alone. God will be with us, and by his grace, we will know his presence, and hear his voice, and we will prevail and come out the other side.
Homily: Yr B Lent 1 Feb 18 2018, St. Albans
Readings: Gen 9.8-17; Ps 25.1-9; 1 Pet 3.18-22; Mark 1.9-15
Image by Yeowatzup, Creative Commons