Tag Archive: Wilderness

The sermon I preached last Sunday on Mark 1:9-15 at Community Lutheran!

The first Sunday in Lent is always the Temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.  But all of the details that we have in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels, the dialogue between Jesus and Satan, the specifics of Jesus’ temptations, are all absent in Mark’s Gospel.  Mark’s Gospel spends two brief sentences on the temptation before moving on.  Why doesn’t Mark spend more time on this epic showdown between Jesus, the Son of God, and Satan, the adversary?

I think there are two reasons.  First, Mark is more interested in the fact that Jesus has the power to resist Satan’s temptations and to conquer the ruler of this world, then spending time dwelling on details.  Second, Mark’s Gospel is constantly on the move, driving us toward the cross.  Part of Mark’s frenetic, no frills telling of the story is inviting the hearer into the action, asking the question, “how would you respond to this situation?”  Mark wants each of us to become part of the story.  Will we respond with our minds on the things of this world, or on the things of God?

The text begins as Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan.  As he comes up out of the water, the Spirit of God descends like a dove into him.  The Spirit fills Jesus and then immediately drives him out into the wilderness.  We heard that Jesus drove out an unclean spirit a few weeks ago and, here, the Holy Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness.  It’s Mark’s way of saying Jesus is prepared for his mission in baptism and thrown out into the field.

Stanley Spencer - Christ in the Wilderness Driven by the Spirit (From: http://uploads6.wikiart.org/images/stanley-spencer/christ-in-the-wilderness-driven-by-the-spirit-1.jpg)

Stanley Spencer – Christ in the Wilderness Driven by the Spirit (From: http://uploads6.wikiart.org/images/stanley-spencer/christ-in-the-wilderness-driven-by-the-spirit-1.jpg)

The wilderness is the place where the Israelites wandered for 40 years.  It’s the place of danger where wild beasts and bandits roam, but it’s also a place for meeting God.  It’s a place of terror and testing, as well as a place of learning, growth and insight.  Throughout Mark’s Gospel, Jesus goes to the wilderness to find solitude, rest, and to spend time in prayer.  And now, Jesus finds himself in the wilderness, being tested by Satan.  He’s surrounded by wild beasts, which could be life threatening, but he is unharmed.  The coming of the Son of God, now filled with the Holy Spirit, brings order to the wild places and the beasts that inhabit them.  Angels wait upon Jesus, and at the end of 40 days, Jesus rejoins society to proclaim that God’s rule is breaking into the world.  That people should continue turning toward God and having faith and trust in the news that God has won a victory for their sake – and for ours.

As I mentioned before, Mark wants us as the hearers of this story to become a part of the action.   God’s reign is bursting onto the scene and we’re invited to be a part of it.  Jesus’ defeat of Satan in the wilderness will keep playing out in the ways he casts out unclean spirits, heals the sick and suffering, confronts leaders whose hearts are in the wrong place, and finally, defeats sin, death and the devil through the cross and the resurrection.  Mark wants us to know that Jesus not only subdues the wild beasts in the wilderness, but that he’s capable of taming the beasts that dwell in us as well.

We are filled up with the Holy Spirit at baptism and sent out into the world.  And we often feel tossed and blown about by the winds and storms, like Noah with the animals in the ark facing 40 days and nights of torrential rain.  But no matter how bruised and battered we feel, the Spirit is always sustaining us, just as it did Jesus as he battled Satan’s temptations.  And as we face our own trials and temptations in life, we too, have angels, messengers of God, who serve us in the middle of our wildernesses and deserts.  If you take a moment and look at the faces around you, you’ll see exactly what the angels of God look like.

The Holy Spirit fills us up and takes us where we need to go, much as it drove Jesus to the place where he could say “no” to the temptations of this world in order to say “yes” to God.  However, I’ve found that when the Spirit of God takes us where we need to go, sometimes it’s the place we’d least like to go.  Now, please listen carefully.  I’m in no way saying that God causes us to suffer so that we can learn.  God does not wish us ill, but longs for the wholeness and the restoration of the world.  God loves us and wants us to thrive.

Even so, we know all too well that trials, temptations, and difficulties will touch each of our lives.  Jesus’ temptation shows us that the Spirit abides with and sustains us in our wildernesses.  The question is then, “how is the Holy Spirit at work in this? How might God use this situation to bring about good or transformation in my life?”

Even in the good times, the Spirit of God urges us to confront the wilderness and wild beasts in ourselves. Whether that’s examining the ways we focus too much on ourselves and our egos, meditating on our penchant for looking out for ourselves first and foremost, or admitting our unwillingness to take a hard and honest look at our flaws.  We are called to examine ourselves throughout our lives, but especially in this contemplative season of Lent, as we prepare to walk with Jesus to the cross.  As we, too, prepare to say “no” to the priorities of the world in order to say “yes” to God’s priorities.  It is at the cross that we are able to let go and crucify our sins, flaws, errors, mistakes, and hurts, in order to be resurrected with Christ into new life in which we can freely serve and give of ourselves.  Even so, that journey to the cross can be scary.

As we slow down enough to begin the hard work of prayer and reflecting honestly, we hear those voices in our minds – the whispers that tempt us to despair and to doubt.  “If people really knew who I was, they wouldn’t want anything to do with me.”  “I’m not good enough.”  “I don’t know what I’m doing – I feel like an imposter.”  “I have to put on a brave face – I have to hold it together, but I’m falling apart.”  “Does God really forgive me? Does God really love and welcome me as I am?”

We find ourselves surrounded by those wild beasts, threatening our fragile, man-made security.  We hear the snarling and we’re afraid because we think we’re alone in the wilderness.  But Jesus has already defeated the temptations of this world and tamed the beasts.  In him and through him, he’s doing the same in our lives.  In Jesus’ temptation we are reminded that the Holy Spirit is always with and within us, and that God’s messengers, our sisters and brothers in Christ, are present to help us in our difficulties.  We are reminded that God’s rule is breaking in, even in the middle of the awful things we experience.  And we are reminded to turn toward God and to believe – to lean on and trust – that the good news is really for us.  For each and every one of us, no matter what we’ve done, haven’t done, or the ways in which we feel inadequate.

We may think about this text in terms of our own individual struggles and temptations, but it also has a lot to say about our life in community.  The church is drawn together by the Holy Spirit.  We are people from all different backgrounds, journeys, and experiences brought together to worship God.  And we may disagree on some things – that’s only natural -, but at the heart of who we are and what we do, we are united through our belief in Christ.

Where might the Spirit be driving this church? Is it to places we’ve never been? Places we feel uncomfortable going to because “we’ve never done it that way before?” Or might the Holy Spirit be nudging us to stop doing the things we’ve always done because we need to spend our energy on new things to which God is calling us? Today is our Annual Year-in-Review Congregational Meeting.  Rather than being tempted by individual agendas or the worries of the world, it is a time to be filled with the Holy Spirit, sustained in our work together, and driven forward into the future by the breath of God.  It’s a time for us to celebrate the ways we’ve served, learned and grown in the past year, as well as to dream about how God may be calling us to serve, learn and grow in the year ahead.  It’s a time for us to come together as the body of Christ and to spend time in prayer and discernment as to how the Holy Spirit is kindling a fire in our hearts.

Whatever your temptations and difficulties, whatever wilderness you find yourself wandering through, you are not alone.  God is with you and will never leave you, and the community is walking with you.  When I was in the wilderness of discerning where the Holy Spirit was leading me to serve my first call, there was a Phillip Phillips song that spoke to me.  Although it’s a pop song, it reminded me of God’s faithfulness:

Hold on to me as we go
As we roll down this unfamiliar road
And although this wave is stringing us along

Just know you’re not alone
‘Cause I’m gonna make this place your home

Settle down, it’ll all be clear
Don’t pay no mind to the demons
They fill you with fear

The trouble—it might drag you down
If you get lost, you can always be found

Just know you’re not alone
‘Cause I’m gonna make this place your home

May the Holy Spirit fill and sustain us as we contemplate where God is leading and calling us to serve this Lent.  Amen.

© 2015. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

Pointing To The Light

We heard about John the Baptist last week, and again, this week, we get another description of him, this time from the Gospel of John. But what is so fascinating to me is that the description we get of him is really… non-descript! We know that he was sent from God, that his name was John, that he was to witness to the light, and that’s about it. That leaves me with a ton of questions, and apparently, I am not the only one, because the Jewish authorities sent people to ask John who he was. He told them straight up that he wasn’t the Messiah, and when they asked if he was Elijah or the prophet said to come as a forerunner to the Messiah, he answered no. The only thing he would tell them is, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

It reminds me of a song my mom used to sing to me when I was little: “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.”

The original was about a little girl losing her yellow basket, but reading the Gospel, I re-imagined the song going a little something like this:

Are you the Messiah?

No, no, no, no

Are you Elijah?

No, no, no, no

Are you the prophet?

No, no, no, no

Just a voice crying out,

A voice crying out!

I know… it’s sad, but maybe it’ll help me remember all the people John the Baptist was being mistaken for!

So who was this man anyway? What was he up to? And why does it matter for us?

John the Baptist is described here only in terms of what or who he is not. He’s not the Messiah, the one to redeem all of creation. He’s not the prophet Elijah who was carried into the heavens by a fiery chariot and was, therefore, rumored to come back before the Messiah appeared. He’s not even the prophet like Moses who was supposed to come before the Messiah.

And when he is asked “what do you say about yourself,” he says only that he is the voice crying out in the wilderness, “make straight the way of the Lord!” Instead of really answering, he only points to the coming of the Lord. He tells his inquirers that there is one they don’t even recognize standing in their midst – one who is greater than he is and for whom they should be looking. His calling is to “testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.”

Now, the lectionary doesn’t do us any favors here because it leaves out the part of the text that tells us who this light is. It’s the part that goes: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” For those still wondering who the light is, it’s always safe to go with the Sunday School or Seminary answer: “It’s Jesus!”

John is the one called to prepare the way of the Lord, to get people ready for Jesus’ coming, and to point to him when he appears on the scene. He is called a “witness,” or in the Greek, a “martyr,” and indeed, he will give his life speaking God’s truth to the powers that be. His whole identity is bound up in Christ. When Mary visits John’s mother Elizabeth, John leaps in the womb at the sound of Mary’s voice, rejoicing that Mary and Jesus have come near. From the very start, he is intimately connected with the Savior, and as the text tells us, pointing to Jesus was the very thing he was sent from God to do.

Just as John was called to be a witness to Christ, so, too, are we called to point to Christ. This day in Advent is called Gaudete Sunday or Rejoicing Sunday – a day to rejoice at the nearness of the coming of the Lord in a season of waiting and preparation. Part of that means pointing out and rejoicing over the places where we see Christ in the world. As a German theologian put it, “The time of fulfillment has dawned. We are already surrounded by the wonders and miracles of God” (Helmut Thielicke). This week I saw the wonders of Christ in so many places – in the faces of friends at a synod worship service, in the sharing of the Eucharist on Wednesday and with some of our homebound members, in a van full of toys collected for LINK, in laughing and praying with others… The list could go on and on. Where did you see Christ? Where can you point to God’s presence or activity in the world?

The world is full of darkness and difficulty, pain and suffering. Sometimes, life is just rough. We, like John, are called to witness to the light – to point out that God is here among us even if all seems difficult. And when we cannot see God for ourselves, we need others to point to God to help us see. We are called to proclaim with joy the wonderful things that God has done – that God is with us, loves us more deeply than we can even imagine, and has forgiven and welcomed each of us as beloved children. That is amazing news and a reason to rejoice if I ever heard one! It’s the type of news that causes the overflowing of poetic praise we hear in Isaiah: “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness …For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.”

In baptism, we have been clothed with the garments of salvation and the robe of Christ’s righteousness. Just as John’s identity was in Christ, in baptism our identities have been shaped by the cross of Christ and sealed in the Holy Spirit. We know that God’s love for us is not dependent on what we do, the connections we have with people in high places, our jobs, our skills, or the amount of money we have. And out of that wonderful knowledge, our praise is to spring up before all nations. We rejoice because of what God has done for us and we are called to share it with others.

I take heart that John is not your normal, average, everyday person. He was a little weird. He was born to parents far too old to have children, he ate wild locusts and honey, he wore camel hair, a garment which was a sign of being a prophet, and he lived out in the wilderness. The wilderness was not a quiet getaway either, but a place feared and seen as disorderly and dangerous, where wild beasts and fierce bandits lived. It was a place of desolation and waste, where people find themselves bewildered and often lost – yet this is the place where the covenant with is Israel was made. This is the place where prophets lived/fled to. It is the place where Jesus will go to be tested and where he will feed thousands. It is a place of trial and difficulty, but also of learning and strengthening one’s reliance on God.

I find great comfort in the fact that God worked through someone who was on the margins, who was outside of the box in order to point to the light of the world.  I find incredible hope and joy knowing that God can work through each of us, no matter how “unorthodox” it may seem. Because the beautiful thing is that God works through you and me – through the poor, the marginalized, the hurting, the quirky, the broken, the serious, the weak, the imperfect, and the goofballs to bring about healing and wholeness, and the kingdom of God on earth.

John spends his life pointing to Christ, bearing witness to the light and life that will allow humanity to see God and each other more clearly. He is the lone voice crying out and preparing the way for Christ to come and usher in the Kingdom of God. The voice is a powerful concept in Scripture – God’s voice speaks and brings creation into being. The Word of God, Jesus, becomes flesh and dwells among us. God speaks through us and our fragile voices bear the voice and the words of God – comfort for those grieving, hope for those struggling, laughter for those rejoicing, and encouragement for the downtrodden. How will you use your voice to cry out that Christ is near? How will you use your voice to rejoice that the coming of the Lord is near? How will you use your life to point toward Christ in others and in the world?

My prayer is that each of us will find ways of pointing to and focusing on Christ this season and throughout the year. That we would have the bold and audacious confidence of John the Baptist in claiming our identities in Christ, as well as John’s humility in knowing that the one who is coming is the one far greater than ourselves. Amen.

© 2014. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

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