People Get Ready
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 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. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Jesus had no time to enjoy the moment of his baptism, or to relish the sound of his father’s voice; no time to soak in the holy. That day he was baptized by John in the Jordan River was a day worth celebrating. I mean, for Christ’s actual sake, the heavens tore apart. The Spirit bolted from the celestial realm, and a voice came from heaven declaring Jesus God’s very own son, the beloved. It was a baptism like no other. Maybe his mom and dad had planned a little lunch back at the house afterwards. But who could imagine how things would go? As it turned out, the guest of honor would not be at any post-baptism reception, he did not get to enjoy the punch and pimento cheese sandwiches, Lebanon bologna, sheet cake, and deviled eggs. The devil was not in the eggs, that day, but waiting for Jesus in the wilderness with where the beasts were wild, and not roasted, sliced, cold, and served with mayonnaise on a roll. Can you tell I’m missing church food?
Jesus didn’t wander into the wilderness with his bags packed, didn’t hike there for fun, didn’t go there of his own accord; he was pushed there by the Spirit of God, driven like a farmer drives a mule. The Greek word translated here as to drive, also means to cast. It’s the word used to describe how Jesus cast out demons. Jesus was cast out into the wilderness, slingshot from the river to the wild. I’m not suggesting Jesus would have resisted, but Mark is clear Jesus didn’t take the wheel. Nor did he hike out into the woods for some extended personal time. The wildernesses we face are often like that: forced upon us. Rarely do we get to set out into wilderness well prepared, in search of spiritual awakening. Mostly, we find ourselves rocketed into a strange land: illness reshapes the landscape of our lives, turning the familiar to a wilderness. Same with the land of grief, of change, of loss, of newness. We wander, unprepared, and find our way, making it up as we go along, one day at a time. That’s how Jesus found himself in the wilderness too.
In those days, the wilderness in which Jesus spent forty days was literal. It was a physically wild place with real wild beasts, and it was a spiritually wild place, apocalyptic, with the evil of Satan, lurking, tempting and testing him. So much of the physical wilderness in our day has been domesticated. Most must pay the price of admission to view the wild. It takes diligent activism and legislation to keep the wild from being lopped off, dug up, pilfered, dammed, rerouted, and developed, with new neighborhood streets and communities named for the wilderness that was once there: Sweet Birch Ct., Forest Hills Dr, Meadow Creek Ln., and Fawn Leap Way. Jesus spent his wilderness days vulnerable to the dangers and evils of untamed wild.
In our days, the wilderness we often experience is metaphorical, but no less threatening. Our wilderness can be mental, physical, communal, and spiritual. We all find ourselves in a wilderness brought on by well cultivated political divisions, war, poverty, and pandemic. We experience the wilderness of sickness, the wilderness of loss, of trauma. There is the wilderness of wandering through life, wondering what matters, what is it for, what am I worth? The wilderness of despair, of substance use disorders. We can also speak of the wilderness as anything new and different that we experience: a new relationship, becoming a parent, a new job, or retiring after many years of labor.
In those days, the wilderness into which Jesus was driven, he experienced viscerally and spiritually. Wilderness happened to Jesus, very quickly, was dangerous and full of temptations, and he emerged into a world of pain and injustice, where innocent men like John the Baptist get thrown in jail. Out of the wilderness, Jesus immediately got to work with a message that was full of good news. In our days, it is the beginning of Lent and much like Jesus, many feel as if they too have been plucked out of normal and dropped off in wilderness. Less like a dove from heaven, and more like a bat out of hell, a global pandemic interrupted our lives a year ago, and we’ve all been wondering when we get to go back to normal. We would do well this Lent to take a few lessons from Jesus’ time in the wilderness before heading out on his mission to gather disciples and save the world through love.
The first lesson is that after the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness and dropped him off to face Satan and the wild beasts, things don’t go back to normal, not for Jesus, and not for the world. That’s good news. From this moment on there is a savior actively, personally, and intimately involved in our lives. The heavens tore open and things are not the same after that. From this moment we know that God so loved the world that God became human to love us with the kind of love that’s felt on finger tips, and tight hugs, and tender kisses, and beating hearts, which is to say, an in the flesh kind of love. From this moment on, we know that God is in the world confronting evil, healing the sick, embracing the lonely. After this moment, we know that God’s beloved will stop at nothing to wipe away every tear, going all the way to the depths of death to take away sin, to carry us from the grave into eternal light. From this moment on, we are saved. Though the Spirit drove Jesus into this place of wild beasts and tempting evil, Jesus emerges from this place and refuses to let us slip back into normal. In fact, he calls us out of normal: “Repent,” he says, turn away from normal, and turn to the extraordinary, “the Kingdom of God.” Jesus emerges from the wilderness, leading the way forward, not back, forward into a new kind of community, the Beloved Community, the Kingdom of God, and that, he says, is the good news we should believe in.
As we enter Lent, we can follow Jesus and open ourselves to the reality that from the wilderness into which we have been driven, we will not be returning to normal. We can use this season to examine what holds us back from enjoying the life God made us for, what tempts of from being the kind of bold, justice seeking, grace extending disciples Jesus called us to be, what wild beasts of the past, snapping at our heals, must we make peace with? This is a time to prepare ourselves, to confront our temptations and sin, and not to return to normal, but emerge with a message of good news on our lips and a mission of Beloved Community in our hearts.
The second lesson for us to learn from Jesus is that we are not alone. I have not yet mentioned the angels. Mark is concise and every detail he gives us serves us. Jesus faced evil, temptation, and beasts in the wilderness, but at the same time, angels waited on him. Just as Mark describes the earth rattling events of Jesus’ baptism as happening all at once, so he described the wilderness experience as not a string of events, but happening all at once. Jesus didn’t enter the wilderness, and then was tempted by Satan, and then dealt with beasts and then the angels came. No. It is important that we recognize, that even though it was the Spirit of God who drove Jesus into the wilderness, he was not abandoned there, he was not alone. For forty days he was in the wilderness, tempted by Satan, with the wild beats, and angels waited on him.
Beloved, while God does not spare us from the struggles of life, neither does God cause them, neither does God leave us to face them alone. Not only does the gospel make this clear – that Jesus himself was tended by God’s heavenly angels while he faced demons – God does this for us through Jesus. God launched us into this life with all its struggles, temptations, and wild, wild wilderness, but God is not tempting us, seeing if we’ll fail, God is tending us, God came to walk it with us. In Jesus, God continues to be a part of our journey though the Holy Spirit’s constant presence with us, and through the community, the church. What we can discover in the wilderness this Lent is what Jesus experienced: we are not alone in this, not forgotten, not without help. The angels served him.
Finally, beloved, what we can learn from Jesus’ time in the wilderness, is that this is the time to prepare ourselves for the mission ahead. The Spirit launched Jesus into the wilderness, but he launched himself out and right into the work of the gospel for a world that desperately needs him. Mark spends all of two verses on Jesus’ time in the wilderness, before getting Jesus out into the world with the good news, to call disciples and to heal. Let us use this time to prepare ourselves and our church to get to work. We will emerge, in fact we are emerging even now into the Kingdom of God. Our church is not going back to normal, but where we are headed together is so much more. We must learn from the angels who tend those who face their own struggles, we must learn from Jesus and receive the healing and care of those God sends us.
The prophet Isaiah declared, [Thus says the Lord,] “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”
And as Curtis Mayfield declared, “People get ready, there's a train a comin’. You don't need no baggage, you just get on board. All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin’. You don't need no ticket, you just thank the Lord.”