Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | February 26, 2012

2012.02.26 Welcome to the Wilderness – Mark 1: 9 – 15

Central United Methodist Church

Welcome to the Wilderness

Pastor David L. Haley

Mark 1: 9 – 15

The 1st Sunday in Lent

February 26th, 2012


          “At this time, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. The moment he came out of the water, he saw the sky split open and God’s Spirit, looking like a dove, come down on him. Along with the Spirit, a voice: “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.” At once, this same Spirit pushed Jesus out into the wild. For forty wilderness days and nights he was tested by Satan. Wild animals were his companions, and angels took care of him. After John was arrested, Jesus went to Galilee preaching the Message of God: “Time’s up! God’s kingdom is here. Change your life and believe the Message.” – Mark 1: 9 – 15, The Message

Each year, on the 1st Sunday in Lent, we begin our Lenten journey to Easter with a trip to the wilderness. It’s not an optional side trip, it’s mandatory.

Great, you say, I love the Smoky Mountains, the Rocky Mountains, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, those of some of my favorite places. I love going there, love looking at the scenery out the window of the tour bus, or enjoying the view from under the awning of my motor home.

Uh, that’s not what we have in mind.  Put on a pair of jeans, your hiking boots, fill your pack with whatever you will need, no more, no less. What’s essential for life, and what is not? When you have to carry them on your back, so called necessities can become discarded baggage.

No companionship, either.  This is a solo journey.  You can’t take your iPod, iPad, iPhone, or computer. There’s no reception or internet out there, and no way to charge them once they run down. There’s also the matter of having time to think. Can you handle the silence, in which thoughts and feelings you think you’ve out run will have time to catch up with you?

And the wild beasts, don’t forget about them. It depends on where and what time of year you are going as to what they might be: mosquitoes, deer flies, bears, rattlesnakes?  As soon as these show up, your companions in the wilderness, are you going to stay or are you going to panic and run?

By now you’re probably thinking, “not what I had in mind.”  In fact, you may even be thinking, “Why would anyone in their right mind ever want to experience the wilderness in such a manner?”

Why? Because the wilderness experience, however it is experienced, whether literally or metaphorically, is an invaluable, irreplaceable time of testing, of sounding out and setting the bedrock values of our lives.  Painful though it can be, it can make us tough and true for whatever else life throws at us.  Even the wilderness can be a place of encounter with God.

Personally, it’s been awhile since I experienced it, and I regret that.  With family and church schedules, it’s hard to get away, but I’d be a better pastor if I could do so.

I think, for example, of an Eagle Scout canoe trip I went on years ago in the Boundary Waters. I remember sitting outside in the pouring rain, with absolutely nothing to do, it wasn’t like I could read a book. On that same trip we skirted hypothermia, and later, when the Scout Master accidentally cut a two-inch laceration across the palm of his hand, I sewed it up with a needle, some fishing line, and Leatherman tool, which sent all the more squeamish Scouts running off into the woods. (No, I did not say this is going to hurt me more than it does you.)  I ran into the Scoutmaster in Jewel a couple months later, he held up his hand to show me how well it had healed.

It was such a trip Jesus took into the wilderness following his baptism.  We jump back today, to where we were about a month and a half ago in the Gospel, as if this was a important detail they forgot to tell us then. Mark moves quickly in his Gospel, and in 7 spare verses, he moves at blinding speed. Blink once, and Jesus is traveling from Nazareth to the Jordan River. Blink twice, and Jesus is at his baptism, experiencing his vision of God’s favor.  Blink the third time, and he is pushed out into the wilderness at the Spirit’s leading.  Even for Jesus, his trip into the wilderness wasn’t optional.

Though Mark moves quickly, he fills his verses with echoes out of Israel’s past. Is that Jesus in the wilderness with the wild animals, or Adam naming them in the garden? Is that Jesus in the desert for 40 days, or Moses in the wilderness for 40 years?

Even in the span of these short verses, we recognize the archetypal hero’s journey. The hero is identified (Jesus). He must then experience a time of testing (the wilderness), in which old identities are dissolved and new ones forged. Then – and only then – is he ready to return to society, to bring back the lessons he has learned. (“Time’s up! God’s kingdom is here. Change your life and believe the Message.”)

Some say Mark uses this stark story as a preview of the rest of the Gospel. Because, what Jesus brings back to society is wildness; he becomes the wild beast who refuses to be domesticated into the household of conventional religion. His disruptive, taboo-violating ministry of touching lepers and bleeding women, of healing on the Sabbath, of eating with tax collectors and sinners, turns his earthly career into wildness for everyone else. Time and again we are shown how the scribes and Pharisees and even Jesus’ twelve disciples do not understand. Could it have been that because they did not undergo what Jesus did in the wilderness, they had not learned what he had learned, and could not understand where he was coming from?  There are some things you only learn in the wilderness.

And of all the things we learn there, I think two of the most important lessons are these: (1) We clarify what’s really important, not just in life, but to us; and (2) having experienced and survived the hardships of the wilderness, we’re better prepared for whatever other hardship life throws at us.  You’re heard that phrase, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger?”

Is there anyone here – except maybe the youngest among us, who doesn’t understand – who hasn’t learned – that the wilderness experience is not only literal, but metaphorical; you don’t actually have to go out into the wilderness to experience wilderness experiences in life?

The wilderness experiences are when we find ourselves in life circumstances that are strange and unfamiliar, when we may be in the dark or in doubt or confused, anxious and afraid, and feeling alone, whether we are actually alone or not.  The wilderness experience may also be spiritual; it may be a time of darkness in our relationship with God.

Throughout life, it recurs in different forms. Every year of life we live, every stage of life we go through, whether single or in a relationship, whether marriage or divorce or parenting, whether in adolescence or in aging, we enter new forms of wilderness never encountered before.  Each one is hard, but as we grow in wisdom and maturity, by God’s grace we learn to use the lessons of previous wildernesses to help us through the next one.

Many of us remember what it was like to leave home, to put everything in a car and drive away, perhaps with tears flowing as we realize that we may never ever live there again. Most of us have been through the bliss of falling in love, some of us have experienced the bitter wilderness of when love ends. We’re learned how to parent, and we’ve learned how to send our children out into the world, to make their own way, though we never stop worrying about them. We have learned how – we are still learning – how to face the wilderness of illness and infirmity and tragedy and death.  I wish I could assure you that what we have learned at one stage of wilderness, can fully prepare us for what lies ahead in the next, but you know as well as I do that is not always the case.

As I have been preparing to speak to you today about the wilderness experience, I’ve been living it. Just after experiencing the joy from my new grandson, I came back to greet the news that my father, at age 91, has begun to deteriorate mentally. For several years, he’s been living for several years with Parkinson’s disease. Just after Christmas, he began to experience hallucinations and paranoia, believing that someone was in the house, that he and my mother were being held hostage, and that there were children living in the house. Worst of all he experienced severe insomnia, which, given his confusion, kept my 81 year old mother up awake as well.

Two weeks ago, after two nights without sleep, she took him to the Emergency Room for evaluation. He spent a week in a Geriatric Behavioral Center, where he was cared for and evaluated, and diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, in addition to his Parkinson’s. He returned home last Monday, but as we feared, it proved more than my mom could handle, and on Friday, they checked him into a nursing home, the same home my grandfather spent his last days in. As you might imagine – and some of you don’t have to imagine because you’ve been through it – each step of this has been very difficult for my father, my mother, and all of our family. For example, after 61 years of marriage, as my mom made breakfast the morning after checking my dad into the nursing home, without thinking she put a plate on the table for him.  I’m going down next week, to help out, as we all adjust to this new reality, wilderness experience that it is for all of us.

Such are the wilderness experiences of life: we cannot escape or evade them, but only accept and learn from them, seeking the same trust in God that Jesus modeled all the days of his life, whether in the wilderness, in the garden, or on the cross.

Though without sin, Jesus freely chose John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, practicing what he was to preach. When the voice from heaven told him who he was, he presumed no privilege to that pronouncement of divine favor.  When the Spirit drove him into the wilderness, he did not seek a way out.  The Beloved Son accepted the company God gave him in the desert – Satan, wild animals, ministering angels – with no drama of preferring one to the other.  Here is someone who wastes no time complaining about or defending himself against what comes to him, knowing that ultimately everything comes from God, and every place – even the wilderness – can be a place of divine encounter.

At the wilderness times of life, may God angel’s – whoever they may be – minister to us. The best of them will be people who themselves have experienced and survived the wilderness.  As we do, so may we be angels to others.  Amen.

(For this sermon, I want to acknowledge Barbara Brown Taylor’s commentary in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, p. 45 – 49)


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