Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | February 18, 2018

2018.02.18 “Head for the Wilderness” – Mark 1: 9 – 17

Central United Methodist Church
Head for the Wilderness
Pastor David L. Haley
Mark 1: 9 – 17
The 1st Sunday in Lent
February 18, 2018

Temptation in the Wilderness

“The Temptation in the Wilderness, Briton Riviere, 1898”

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.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” – Mark 1: 9 – 15, New Revised Standard Version


People have been asking what I am going to do in retirement. I am developing a long list: a lot of fix-it’s, read, revive my Hebrew, study Asian culture, ride my motorcycle, maybe some chaplaincy work, in addition to what which I do already. I have heard the warning from many of you that in retirement, you are somehow so busy that you wonder how you ever had time to work in the first place.

But before I do any of this, after working on this week’s sermon, I now know I need to do something else first, before any of these other things. What that is, is to spend some time in the wilderness. Today I want to suggest that all of us are overdue to spend some time in the wilderness, not just because that is the theme of the 1st Sunday of Lent, but because of the context in which we find ourselves these days.

After this week, some might say, if the wilderness is that place which is unfamiliar, uncomfortable, threatening, and frightening, aren’t we already there?” Yes, pretty much. Those of us “old timers” barely recognize the world we live in, where mass shootings – including mass shootings of school children – occur with regularly.

This last week in particular has been sorrowful, exhausting, frightening, and outrageous. On Tuesday, there was the murder in Chicago of Chicago Police Commander Paul Bauer, by a four-time felon, Shomari Legghette. Bauer, 53, whose funeral was held yesterday, leaves behind his wife and 13 year-old daughter, and was an officer and a man praised by all who knew him. As someone who served as a police chaplain and who once led a funeral for a fallen officer, this was gripping for me: to see again a sea of blue and hear the wail of the bagpipes.

Then, while up here on the altar distributing ashes on Ash Wednesday, I learned of the Florida school shooting, in which 17 people were killed. After learning what happened, as I sat here reading the Prayer of Confession there was a line I could not get past, making me feel on this Ash Wednesday that I (we) needed not just the sign of ashes, but sackcloth and ashes:

“Righteous God, in humility and repentance we bring our failures in caring, helping, and loving, we bring the pain we have caused others, WE BRING THE INJUSTICE IN SOCIETY OF WHICH WE ARE A PART, to the transforming power of your grace.”

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, used to say that when he preached, he “lit himself on fire and people came to watch him burn.” Like many, that’s how strongly I feel about the need for common sense measures of gun control; just don’t throw any matches in my direction. We simply CANNOT stand idly by and offer our thoughts and prayers – as our political leaders do – and watch our children and grandchildren get slaughtered in school. Every country in the world has people with mental health issues, every country has troubled adolescents; we are the ONLY country in the world where mass shootings occur on a regular basis, with the single correlating factor being easy access to guns, including deadly assault weapons.

In light of all that’s going on around us, what do we – the people of God – do; where do we go? According to today’s Gospel, what we need to do is take a trip to the wilderness, following our Master Jesus.

In three out of four Gospels, Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan was a pivotal point, the affirmation of his Father’s love and the beginning of his ministry. But after that, then what? Go south, down to the Dead Sea at En Gedi, get a mud bath, float on the water, and spend a few days in R & R before beginning? Go north, to Galilee, where – as we know – he will in no time be mobbed by demoniacs and sick people, be overwhelmed by the vast ocean of people in need? Go west, up to Jerusalem, take on the Roman and Jewish authorities, which would likely mean his ministry would be extinguished before it started? Or, go that way: out into the Judean wilderness, where there is literally nothing but rocks and desert and – as Mark uniquely adds – the wild beasts.  Why would anybody do that? Why expose himself to hunger and thirst, the elements, loneliness, exhaustion, even delirium? But into the wilderness is where he goes.

Joseph Campbell, the scholar of mythology, wrote a book called The Hero With a Thousand Faces, about heroes in every culture. Campbell concluded that every hero, before undertaking his mission and calling, must first undergo testing. So it was for Jesus, that after his baptism, the Spirit led him into the wilderness for testing, before he undertook the work God called him to do.

While in Jesus’ case, the wilderness was an actual desert; metaphorically, wilderness comes in many shapes and sizes. Instead of being an actual place with rocks and sand and not much water, wilderness can also be an experience we go through in life, when and where we feel like we are alone.

Braving the Wilderness Brene BrownFor example, last year, researcher and best-selling author Brene Brown came out with a book entitled, Braving the Wilderness, and here is what she said about wilderness:

“Theologians, writers, poets, and musicians have always used the wilderness as a metaphor, to represent everything from a vast and dangerous environment where we are forced to navigate difficult trials to a refuge of nature and beauty where we seek space for contemplation. What all wilderness metaphors have in common are the notions of solitude, vulnerability, and an emotional, spiritual, or physical quest.” (Brene Brown, Surviving the Wilderness, p. 36.)

All of us can think of life experiences we have been through that fit these criteria. Maybe it was our family of origin where we felt we didn’t fit in, maybe it was leaving home for school or the military and feeling alone, maybe it was a divorce or dealing with mental illness or some other health issue. At such times we too may have felt alone, vulnerable, and emotionally and spiritually challenged.

Given this, what happens in the wilderness, at the wilderness times of life? For Jesus, he had to answer within himself, who he was, who he would listen to, what would his motives be, what his methods be, and most of all, whether he had the character not to be corrupted along the way (obviously something most of our politicians do not have). He had to determine if he had the courage and endurance to follow it through to the end, likely knowing where it would lead.

But what about though we are not necessarily embarking on a divine, world-saving mission like Jesus was, what do we need to learn in the wilderness? Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor once said that “When it’s our turn, none of us is going to get the Son of God test. We’re going to get the regular old Adam and Eve test, which means that the devil won’t need much more than an all-you-can-eat buffet and a tax refund to turn our heads.”

In her book, Braving the Wilderness, I like what Brene Brown has to say about braving the wilderness. She says that as human beings, one of our deepest desires is true belonging, the innate human desire to be a part of something larger than us. But because this yearning is so primal, we often acquire it by fitting in and seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for true belonging, but barriers to it. So the paradox is, true belonging ALSO means being ourselves and having the courage to stand alone, braving the wilderness of uncertainty, vulnerability, and criticism, the certain consequence of doing this.

The terms Brene Brown uses to describe what we need to learn in the wilderness are: “strong back, soft front, wild heart.”  We need a strong back, the courage to stand alone and say what we believe and do what we feel is right, despite criticism and fear it is certain to bring. We need a soft front (not a armored front, as most everybody has right now), to engage others, including those with whom we disagree. And we need a wild heart, to be ourselves, even if it means “not fitting in,” which comes with a high cost. Brene Brown concludes:

“Once we’ve found the courage to stand alone, to say what we believe and do what we feel is right despite the criticism and fear, we may leave the wilderness, but the wild has marked our hearts. That doesn’t mean the wilderness is no longer difficult, it means that once we’ve braved it on our own, we will be painfully aware of our choices moving forward. We can spend our entire life betraying ourself and choosing fitting in over standing alone. But once we’ve stood up for ourself and our beliefs, the bar is higher. A wild heart fights fitting in and grieves betrayal.“ (Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness, p. 148-149)

Given this, I hope you can now understand why, once I retire, I feel like I need to take a walk in the wilderness, before I began the next and final chapter of my life. I hope you can understand why the Church and each one of us at this critical time in our society needs to head for the wilderness, to ask ourselves these questions: What is my “Strong Back?” Who and what am I willing to stand up for? Do I have a “Soft Front?” Am I vulnerable and courageous enough to engage not only those like me, with whom I agree, but those who are different, including those with whom I disagree? Do I have a “Wild Heart,” am I willing to buck conventionality and not “fit in,” if I believe this is where God is leading me at this time in my life? These are the questions we urgently need to ask ourselves, which we may only be able to ask and to answer in the wilderness.

Parkland FL GriefAs I said, after this week, it seems like we’re already in the wilderness now. After the Florida shooting, our bishop, Bishop Sally Dyck, posted this picture – seen by many of us – of a woman who had been to church on Ash Wednesday to receive the sign of ashes, but now – on the same day – had to deal with this terrible tragedy, likely the worst of her life. Speaking to the clergy of the conference, which I am re-directing to all of us, Bishop Dyck added this comment:

“I would encourage the clergy of the NIC to contemplate this picture, have some conversations and do a little reading and reflection. Preach a sermon in the next week or two, imagining what her pastor/priest will say in his/her pulpit. Listen to what parishioners have to say about what you said . . . . Pray for this woman and all the other families in South Florida. Work for the reduction of gun violence (and that might mean just talking about it in some contexts where it’s not easy). Then let this picture be your prayer to God for her, all of the families, and our country.”  Amen.


Note: If you would like to hear an interview between Krista Tippett of “On Being” and Brene Brown discussing these issues and her work, you may do so here, at “On Being.”


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