Lent begins in the wilderness, and that’s not a particularly safe place to be.
In any wilderness, you face tangible risks both physical and mental, and in the Bible, wilderness always signals a place of grave spiritual peril, too.
Wilderness is scriptural shorthand for the realm of the devil, the danger of temptation, and very-real threats to mind, heart and soul.
The story of God begins in the wilderness. As the book of Genesis tells it, before God created the cosmos, there was nothing but chaos – an endless, formless void of darkness, danger and death.
In no possible way could life as God intends and we desire ever flourish until the Spirit of God started moving across the chaos, separating the pieces, sorting things out, and carving out nourishing places where God’s creation could bloom and grow.
If you’re going to accept the Holy Spirit’s invitation to follow Jesus to the cross of Good Friday, then you have to start your Lenten journey in the exact-same place where God started, where Jesus started. You have to start in the wilderness.
That’s also where John the Baptist started.
John first ventures into the wilderness to declare the fulfillment of God’s promises that yes, indeed, the Lord will pave a way to forgiveness, redemption and salvation – a highway leading to the kind of peace that surpasses all understanding. And milepost zero of that road is firmly planted in the rocky ground of extreme wilderness.
Jesus then joins John in that wilderness place but is no sooner baptized and hailed as God’s beloved Son before being violently thrown and literally hurled into a far-deeper wilderness experience where prowling animals with growling stomachs lurk in search of their next meal and evil most-definitely is on the loose and running roughshod.
Lent begins in the wilderness, and that’s precisely where this morning’s Scripture lesson takes us.
Listen with courage and hope for the Word of the Lord in these verses from the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel.
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)
In an episode of the TV series M*A*S*H, the army medical unit’s priest, Father Mulcahy, tries to comfort a wounded soldier who’s been severely traumatized by what he’d just experienced on the front lines of the Korean War.
But when the mild-mannered priest confesses that he’s never been anywhere near the front lines of battle, the soldier announces that the two of them have nothing to talk about. He has no interest in hearing the however-well-intended religious cliches of someone who’s never actually been in on the action and thus know firsthand how bloody traumatic warfare really is.
Later in the episode, in an effort to walk a mile in that soldier’s boots, Father Mulcahy sneaks off to a front-line aid station and comes under intense enemy fire.
As bullets fly and bombs explode, Father Mulcahy has to perform an emergency medical procedure on a badly wounded soldier.
Upon returning to the M*A*S*H unit, Father Mulcahy revisits the bedside of the soldier who’d earlier rejected his pastoral presence. But this time, the visit goes well, because things have changed. Both soldier and priest now have a common frame of reference. They are speaking and understanding the same language borne of the same experience.
And so goes the speaking and understanding between Jesus and us.
Jesus could not – with any credibility – proclaim that the Kingdom of God is near until he himself had been to the front lines, until he himself had ventured into the wilderness of spiritual peril to engage the evil of this world head-to-head, eye-to-eye, and toe-to-toe.
So, when he speaks those words of promise and hope – the Kingdom of God is near, you know that’s not just a sunny prediction of a starry-eyed optimist thumbing through the latest self-help book or slapping a feel-good bumper-sticker on a car.
No, the announcement that the Kingdom of God is near comes from someone who’s felt the real pain inflicted by the jagged edges of real life in a broken and fearful world.
And, even so, in the end, Jesus emerges victorious and comes out on top. The challenges and heartaches of this world that make us pine for coming of God’s Kingdom will not thwart or stand in the way of the arrival of that same kingdom. The post-wilderness Jesus is living proof!
“Jesus was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.”
That’s all Mark shares in his typical get-straight-to-the-point style of writing. Maybe there’s nothing more to be said. Because he’s providing an early gospel confirmation of this assurance: Wherever Jesus goes, peace somehow always follows.
Jesus will touch the unclean and not become unclean but instead will leave cleanness behind.
Jesus will see the blind and leave them sighted.
Jesus will speak to the deaf and leave them hearing.
Jesus will teach the ignorant and leave them enlightened.
Jesus will touch the dead, and they’ll come back to life.
Jesus will enter headlong into situations of despair and isolation and always leave behind an abundance of hope and full restoration of community.
Lent begins in the wilderness, in the worst parts of life in a fallen world. Lent begins in the wilderness as a reminder and assurance that this Jesus is cleaning up our messy world and transforming those of us in it simply by his holy presence among us.
Lent begins in the wilderness so that, by the time we see Jesus enter into nothing short of hell and death itself come Good Friday, we will, in no uncertain terms, have a solid sense that, somehow, some way – by a grace and a power that we can scarcely imagine, Jesus will leave even those morbid places changed for the better. Jesus will pass through death and leave life in his wake.
It’s a strange and mysterious transformation that Jesus works again and again. But it’s a little less mysterious when we remember the very first thing Mark tells us: This is Jesus we’re talking about – the very Son of God who takes center stage in the drama of salvation. That little fact doesn’t change the wonder of his peace-giving and -restoring powers. But it sure explains a whole lot!
Maybe it explains a whole lot about the meaning of baptism, too.
In baptism, God claims Jesus as God’s beloved child. And because of that pedigree, God sends angels to attend to Jesus as he faces temptation and evil.
The common thread of both moments is the close, loving intimacy of God. In those pivotal moments when the going gets tough, God is the One who really and truly gets going. God is extraordinarily present with Jesus – as much as God is incredibly near all those whom God has claimed in baptism and proclaimed beloved.
We cry out with the psalmist a Lenten refrain:
“How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” (Psalm 13)
And God responds – picking us up, turning us around, and placing our feet back on a firm foundation. Again and again, God meets us where we are, but God doesn’t leave us there to fend for ourselves.
God carries us from sinking sand to solid ground, from navel-gazing by ourselves to restoration in community, from personal piety to liberty and justice for all. God, through the effort of the Spirit, moves you and me away from beliefs and behaviors, both personal and systemic, that frustrate God’s vision for the world.
God didn’t just send Jesus to suffer. God delights in Jesus, expressing joy for his belovedness, in the same way that God delights in you and me. It matters not what we do or what we’ve done. God simply delights in who we are – in whose we are.
We belong to God, and we are God’s beloved.
And with that, God meets us at the edges of everything – in suffering, uncertainty, reluctance, fear, loneliness. You name it: God meets us there at those gritty, brittle edges and promises to stick with us, forever and always watching over us through the wilderness times of our days.
In the end, maybe we don’t even need that part about the angels attending Jesus to understand why Jesus’s tempting by the devil turns out so well.
Jesus wins, because Jesus is beloved. He wins so marvelous a victory that, for at least a while, peace bursts forth. By grace we call amazing, life explodes onto the scene in a place of death.
Maybe that’s why Jesus has to be tossed out there as an immediate consequence of his anointing by God in baptism.
Unless the nasty powers that be are met head on, evil cannot be dealt with. God cannot bring salvation by remote control, pushing buttons, and directing the action from a distance some light years away.
God must mix it up with evil, and that is precisely what God does through Jesus. God even, at times, wrestles evil into submission through you and me – through the words of our mouths and the works of our hands.
Wherever are the raw, jagged edges in your life right now, God – and maybe a few angels for good measure – will greet you there.
In the wilderness.
As another Lent begins.
And we trust in the steadfast love of God and rejoice in our salvation.
Pastor Grant VanderVelden shared this message on the first Sunday in Lent, February 21, 2021. It is the first in a series of sermons around the theme “Again and Again: A Lenten Refrain,” which draws on Psalm 13. Scholarship, commentary and reflection by T. Denise Anderson, Lisle Gwinn Garrity, Scott Hoezee and Pheme Perkins inform the message. (Artwork: Lisle Gwinn Garrity, I Delight in You, SanctifiedArt.org)
Our morning song is “How Great Thou Art” by StikYard: