A little over two weeks ago, the Forest Hill Church pilgrims were driving south on Highway 90 from the Galilee region alongside the Jordan River toward Jerusalem. We were dropping in altitude down into the Judean desert. Our tour guide, Rula, pointed out the place east of the Jordan where Jesus was baptized by John. The location is markedwith a sign indicating its significance. TBut it’s on the Jordanian side of the river, so to enter the site, you have to cross into Jordanian territory–once a year Christians from Israel and Palestine are allowed to cross over to commemorate the baptism.
On the opposite side of the highway to the West are the stark hills of the desert. The landscape is much like the image on the front of our new, beautiful table paraments. Hills jet up behind one another. The desert is barren, stark, sparse, dry, hotter than heck. It’s understandable why it’s called the wilderness.
That foreboding land across from the Jordan, Rula pointed out, is where Jesus spent 40 days and 40 nights to fast and be tempted and to be ministered to by the angels of God.
Now, I knew that this story would be the lectionary passage for this first Sunday of Lent. I knew that I would be preaching this Sunday. So I tried to imprint that landscape in my brain. The river on one side and the deserted wilderness on the other. I wanted that image to be in my mind as I prepared and played with this text. to shape my understanding of what those 40 days were like for Jesus.
Our text this morning– like the desert itself– is sparse and lovely. In Mark’s fashion, he tells only the bare bones of the story. He gives us the basics. Luke and Matthew give the details of Satan’s temptations. But not Mark.
The story is simple and straightforward enough. We have to listen to the gaps as well as to the words.
The story begins with John the Baptist, this wild-looking zealot wearing camel’s hair and eating locusts with wild honey. It makes sense that John has come forth from the wilderness because religious zealots and ascetics often lived in the desert. John preached a compelling message of repentance and baptism, and people from all over journeyed out to this deserted place to be baptized. John made clear that the One was coming, another One was coming who he himself was not worthy to stoop down and tie his sandals.
From Nazareth to the Jordan was about a four-day journey by foot. Jesus appears on the scene to be baptized by John. Just as he was coming out of the water, Jesus 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.”
It seems here that only Jesus heard the heavenly voice. In Luke’s and Matthew’s accounts, the crowd heard the voice too. But here we witness a private encounter between God and his son; a private encounter that came in a dramatic way. The heavens were torn apart! It’s as if the word of Truth about Jesus’ identity was driven through the heavens themselves – through time and space itself – and that Truth of his belovedness, his specialness, would shape and carry Jesus until his death.
Verse 12 is where the intensity of the story lies.
And the Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] into the wilderness.
And the Spirit immediately drove Jesus into the wilderness.
We are used to hearing the Spirit of God called by its many names: Comforter, Advocate, Nurturer and Presence. We’re not used to hearing about the Spirit being one who has authority who drives Jesus out to a pain-filled 40 days. The gentle spirit-dove is the one with authority who commands Jesus, who nudges Jesus, drove Jesus into the wilderness.
Immediately following the voice from heaven came this necessary time of testing.
The Spirit’s driving Jesus into the wilderness was somehow essential to the Spirit’s work in purifying him in readying his for his mission and ministry to bring forth God’s kingdom.
His identity and his understanding of God became clear in those 40 days.
Now this morning in Adult Ed, we had this wonderful professor named Joy Bostick, and she talked about these times of wilderness that clarify what we’re about. She talked about Sojourner Truth being in a wilderness place herself, that clarified her understanding of God. And not only did it clarify her understanding of God, it clarified God’s vision for her life. That time of space and emptiness.
The late spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, called the desert or wilderness experiences in our lives “furnaces of transformation.” He said it is in the fiery furnace of suffering that we are shaped into the child God created us to be. In the book of I Peter it says that we, being more precious than gold, are tested by fire. Our hearts and our souls and our faith go through a purifying and transforming process.
Just like in the Mardi Gras celebration – which we had, our own Mardi Gras celebration this past Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday this week here at church, the night before Lent begins, the partiers wear masks. That’s part of the fun of Mardi Gras! But when Lent begins, the masks need to come off. Lent is the time when we enter into a wilderness of our choosing. We get to face down our false selves, we get to take off the mask, and let the authentic self emerge.
What happens when Jesus comes forth from the wilderness?
When Jesus emerged from the wilderness, John the Baptist had been arrested and was gone. Jesus picked up the mantle and the message of John, and proclaimed that the good news of God had come, that he was the good news of God. He emerged with a clear vision of what he was called to do.
Jesus also emerged from the wilderness as a man filled with compassion for the outcast, for the marginalized, and the dispossessed and the possessed. That’s what times of trial can do for us. Our own suffering deepens our compassion for others’ suffering, and moves us to action. Our suffering should move us to action.
When we read on in Mark, the stories after Jesus’ emergence from the wilderness, and his return to Galilee, are fast moving and power-packed. He immediately called a rag tag band of disciples to follow him. He performed healing after healing after healing. He drives out the demons in people’s lives. The same verb – just as he was driven out into the desert, he drives out the demons in people’s lives
When Jesus himself was emptied while ministering to so many, while healing so many, and when he needed rest and renewal – I love that, that the Son of God needed rest and renewal! – where did he go?
He withdrew – to a lonely and deserted place. He prayed and he was in a deserted place. He had made peace with the wilderness, and it became a place of solace and for reconnecting with God.
This story and the season of Lent offer us two TRUTHS – at least two. And each is a Truth we must understand for ourselves. They are Truths that fit together like the yin and the yang of the Chinese circle. They seem like opposing forces, but really they are deeply interconnected and interdependent.
The first truth is this: Who you are is grounded in the fact that you are Beloved.
Have you ever heard that before here?
You are beloved – at your core you are God’s Beloved and Chosen. Before you were formed in your mother’s womb, you were chosen and loved.
One parishioner lovingly jokes that John and I can’t go one worship service without telling you that you are a Beloved Child of God. I think his actual words were: “We can’t go 10 minutes.” Well, the dominant voices of our society are deafening, telling us not that we are loved; that we don’t measure up to the world’s elusive standards of acceptance; that we are less than we should be; that we have to work harder to keep up; that we are not o.k. just as we are. The world always attaches a qualifier to our acceptance– whether it’s self-imposed or other-imposed. There’s always a qualifier.
That’s why children and adults alike need to hear about every 10 minutes that we ARE Beloved, and it’s not based on anything we do. It’s based on who we are.
And that means all of God’s children in the world- not just Christians. All of God’s children around the world are beloved children. If the church does not proclaim often and emphatically that all people are beloved, who will?
So, dear parishioner, you are correct – I haven’t gone 10 minutes without saying it! Share the good news that on the corner of Monticello and Lee you will hear over and over again that you are loved, that you are loved and chosen. That’s good news.
So, here’s the second paradoxical Truth: As God’s beloved child, you will be driven into “the furnace of transformation.” You will be driven out. Being a beloved child does NOT protect you from pain and suffering. Being beloved and chosen does not protect you from pain and suffering.
Parents understand that we cannot protect our children from failures, or mistakes, or pain. In fact, if we do, we become neurotic – and we make our children neurotic – in over-protecting them.
It is because we are loved that God allows us to be transformed into deeper, more compassionate and mature persons.
Last week, our Faith Leader small group did an exercise called Stepping Stones. Each person told his or her own story by selecting important milestones along their journey, and interpreting those stepping stones through the lens of God’s work in their lives. What we heard repeatedly were the milestones that had the most impact were the painful ones. The difficult times, times in the desert, times of temptation, the losses, and the hardships.
We discussed the truth that most, not all, but most of those events were NOT self-imposed. The moments of growth had been driven upon us without our asking, without our choosing. Illnesses, divorce, loss of loved ones, loss of employment, broken relationships, addictions, dysfunctional families of origin – those were the furnaces of transformation. And some people had all of them. I don’t know why some people get more suffering than others, but it’s true. Even without our choosing, those times and situations move us toward growth.
Being a child of God does not shield us from being driven into the wilderness.
It is precisely because we are held in love that we are able to face down and endure those trials.
Think about it. When you look over your life and what has shaped you – I would bet what will come to mind are not the easy times, but the difficult ones. The fiery furnaces.
Just like Jesus was ministered to by the angels – so each of us who shared felt that angels came to us in all forms: notes and cards, meals and casseroles, a friend’s call at the right moment, a passage from a book, a poem, a sermon or scripture lesson. We were not left alone.
A long time ago I saw a sign outside a church that said, “Have a happy Lent!”
That is a strange thing to say.
Because as I see it, we journey into Lent to face a difficult wilderness of our own choosing. The 36 days left in Lent give us the opportunity to look at our selves more honestly, to evaluate the quality of authenticity of our lives, to strip off at least one mask we habitually wear – perhaps it’s a mask we’ve grown so accustomed to that we’ve confused the mask with our real self.
Mardi Gras is over.
We have to drop the mask. As Joy Bostick said this morning, we have to drop the blinders that keep us ignoring the suffering of those around us.
Let me end by reminding you of the two paradoxical truths from Mark’s story.
First: Each of us is a beloved child of God. Turn to the person next to you and say it out loud “You are a beloved child of God.” [pause]
Clearly, you said more than that! That’s the good news here at Monticello and Lee – share it out there also.
And Second: The God who loves you will drive you toward the fiery furnace of transformation. God allows it.
The mystery and the pain of transformation – even for the son of God himself – is that it comes in the wilderness of our lives. And God allows the suffering, and God does not leave us alone in it. Others have gone before us, who have suffered themselves, and they become for us the agents or angels of God’s compassion. Just as we become for others an angel of God’s compassion too.
That’s the truth.
So be it.