February 21

In and Out of the Wilderness

By Marsh Chapel

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Genesis 9:8-17

Psalm 25:1-10

I Peter 3:18-22

Mark 1:9-15

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“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”  Now there’s a thought for the first Sunday in Lent!  “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”  In the Greek, the verb for “drove him out” is the same verb that Mark uses near the end of the Gospel to describe Jesus driving out those who were selling and buying in the Jerusalem temple.  This is not the only juxtaposition of unexpected contrasts and disquieting imagery in Mark’s description of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.

The first line of Mark describes his Gospel as “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”.  The text goes on to describe John the Baptizer’s ministry, a ministry of baptism for the forgiveness of sins and of predictions of one who will come after him who is more powerful and worthy, one who will baptize the people with the Holy Spirit.  Jesus makes his first appearance in the Gospel as himself just emerging from John’s water baptism. But unlike the description of this scene in Matthew and Luke, where the heavens merely open, in Mark the heavens are torn apart.   The Holy Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove, and a voice from heaven validates him as Son, as Beloved, with whom God is well pleased.  Then, immediately after this awe-inspiring scene, the Spirit is not a gentle dove, a Spirit who leads Jesus into the wilderness as in Matthew and Luke.  It becomes the Spirit who drives Jesus out into the wilderness.  And this is not the wilderness of the hiker’s guides.  It is not a place of beauty and peace, where one can re-connect and rejuvenate with nature.  In Jesus’ time the wilderness was a place of desolation, isolation, and danger. It was full of wild animals and predators who were human.  Jesus spends 40 days in such a place, with only the wild animals and Satan for company.  Although, there were angels too who waited on him.  Finally, the next thing we know is that Jesus is somehow out of the wilderness and beginning his public ministry in Galilee.  He proclaims the good news of God, saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  And yet, this proclamation of good news comes with the background of the arrest of John the Baptizer, that would lead to John’s beheading by Rome’s puppet king Herod.  Mark has been called “The Gospel of Conflict”, conflicts between Jesus and political and religious authorities, and with his hometown, his family, and his disciples.  The mixed energies that surround Jesus throughout his ministry begin with him as he is driven out into the wilderness, driven out into confrontation with that which opposes God, driven out to decide who he will be as a beloved child in a place of hardship and peril for both body and soul.

We can relate.  We too have been driven out of our normal lives into a wilderness for the last year, a place of danger and isolation, even desolation.  We too have faced deadly peril to both body and soul, caught up in a pandemic which for a terrifying while we did not understand and could not control, and which even now challenges our best science and public health structures at every turn.  The indications of climate change in the wildfires burning and the storms battering throughout the country have been mirrored in the fires of anger and frustration about our lack of leadership and preparation and in the battering of seemingly endless revelations of violent injustice against marginalized populations and against our national life.  Our rising rates of clinical depression and anxiety reflect the loss of loved ones, from the greater loss of actual death, to the lesser but still deeply painful loss of physical presence and touch which we can observe but not feel.  These rates of distress also reflect the loss of beloved and nourishing activities, rituals, and routines:  eating together, baptisms, funerals, singing in harmony, hugs.  Predators – who wild animals put to shame – have been our company, as has that which opposes God.  We have all in our own ways faced many temptations toward despair, cynicism, numbing out, and giving up.  And yet angels have waited on us also, certainly for us to see them and recognize them for who they are, and who have kept us fed and connected, have worked to find protection and vaccines, have cared for us in birth, sickness, and death, and have created beauty, humor, and new ways to be together and to encourage one another.  Now we have come through almost a full year, after last year’s Lent in which we began our sojourn in our wilderness.  Now we have come to Lent 2021, not sure that we are out of the wilderness yet, or what time has been fulfilled, or how we are to repent/turn around/change, or what the good news of God is for us now.

Traditionally, Lent has been a time of preparation for new followers of Jesus to receive baptism. Baptism is a sign of right relationship with God and of membership in God’s kingdom through the Church.  For all followers of Jesus, it is a season in the church year of particular reflection.  After the joy of the Incarnation through the birth of Jesus at Christmas, after the revelations of who God is and who God is not in the revelations of Epiphany, Lent focuses on the life, ministry, and teaching of Jesus in preparation for the holy week of his passion and death, and his resurrection at Easter.  In Lent, we join with our companions in Christ to reflect on Jesus as our example for the life of faith, in all its aspects of ministry, challenges, and suffering.  In this 2021 season of Lent, we have a particular opportunity, as individuals and as a community, to reflect on our experiences as people of faith over the last year; we have an opportunity to reflect on our experience through the lens of Jesus’ life and ministry as they led to the Church’s first and most radical proclamation and preaching:  that resurrection is possible with God through Jesus Christ, resurrection even after extremities of conflict, betrayal, suffering, death, and burial.

After the complexities and complicities of the last year, we ought not to expect our reflection to be quick or to yield quick solutions in the aftermath of such upheaval.  Lent in its forty days does give us a good amount of time to get started, and in this year it may be particularly fitting that we begin, as Mark does, with Jesus as he begins his public ministry.

There are four points to consider in the swirl of energies and images that surround Jesus in our scripture this morning.

The first is the depiction of the Holy Spirit.  The heavens are torn apart to make way for it.  It lands on Jesus in acknowledgement, in the form of a dove, a symbol of freedom,  And it is the Spirit who drives him out into the wilderness to encounter its physical and spiritual perils.  In other words, to get Jesus started on his ministry, the Spirit encourages him in his identity and his worthiness for his ministry.  And, the Spirit also gives Jesus unmistakable impetus to face the temptations inherent in his identity as beloved child and in his mission, unmistakable impetus to decide who he will be and how he will act.  The Holy Spirit is actively engaged with Jesus from the beginning, as both empowering witness to who he is, and intentional and even fierce coach who challenges him to decide who he will be and what he will do in the face of adversity and temptation.

A second point is that in Mark’s account, there is no description of the temptations presented to Jesus by Satan.  Matthew and Luke are very specific, and oddly large and general, as to Satan’s blandishments:  personal power to be used for personal convenience or relief at the expense of the dignity of the rest of creation; the trading on one’s power and identity for self-promotion; the choosing allegiance to that which opposes God in exchange for earthly power and wealth.  In Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ temptations, physical and spiritual, inner and outer, remain private:  they are unique to him.

The third point is that, whatever the temptations and perils were, Jesus comes out of the wilderness with the call and confidence to begin a public ministry of proclamation, and with a clear articulation of that proclamation.  God’s good news is this: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent/turn around/change and believe in the good news.”  His confidence and call are such that he persists in his proclamation even in the face of John’s arrest, the arrest of the person who baptized him into a gospel of change and forgiveness.

The fourth and final point is that in all this “in and out of the wilderness”, Jesus is never truly isolated, never really alone.  Whether it is the Spirit with its encouragements and challenges, through the angels who wait on him in the wilderness, or his vision of the good news of the Kindom as near, God is always present with him.  God’s presence and power continue to work in and through Jesus, through the wilderness and through all his life, ministry, death, and resurrection.

As we begin this season of Lent 2021, these points can help us begin our reflections on our experiences of last year, and as we consider where God may be leading us in terms of what comes next.  As we reflect and consider, it is important to be honest with ourselves, and, also to be gentle with ourselves.  Lent is not a time for self-flagellation or suffering for suffering’s sake or the manufacture of guilt over the trivial.  Lent is a time of grace, for our reflections and considerations with God and each other to become information, that both God and we can use to consider and then act:  toward our further growth in the life of faith, toward an increase in our love for God, self, and neighbor, toward change to support the kingdom of God and God’s work of love and justice in the world.

So how has and how does the Holy Spirit confirm and challenge us in who we are, what we do, and who we are becoming?  Who or what else has encouraged us, confirmed our identity as beloved and worthy, even as we were driven out into entirely new circumstances and the need for new priorities?  Who or what has sustained us in the many losses and outrages of this time?  What have been our particular challenges to who we are and what we will do in the face of the many adversities and frustrations of the last year?  Who or what have we encouraged, confirmed and sustained?  Who are we now, what have we done in the face of adversity and frustration, and what might we be and do in the future?

What have been our personal temptations during the last year?  Inner and outer, unique to us?  Not just the big ones, whatever those have been. The little everyday ones too, that are so easy to yield to, especially when we are tired, discouraged, grieving, or frightened, that so often are the ones that can wear away our bodies and spirits down to the nub without our realizing it.  In what circumstances do we feel most tempted to go against what we know to be true or right for us?  How might we or our behavior have enabled yielding to inner or outer temptation for others?  When have we helped to make temptation easier to withstand for ourselves and others?

As we gain information and learn from our reflections as individuals and in community, do we notice patterns of thought or behavior?  Is there anything in what we have learned that calls us. with God’s encouragement, to do, to say, to change, or to begin?  How might we encourage ourselves and each other to answer these callings?

On this first, beginning Sunday of Lent, as we consider the beginnings of Jesus’ public ministry and Mark’s depiction of it, let us also rest in God’s presence and power with us as they were with Jesus, that we may begin to move with what we have learned out of our personal and collective wildernesses, begin to realize how we are to repent/change, begin to see and hear what the good news of God is for us now, and begin to recognize the time that has been fulfilled, toward a turnaround of good news, new hope, and resurrection.


-The Rev. Dr. Victoria Hart Gaskell, Minister for Visitation

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