It’s almost fitting that Mark is our lectionary gospel ushering us into the season of Lent this year. How perfect on a Sunday when we have our Annual Meeting afterwards that Mark keeps it short and sweet and gives us the overview of Jesus’ baptism, temptation and launch into ministry.
Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark offers no real details about what happened during Jesus’ time in the wilderness. We don’t learn what the specific temptations were or how Jesus responded to them. Mark doesn’t even assure us that Jesus passed his temptation test. All the writer gives us are two abrupt sentences: “Immediately the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness, and he remained there for forty days, and was tempted by Satan. He was with the wild beasts, and the angels looked after him.” Welcome to Lent everyone!
This account from Mark leaves with me more questions than it does answers. How exactly did Jesus spend his time in the wilderness? Was he tempted 24/7? Did he walk for kilometres each day, or stay in one spot? Where did he sleep? Would Jesus consider himself a camper or would he much prefer a Yurt? What was the silence like, hour after hour? Did he break it up by singing, laughing, or shouting? As the days stretched on and on, did he fear for his life?
In true Mark fashion, all of my questions are left unanswered. But the few details he does include in his account are telling, and they give us much to cling to as we face deserts in our own lives.
You see, Jesus didn’t just decide to wander off into the wilderness this time. He didn’t schedule a desert tour or plan a wilderness marathon to up his daily steps. According to Mark, the Spirit “drove” Jesus into the wilderness. Drove him. Suggesting that perhaps you only go to the wilderness if you have to.
Oddly enough, I find this detail comforting. We don’t choose to enter the wilderness. We don’t usually volunteer for pain, loss, danger, or terror. But the wilderness happens, anyway. Whether it comes to us in the guise of a hospital waiting room, a difficult relationship, a troubled child, a sudden death, a frightening diagnosis, or a crippling panic attack, the wilderness appears, unbidden and unwelcome, at our doorsteps. It insists on itself. (Debie Thomas, Into the Wild, 2018.)
Lent is that time in the Christian experience to descend into the desert wilderness. Last Wednesday evening, as we gathered virtually for Ash Wednesday, we found new ways to symbolize the season of spiritual introspection that should be a part of every spiritual path. Our instincts tell us that an animating vision of the sacred is most likely to come from where it is least expected, from experiences that contradict the dominant values and visions of the world in which we live.
Lent can be a time to wrestle with the hard questions that we sometimes avoid or put on hold. Personal questions: What am I doing with my one wild and precious life? What is my vocation as a person of faith in the world? Where am I out of balance, seeking relevance or power that has seduced me into believing that this is the sacred path for me?
Next, we need to ask questions of our systems and world.
How are we contributing to systems that silence, hurt, and oppress Black, Indigenous and People of Colour? How has the pandemic highlighted even further the disparity between the wealthy and the poor? Are we to stand by as Indigenous women are going missing and being murdered?
We celebrate the life and the past year of our congregation today. As we move into our Annual Meeting after worship, you also hopefully had a chance to read the Annual Report. In it is the story of our community in 2020. This past year in which we have navigated a pandemic together, has certainly been one in the wilderness and perhaps even, temptation.
There may have been times when we as individuals or as a community were tempted to lose hope. Tempted to compare ourselves to what other faith communities were doing. Tempted to dwell on what we couldn’t do and not see the many amazing things that we were – and are – doing.
But if you look again through the pages of the Annual Report that documents this most unprecedented year, you will also see that the report is full of the joy of accomplishments and activities this past year. It is an amazing document and for me, filled with all that a church ought to be: concern for others, outreach as well as in-reach and the joy of being on the path of faithfulness to God. It also calls us to look forward and wonder together as we move into the future:
What haven’t we done? Who haven’t we been? Where are we called as a community?
I raise these questions not out of any feelings of guilt but because I want to remind us that we are on this deep spiritual path together and that we haven’t yet arrived at our destination. And we never will. In fact, the whole idea of Lent is to remind us that time and again we will be asked to leave what is comfortable to enter the desert so that we can be spiritually reinvigorated in order to dive into the depth of the call of God.
St John of the Cross, a medieval mystic reminds us that in order to come to a pleasure you have not, you must go by a way that you may not enjoy. To come to knowledge you have not, you must go by a way you know not. To come to a possession you have not, you must go by a way that you don’t yet possess and to come to be what you are not yet, you must find out what you must yet become.
The promise of Lent is that if we honestly face our temptation to live by the profane values of the culture and refuse to be seduced, somehow, we can emerge filled with new hope and gratitude.
But sometimes, our wilderness journeys last a very long time. We have perhaps never been able to relate to that more than right now. As one theologian notes: I’ve never spent forty days in solitude and silence, much less in a state of physical deprivation and danger, but I can’t imagine that Jesus’s time in the wilderness passed by quickly. The sense I get from Mark’s gospel is that Jesus strove and wrestled.
For those of us who live in quick-fix cultures, this aspect of the wilderness can be especially trying, because we both tire and despair easily. Why, we ask, is this pain not ending? Why are our prayers going unanswered? Where is God?
But maybe we need to ask a harder question: why did Jesus need the wilderness? Why do we?
In a beautiful sermon on this gospel story, Lutheran minister Nadia Bolz Weber suggests that temptation (Jesus’s and ours) is always about identity — about who we are and whose we are: “Identity. It’s always God’s first move. Before we do anything wrong and before we do anything right, God has named and claimed us as God’s own. But almost immediately, other things try to tell us who we are and to whom we belong: capitalism, the weight-loss industrial complex, our parents, kids at school — they all have a go at telling us who we are. But only God can do that. Everything else is temptation.”
And that’s the truth. At his baptism, Jesus heard the absolute truth about who he was. That was the easy part. The much harder part came in the wilderness when he had to face down every vicious assault on that truth. [When] he had to learn how to be God’s beloved in a lonely wasteland. Maybe we, like Jesus, are learning in this wilderness time what it really means to be God’s beloved. Because the unnerving fact is: we can be beloved and uncomfortable at the same time. We can be beloved and unsafe at the same time. In the wilderness, the love that survives is flinty, not soft. Salvific, not sentimental. Learning to trust it takes time. (Debie Thomas, Into the Wild, 2018.)
Friends, we are in a time of wilderness. Not just this Lenten season, but this pandemic one as well. But in spite of it, we don’t flee from where we have been, so much as move toward whatever challenge or vision is calling us. And may angels come to minister to us, giving us courage and hope for what is ahead. May we also enter someone else’s barren desert and become an angel for their journey. May the bright angels of hope continue to minister to us as a congregation and as citizens of the world.
This Lenten season may these words take hold in your heart as they have mine: “May we experience the companionship of Christ whose vulnerability became his strength. May we enter with courage into the deserts we can’t choose or avoid. May our long stints in the wilderness teach us who we really are. And when angels in all their sweet and secret guises whisper ‘beloved’ into our ears, may we listen, and believe them.” (Debie Thomas, 2021)
Rev. Heather Power