"Reluctant Wilderness" – Mark 1 9-15
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in 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."
Now the Spirit immediately drove Jesus 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.”
For those of you who know the temptation story of Jesus, you might have noticed that some things are missing from Mark’s version of the story. Mark leaves out some of the juicy details we get in the other Gospels, like when the devil tempts Jesus to turn stones into bread or to leap from the top of the temple to see if God’s angels would save him.
But, even though he doesn’t go into all the details – maybe especially because he neglects the details, but still bothers to mention Jesus’ time in the wilderness – we know something about it matters to Mark’s story. This struggle with sin. This dealing with the devil. This wrestling in the wilderness. All of it sets the stage, at the beginning of the story as something we’re supposed to notice. And I remember reading once that beginnings and endings matter in Mark’s Gospel.
But before we get into all of that, I want to cut to the chase about the notion of this “wilderness” stuff and what it might mean for you and me. I’d like to connect the experience of Jesus’ proverbial wilderness to whatever it is that finds us lost or lonely or scared or suffering. Let’s let Jesus’ wilderness represent our moments of temptation and trial, too. Let’s liken Jesus struggle in the desert to our own struggles with doubt and despair; our “dark nights of the soul,” if you will, or any of those moments or seasons of our life that make us wonder how or where or if God is everything God is cracked up to be.
That’s why it’s especially meaningful for us to begin our journey to the Cross – to begin this season of Lent – out there in the desert wilderness with Jesus. That’s why this struggle with sin, this dealing with the devil, this wrestling in the wilderness shows up like it does as we begin this Lenten walk to Calvary. And what strikes me as powerful, this time around, is that little bit of this already short version of the story that says the Spirit “immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness.” Just after Jesus’ baptism, “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”
It reminds me that this was no walk in the park for Jesus, his time in the wilderness. It reminds me of just how human Jesus was. The fact that the Spirit had to drive Jesus into the wilderness, to endure all of that hunger and suffering and struggle and temptation, makes me wonder if Jesus entered into that wilderness with the same sort of reluctance, or hesitation, or fear with which we find ourselves entering into the many, various times or seasons of our faith’s journey that aren’t so easy.
And I love that about Jesus. Maybe it’s odd, but I love to think that maybe he wanted out. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago – when Jesus healed that paralyzed man and sent him off walking – that I like to see Jesus’ super powers. And that’s true. But I like to imagine, too, that Jesus wasn’t striding through life, striding into and through the wilderness of his struggle and temptation, like some super hero; like a boss; like a pompous, over-confident, sure-of-himself sort of Son of God. I’m okay with the notion that Jesus had to be pushed, that he might have passed off the torch of his temptation to the first willing taker, had there been one. And I like this picture of Jesus, because I feel more like that, more often than I’d like to admit.
I like to see that Jesus had to be driven into the wilderness; pushed out into the desert; goaded, against his better judgment, even, into those hard, holy moments of life as he knew it, because isn’t that what it feels like, for us, whenever the hard stuff comes?
When we, or someone we care about is sick, doesn’t it feel like we’re forced into that wilderness of worry against our will? Wouldn’t each of us choose otherwise, if we had the choice? None of us walks willingly into the fear and unknown of serious illness – for ourselves or for those we love – without hesitation, without frustration, and without lots of questions, do we?
And aren’t we driven into the wilderness of grief against our will, just the same? No matter how well-prepared we think we are; no matter how long in coming the death of a loved-one is, for instance, the sadness that comes with such a loss always feels foisted upon us; like a surprise; like a burden we can’t possibly bear; like an unfair, undeserved, indescribable loss.
And the same goes for most, if not all, of life’s struggles. They are forced upon us…we are driven into the difficulty they bring into our lives. Whether it’s sickness or death, relationship struggles, the trials and temptations of addiction, the quest for security with our work, the desert wilderness of those difficult times isn’t somewhere in which we’d choose to spend our time, if we were given the choice, most days.
And in the midst of it all, in the throes of sadness or struggle or whatever, some knucklehead who loves us – some knucklehead we love – might have the nerve to say something like, “God never gives you more than you can handle.” Don’t you hate that? I mean it sounds great, lovely, nice, kind, hopeful, even, stuck to your refrigerator on a magnet, or stitched to a throw pillow, or posted in a Facebook feed … “God never gives you more than you can handle” …
…unless or until you’re driven into the Godforsaken wilderness against your will.
Because I don’t think it’s really true. Because if God actually gives us any of these struggles in the first place (which I don’t believe is the case), they are sometimes more than we can handle. If the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, than the Spirit gave Jesus more than he could handle – out there in the desert duking it out with the devil. But Jesus’ story doesn’t end in the wilderness, and beginnings and endings matter.
See, all of this reluctance and hesitation at the beginning of Mark’s story, remind me of that moment near the end of it all, in the Garden of Gethsemane, just before his arrest and crucifixion. In the garden, Jesus prayed really hard for God to take the cup of his suffering away from him, if he could. He wasn’t striding his way toward the wilderness of the cross like some super hero; like a boss; like a pompous, over-confident, sure-of-himself sort of Savior, anymore than he was wading his way into the wilderness after his baptism. And I’m grateful or that, too.
Because the hope of our faith is that, even though we’re not equal to the task…even though there are times and trials and temptations that really are more than we can handle… we’re never faced with more than God can handle. Even the worst illness; the most difficult struggle; the deepest shame; the greatest sin; the heaviest grief or loss or sadness; is never bigger than God’s grace for our life.
So that’s what the wilderness – and Jesus’ time in the desert – remind me this time around. We’re meant to enter into these days, however reluctantly it may feel, with the hope that we’ll be reminded of and blessed by God’s kind of love and faith and redemption, in the end. So, these forty days of Lent may feel like practice if things are fine and well and good, at the moment. Or these days may feel like a real-time walk in the wilderness, because we’re in the midst of something hard and heavy and beyond our ability to cope right about now.
Either way, because beginnings and endings matter, we’re meant to see – through the story and experience of Jesus, himself – that what begins as fear ends in faith. What begins in despair ends with hope. What begins as sin ends in forgiveness. What begins as death ends in new life. And all of this is God’s doing, not our own. All of this is thanks to God’s amazing grace, not yours or mine. All of this is because, even when we’re up to our necks in more than we can handle; hung out to dry in the desert of our despair; left to wander aimlessly in a seemingly endless wilderness, God never asks us to go it alone.