Preached at Bethany College
I’m not sure there is any gospel more like a film than Mark. And this is one meant to change your life.
Mark’s gospel reads like an action-thriller and you can read the whole thing in about the same time as you could watch an action film. The first scenes feature John—a wild man—in the wilderness, plunging his hand into the beehive and plucking critters off the ground to get something to eat. Living in the wilderness changes people… and it made John a radical. He preached such a provocative message that by 10 minutes into the story, he’s been arrested.
Then comes Jesus’ baptism by John. Jesus has an amazing experience coming up out of the water—something dramatic happens in the sky and the Spirit descends on him and a voice speaks to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” But the same Spirit that descends like a dove is not just a peaceful presence—without time to take a breath, that Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness.
Jesus spends 40 days there. Hmmm… forty days, like the days and nights of the flood—that Noah and his family and all creatures spent on the ark. Forty days, the time that Moses spent with God on Sinai. Although we don’t know exactly the significance, 'forty days and forty nights' is a common duration for great transitions.
During this great transition, Jesus experiences temptation by Satan, lives with wild beasts, and angels serve him. We don’t know exactly what the temptation was like or how Jesus felt surrounded by the wild things—was he afraid for his life or was it more like the vivid painting by Stanley Spencer where a grizzled Jesus is meditating on a scorpion cradled in his hands?
Angels served Jesus… we don’t know what messages or ministering they brought, but throughout the biblical drama, most often, angels say… “Don’t be afraid” so we can imagine that they are voices of reassurance during the isolated, sparse, thirsty wilderness time.
So we get a glimpse of how 40 days in the wilderness prepared Jesus for the ministry to come. And why, when John was arrested, Jesus was ready to step in & begin right where John left off, proclaiming saying—“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
These are the first public words of Jesus and they flow right out of his time in the wilderness.
Wilderness changes people and that’s why we’re invited to the wilderness journey of Lent. If you were baptized, someone traced the sign of the cross on your forehead and said, “You are marked with the cross of Christ forever.” At the end of your life, someone may again anoint you with that same cross. And in between, we have annual Ash Wednesdays—like the one just past—where we’re marked with ashes and oil and reminded that we don’t go on this wilderness journey alone.
Wilderness time is not easy but it is definitely clarifying. Like one of my colleagues said about Tiger Wood’s loss yesterday at his first tournament since surgery—it will only make him stronger. Wilderness means challenge, difficulty; it shows us where we still need to grow.
Ten years ago, I spent a year volunteering at Holden Village, a retreat center in the Cascade mountains in Washington state and throughout that year, I had some amazing experiences of wilderness—both incredibly rich experiences and incredibly challenging experiences. I remember hiking up mountain passes and down snowy trails. We saw bears (from a safe distance) and incredible mountain lakes. When we are face to face with creation’s beauty and immensity, it’s incredible detail, we have the opportunity to experience wonder at God’s magnificent work and humility that we are a small part of this great creation. Time in the wilderness can give us a vision of what’s most important in life and provide space and time to listen for God’s voice.
It can also be terrifying. I remember one night where we were camping. There was a full moon and a herd of horses grazing all around us in the mountain pass. Every so often throughout the night, they would gallop to a new grazing place and their huge shadows would cross through our tent and I would whisper, “They’re not going to trample us, right?” Horses don’t trample people, right?
At Holden, I also experienced another kind of wilderness—facing my own flaws and brokenness. The challenge of living in a close community and seeing myself completely mess things up with people… and then have to go on living right beside them. I experienced the loneliness of living in a remote place and deeply missing family and friends, another kind of wilderness. Together with many others, in this place apart, we wondered what God was preparing us to do next.
All of these are wilderness experiences possible during this season of Lent. Maybe you will experience the Spirit driving you to a new place. Maybe you will be tempted. Maybe you will experience wonder or fear. Maybe you’ll experience a loved one facing death. Maybe you’ll experience angels ministering to you. Maybe you’ll hear God’s voice in a new way. Maybe you’ll feel called to proclaim the good news. Maybe you’ll see that God’s kingdom is near.
Forty days and forty nights—it symbolizes a great transition—and maybe we’ll experience something like that—or maybe it will be a tiny awareness of how God’s Spirit is moving in and around us. The awareness of how we wander where Jesus has already led the way. The sense of how God’s kingdom continues to be near throughout these long, thirsty day s of Lent.
Whatever the result, one thing is certain. Living in the wilderness changes people and that’s why the Spirit drives us there—because the Spirit wants to change us… to melt us, mold us, fill us and use us—as God’s kingdom comes near.
Jesus is calling, “The time is now, the kingdom is near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Don’t be afraid. Come on the wilderness journey… God knows what waits for us there—and we will certainly not leave the same.