God Doesn’t Leave Us in the Wilderness

Rebecca Sheridan

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Mark 1:9-15

            I know here at Bethel there’s quite a few of you who love camping.  Think about one of your favorite camping spots – what do you like about it?  What draws you to camping?  Have you ever had a bad camping experience – a rainy, windy, too cold or too hot to be out camping?  Have you ever, in the wilderness of the campground, been afraid?  Think about when you’re out there, under the stars, in the dark – the strange noises that wake you up, animals that might greet you on a midnight run to the bathroom, changes in weather where you aren’t adequately protected from the elements.  It’s all part of the adventure but also the challenge of camping!  Out there in the wilderness, things can get pretty unpredictable.

            This morning, we find Jesus out in the wilderness. Jesus is in for a LONG camping trip –a forty day camping trip, Mark tells us.  There in the wilderness, he’s tempted by Satan, he’s with wild beasts (it’s hard to tell if that’s a good or a bad thing!), and angels wait on him.  Imagine what Jesus saw and experienced out camping in the wilderness.  What must it have been like for him?  What did he use for shelter?  What did he eat?  How did he find water?  Did he ever take a shower?!

The wilderness is a common place where we find people of God in scripture.  Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden, forced to wander in the wilderness.  The Israelites wander in the wilderness for 40 years before they enter the promised land.  Later on, when the Babylonians conquer Judah and Israel, the Israelites experience exile away fro home in the wilderness of Babylon.  Like those of us that like to camp, the people who were following Jesus knew something about the wilderness and what it was like.  They could appreciate the wilderness as a place of beauty and retreat.  But in a time before air conditioning and running water, they also knew well that the wilderness can be a scary and wild place, where unexpected things can happen.

Often in scripture, the wilderness is a place for renewal, a place to get away from it all to rest and to hear God’s voice more clearly.  This might be one reason Jesus goes to the wilderness.  But as we hear in today’s gospel, the wilderness is also a confusing and threatening environment, where wild beasts and even Satan himself lurks.   It’s one thing to go on a camping trip for a week, especially if you have a nice Winnebago with all the amenities including satellite TV.  It’s another thing to be left in the wilderness alone, for forty days.  Sometimes, we don’t have to go anywhere to find ourselves in a wilderness place in our lives.  Right here in the city of Omaha, there are people, maybe even some of you, experiencing a time in the wilderness.  There could be people all around us, and yet we feel isolated, disconnected, and depressed.  When Rich and I lived in Chicago, I remember being surprised about this phenomenon as I rode the bus downtown one day.  The bus was full, but no one talked to each other or even looked at each other the whole ride.  In a city of 9 million people, I felt very alone.

Do any of you feel like you’re wandering in the wilderness at times?  Maybe you feel like God has intended more for your life than how you’re currently living.  Maybe you’re struggling with health issues or worrying about loved ones with health issues.  Maybe it’s as simple as needing to make a difficult decision and being unsure about what next steps to take.  This season of Lent gives us the opportunity to pause, and listen to God in those wilderness places in our lives – to see and name where God is showing up for us ESPECIALLY in the challenging spaces of our lives where Satan lurks and wild beasts roam.  In the midst of your wilderness spaces, how do you see God’s angels attending to you?  How is God helping you endure those difficult, painful, or isolating times in your life?

The good news about wherever we find ourselves in the wilderness this Lent, regardless of what wilderness we may be experiencing, we are never really alone. God never leaves us alone.  In fact, if you notice in the gospel for this morning, it is God’s very Spirit that drives Jesus into the wilderness in the first place.  God’s angels wait on Jesus the entire time he is there.  And when Jesus is ready to return to Galilee, the good news of God goes with him!  At his baptism, the Holy Spirit gives Jesus the power to resist Satan’s temptations, to survive 40 days in the wilderness, and to continue on to Galilee to proclaim the good news.  At our baptisms, the Holy Spirit gives us that same power, because we, too, are called children of God.  We, too, receive power to resist temptation, to endure those times in our lives when we feel like we’re just constantly wandering in the wilderness, and to share the good news with others that God will never leave us alone.  God’s Spirit gives us the comfort and the courage we need to survive the wilderness.

We know as we continue journeying with Jesus to the cross this Lent that Jesus doesn’t leave the wilderness for a better place – a place that is calm, quiet, and peaceful.  Instead, Mark tells us that Jesus goes to Galilee, AFTER John, his cousin, is arrested – this note about John is an important detail to notice.  Jesus is going to be doing his work in a climate hostile to his message.  John the Baptist, who first proclaimed the message that Jesus was coming, that the kingdom of God has come near – a message of repentance, is in danger.  It won’t be much longer, and John will be executed – beheaded — for that message.  As Jesus continues to share this same message of God’s good news, the religious and political authorities will mock him, threaten him, and eventually have HIM arrested.  Jesus, too, will be executed, on the cross.  God’s Spirit remains with Jesus throughout all of the trials and challenges of his ministry on Earth.  God doesn’t take away Jesus’ suffering or difficulties in the wilderness, but God does give Jesus the strength he needs to complete the tasks set before him.  And it is through those most difficult times in Jesus’ living and dying that God does his most redemptive work.

Jesus experiences what we experience out there in the wilderness.  He knows what it’s like to wrestle with temptation.  He knows what it’s like to lose close loved ones tragically. He knows what it’s like to summon the courage to confront evil powers that threaten God’s intentions for our lives.  Jesus walks with us and is God in the flesh for us so that we know that we are never alone.  We have Jesus as our companion on our wilderness journey, whatever that wilderness might be.

This year for Lent, rather than giving up something, I am trying a spiritual practice of asking two simple questions each day and reflecting on them:  1)What are you grateful for, and how do you see God in that? And 2) What is troubling you, and how do you see God in that?  To me, these two questions sum up what the wilderness in our lives is like – a time to appreciate with gratitude all of God’s gifts, but also a time to realize that in whatever is most troubling for us at this point in our lives, God is also at work, never leaving us alone or without support.  Jesus’ death on the cross reminds us that even in the most horrific of times, in the face of death itself, God is working with us to bring us out of the wilderness and into the promised land.  May the Holy Spirit give you eyes to see and ears to hear how God attending to you on your wilderness journey.  Amen.


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