Jesus in the Wilderness
A Sermon by Rev. Karen A. Mendes
February 18, 2018
Main Idea: Jesus defeats evil.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
When you think of wilderness, what comes to your mind? Here in Vermont we love to get out in the woods to go skiing in the winter and camping and hiking in the summer. Many people find peace and rejuvenation in the beauty of wild places. But the wilderness can also be a frightening place where one might become lost or injured. The wilderness includes dangerous creatures and situations. The wilderness is a place outside of our control and that, in and of itself, is scary. Whether we go out into the woods or not, we experience wilderness whenever our lives feel out of control; not the beautiful, peaceful vista, but the scary, disorienting place.
This week has felt like a wilderness to me as our nation replays our grim dialogues about school shootings, gun control, and mental health. Although the conversations have become sickeningly familiar, we still are lost, unable to find our way out of this nightmare. Our Scripture text for today gives guidance to us for it tells us of Jesus’ own struggle in the wilderness. As we explore this text we will find comfort and strength to face the wildernesses of our lives.
If the beginning of today’s text sounds familiar, well, that’s because it is! We just heard Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism on January 7. His baptism is the first act of the Gospel of Mark. It establishes the fact that God is active in the world as the heavens are torn apart and the Spirit descends. Jesus’ baptism reveals his identity as God’s beloved child, with whom God is well pleased.
What we didn’t realize back on January 7 is that immediately after the baptism, the Holy Spirit throws Jesus out into the wilderness. The Holy Spirit, which descended onto Jesus like a dove, then drives him out like a pestering crow. As soon as Jesus knows who he is, he is sent out, cast out, to the wilderness to wrestle with what this identity means.
This story resonates with our own experience. Whenever there is a significant change in our lives, we require time and energy to understand what this change will mean. Sometimes we embrace the change such as a new job or a marriage. Sometimes the change is painful such as dealing with a death or setback. It always entails establishing our identity in the new reality. This is a wilderness time when our assumptions are upended and we must wrestle with who we are and whose we are.
For Jesus this time in the wilderness has a cosmic dimension. Jesus moving directly from his baptism to the wilderness establishes that God’s love in the world will not wait to challenge the evil that is present in the world.
Unlike the temptation stories in Matthew and Luke, here we do not have any of the conversations between Jesus and Satan. Instead we are told that “He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” (1:13)
Imagine 40 days alone in the wilderness, hearing voices and seeing visions. There would be moments of beauty and moments of fear, with probably long moments of boredom! It would be disorienting and exhausting, each day stretching out longer than the day before.
The wild beasts sound scary when we think of them as predators but with this image Mark shows us the power of God which can “make the lion lay down with the lamb” (Isaiah 11:6). In the wilderness, Jesus brings about the peaceable kingdom where all live harmoniously together and there is no need of fear. In response to evil, Jesus brings peace.
For 40 days Jesus wrestled with the evil of the world; contemplating it and countering it. In this struggle he was supported by the love of God and the attention of angels. And after 40 days, Jesus emerged victorious proclaiming ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ (1:15).
The beginning of Jesus’ ministry is built upon the mastery of love over evil. From the very beginning, before the first sermon, Satan was put on notice that evil cannot win. If you remember from a few weeks ago, Jesus’ first act of ministry was to cast out a demon who recognized who Jesus was. Throughout the Gospel of Mark, it is only the demons who recognize Jesus because they had already experienced the power of God in him in the wilderness.
This cosmic encounter between Jesus and Satan matters to us because it gives us hope and strength. Our American culture is built on the false premise that Satan is in charge. We take for granted that might means right and that violence or the threat of it somehow makes us safe. This presumption about violence is so pervasive that we do not even notice it. I don’t presume to know the complete solution to our gun violence nightmare but I do know that it will require more than gun control, more than mental health care. It will require us to confront the fear and anger that simmers throughout our nation.
Jesus shows us that God is in charge and love is the key to navigating the wilderness that we find ourselves in. Because Jesus confronts and defeats Satan we are empowered to reject fear and violence and embrace love and compassion. Instead of more weapons and more prisons we can build more schools and more gardens. Love, not sticky Valentine love, but powerful, fearless, open love will bring about the peaceable kingdom that God has planned for us and all creation.
We are invited to journey with Jesus through the wildernesses of our lives; the challenges of our personal lives, the opportunities for our church community, and the critical issues for our nation and our world. These times may be long lasting. (40 days is Biblical shorthand for a long time.) but Jesus will be with us. They may entail difficult struggles to discern the best path through complicated circumstances. We may encounter wild beasts who are predators or beasts which point us toward peace. We can look for angels to give us rest and protection in the midst of our struggles. We can affirm that God’s love will prevail over evil.
The Season of Lent is 40 days (plus Sundays). We will travel together through this wilderness as we prepare to celebrate Christ’s resurrection. We will remember God’s covenants with God’s people. We will support each other, challenge each other, and love each other. We will proclaim ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
God of the wilderness, we praise you and thank you for your presence with us at all time. Empower us to work with love and share the good news of your kingdom. Amen.
Opportunities for service
Notes and Quotes
Jesus is in battle with the forces of evil. God’s Spirit breaks through to battle the hold evil has on the world.
Bookend the wilderness part. We pondered J’s baptism on Jan 7. We have already explored the early days of J’s ministry Jan 28 and Feb 4.
Baptism – heavens are torn open, Spirit descend into J – “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased”
Wilderness – Spirit throws J. 40 days (long time) wrestling with Satan while with the beasts and angels. (Peaceable kingdom with support)
John’s arrest – beginning of ministry. Announces that KOG is at hand (Satan defeated).
We are in the wilderness now. The forces of evil are around us and within us. Despair and anger are as well. Another school shooting, another debate about guns and mental health. Another lifting up thoughts and prayers and nothing else, only grief and the prayer that our families won’t be next.
Mark’s story different from Matt and Luke. Less temptation and more engaging of evil.
J defeats Satan in the wilderness.
“Before beginning his life’s work, the representative of God’s definitive act of salvation is tested by the ultimate power of evil, and emerges victorious.” (Eugene Boring, FOTG, Mark, p. 19)
wild beasts – dangerous or recreating Garden of Eden
The text moves quickly from baptism, to Wilderness, to Ministry.
Three parts – Call, Preparation, Proclamation
What tempts us?
loss of identity
temptation comes from loss of identity which leads to fear and selfishness.
Known temptations of self
stay at home, nose buried in a book
Known temptations of congregation
focus on the past instead of the future
focus inward instead of outward
focus on the immediate instead of the big picture
“For 40 days we are asked to go into a wilderness place and to prepare ourselves for the journey of discipleship. Lent asks us to wrestle with the hard stuff: to pray, to fast, to do something new. To face temptation and choose to follow Christ anyway.” (Emily Heath, Living By the Word, Christiancentury.org)
“To preach the temptation of Jesus in Mark is to call attention to our greatest temptation — the temptation to think that God is not present.” (Karoline Lewis, workingpreacher.org 2015)
“Jesus could not say the kingdom was near until he had been to the front lines, until he had engaged the evil of this world head on in the wilderness. Because then when he spoke words of hope and promise, every one could know that these were not the sunny predictions of some starry-eyed but finally unrealistic optimist.” (Scott Hoezee, cep.calvinseminary.edu)
“Lent is to Easter as Advent is to Christmas: God has set the kingdom into motion, which will soon go into turbo-drive. As with Advent, so also with Lent: the suitable response is to “repent and believe the good news.” (Mark 1:15b) (C.Clifton Black, workingpreacher.org)
Observing the Season of Lent is not second nature to many of us. Our general understanding is that Lent is the time to give up stuff. No more chocolate, no more meat on Fridays, somehow, no more fun. But Lent is about more than giving up stuff. The Season of Lent is a time of preparation, a time of getting ready to celebrate the greatest reality; that of Jesus’ victory over death.
Jesus does not choose to go to the wilderness (although he will choose to go later in his ministry). And his wilderness challenges were not just about getting his tent set up properly or finding enough wild blueberries to eat.
Jesus was challenged by the personification of evil, Satan, God’s adversary. Armed only with the knowledge of God’s love, Jesus wrestled with Satan for 40 days.