In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of 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.” And the Spirit immediately drove him 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.”

Mark 1:9-15

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 1st Sunday in Lent (February 22, 2015) on Mark 1:9-15. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


This text from Mark can feel a bit like a flashback. Last week, we were in chapter 9, when the disciples saw Jesus, Elijah, and Moses hanging out on a mountain top - and our own Linda Osolin brought this vivid scene to life for us. And before that, we heard Jesus’ baptism, followed him around the sea of Galilee, witnessed Jesus’ preaching in every synagogue, curing Simon’s mother-in-law from a fever, and tossing out demons wherever he went. But now we’re talking a little step back - and seeing when Jesus and Satan met in the wilderness. 

Now, Mark doesn’t really give us much to work with here. We don’t hear get details like we do in Matthew and Luke. There’s no conversation, no dramatic acts, no yelling at stones or being flown to the top of the temple to see all the kingdoms of the world. We don’t even hear emphatically if Jesus actually triumphs over Satan or not. All we get, really, is just a big-picture description of what happened. Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days. He was tempted and tested by Satan, he hung out with some wild beasts, and the angels fed him. And then, it’s over. John is arrested, Jesus heads to Galilee - and his long journey to the Cross begins.

So what do we do with this?

There is a reason why we’re hearing this story today and that’s because today is the first Sunday in Lent and one thing that we do, as a church, is listen to this story every year. Last year it was Matthew and next year, we’ll hear Luke’s version. And since we’re at the start of this 40 day march to Easter - hearing about Jesus’ own 40 day adventure makes sense. For those of us who have taken on a Lenten discipline this year - like giving up chocolate or facebook or maybe pledging to pray more, or make sure we attend midweek lenten worship and monday night bible studies - hearing Jesus go through his own mini-challenge is a tad helpful. And if we bring in what we hear in Matthew and Luke - we see how even Jesus gave up things, how even Jesus fought against temptation, and how Jesus used his study of scripture to overcome Satan. It can feel as if our personal struggle with a Lenten discipline has solidarity with the Son of God. So Lent becomes a story of temptation and struggle, a time of spiritual push and material pull, where Jesus’ story of temptation and confrontation becomes a model for our own. 

And this is great. If you’ve taken on a Lenten discipline, I support you in whatever you do and I’d love to hear about it and how it’s going for you. But Mark seems to be doing something a little different here. We hear how Jesus was tempted but we don’t see it. We hear that Jesus was in the desert for 40 days but we have no details on what that actually looked liked. All we know is that the Holy Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, that Jesus struggled with Satan there, that God didn’t leave him alone - and, finally, Jesus left the wilderness to begin the next stage of his journey. Mark’s Lent involves flow - the push of the Spirit, the engagement with adversity, and the continuing of the story in a new and dynamic way. Movement then, not temptation, is the focus of the story. The question for us this Lent isn’t only a question about whether we should give up twitter or margaritas for the next 40 days - but just how the Holy Spirit is moving us. How is the Holy Spirit grabbing hold of us? And just where is God sending us? 

A few years ago, a young woman started attending Advent Lutheran Church in Manhattan where I was serving on my internship. She grew up in China and was in New York completing her graduate school. And she basically grew up as far from the church as you could possibly get - but the Holy Spirit had a hold on her. When she was younger, for a class assignment, she did a research paper on Martin Luther - and she always wanted to know more. But it took years, and a trip to the other side of the world, before an accidental exit from a subway station led her to us. She attended worship, became friends with folks, joined the community, and, after a bit, wanted to be baptized. So we did what the ancient church did - we use the time of Lent as a period of preparation for her baptism on Easter. Her and I met weekly, we opened our bibles - and starting at Genesis 1, chapter 1 - we spent time in prayer, conversation, and study - seeing how her story intersected with Scripture’s story and how Scripture’s story intersected with her. She didn’t need education - she didn’t knowledge - I didn’t feel called to tell her what to believe or what minute detail of the Lutheran Confessions she needed to believe to “get it right.” But what she needed was the opportunity - the space and the time to dwell with the Spirit, to see that it had led her to this place, to open her up to the fullness of the life God had in mind for her. 

Her time in the wilderness was much longer than 40 days, and it just so happened to spread all the way from mainland China to the middle of Manhattan. And our personal wildernesses might be that big too. But the promise of our baptism - and the promise we hear in worship each week, from the forgiveness of our sin to the joining with Jesus in a little piece of bread and a little bit of drink - the promise is that we are caught by that same Spirit that drove Jesus into the wilderness. We’re wrapped up in it - it’s in our bones - driving us into unexpected, upsetting, and uneasy places where we are going to be changed. We don’t know exactly how that will look. We don’t know exactly how it’ll come about. But, like Jesus in the wilderness, we know that once we get through to the other side, nothing is going to be the same. 

On Wednesday, we began our Lenten journey with Ash Wednesday and the marking of an ashen cross on our foreheads. I said that night that Lent is a season where we’re in the business of discovering our whys - our motivations for why we do and believe the things we do. It’s a season for questions, for discovery, it’s a season to look at Jesus on the Cross and wonder if it really means anything for us. But these questions aren’t just opportunities for navel gazing or fun what-ifs. These whys are the questions that change us. They help us grab onto the Spirit who already has a hold on us so that we, like Jesus, can look around and see our wildernesses, see our wild beasts, and see our angels who are ministering to us. And we will also see that the Spirit that drives us into the unexpected places is the same Spirit that sustains us there. We don’t go through this journey alone. We don’t travel through our wildernesses isolated, even if it feels like we do. We are never far from God even though we might feel God is far from us. No, the Spirit that drove Jesus is the same Spirit that drives us into the unknown - into our whys - into this season of Lent, inviting us to discover what God has in mind for each one of us.