Surviving the Wilderness

Message Manuscript for Lent 1B Mark 1:9-15
Delivered to Church for the Highlands
First Sunday in Lent, February 21, 2021 Rev. Dr. John Henson

How are your survival skills? This past week has been one that showed if we have them. I mean, who would’ve ever thought we would go days on end without running water, interruptions with electricity and heat, and inability to get to the grocery store? Did I mention the part about not being able to flush our toilets? Images of our frozen existence, especially those of people in Texas, have shown everything from icicles on ceiling fans to people burning furniture in their fireplaces to stay warm. It seems we have returned to frontier life, reverting to survival existence in the wilderness. The problem, though, is that we aren’t used to this and, apart from watching episodes of Naked and Afraid or Bear Grillys, we really don’t know much of how to survive in the wilderness. Our Gospel text this morning describes what it was like for Jesus to be in the wilderness, what happened to him there and how he survived. As we hear about it, perhaps we can identify with it more so now than ever before. As we see how Jesus persevered there, we can learn what we are to do in our times of wilderness.

Perhaps that’s the first thing we need to know. We will have times of wilderness. Chances are, you’ve already had one or two. We must know that they are common to us all, inevitable for us as we live in this world, coming at times we may not predict and lasting longer than we may prefer. For Jesus, his time in the wilderness came just after an amazing high point in this life. He has heard John’s call to be baptized and responds by entering into the Jordan River. As he came out of the water, the heavens tore open issuing the Holy Spirit to descend upon—and within—Jesus. As this happened, Jesus is affirmed by the voice of God, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” How amazing that must have been for Jesus, an unforgettable experience for this peasant boy from Nazareth. But how jolting it must have been to be then led by the Spirit from there out into the wilderness. He would be there for forty long days. Jesus would learn that sometimes you end up in a wilderness.

We are to know that we too will have times spent in a wilderness. We would be naive if not foolish to think that our lives are to be filled with endless experiences and days of affirmation and happiness; that everyday will be one when the heavens part for us and when we so clearly hear God’s affirmation. No, the reality is that our lives are often more like a rollercoaster, at one point full of the sheer joy of the high points but followed by the terror of dropping into the winding bends and loops as we travel along in our world. Whether we understand our times in the wilderness as from God, from ourselves, or caused by other people or circumstances, we can reason that they are at least inevitable to us all.

What we also must know about the wilderness is that it is full of dangers. Jesus certainly found this out not long after stepping into it. Mark reports that Satan was there, tempting Jesus as he traveled. Mark’s words point to the intense spiritual testing and conflict Jesus would experience while there. He doesn’t tell us what the temptations were, like the other gospel writers, but just that he was tempted. If that wasn’t enough, there were also “wild beasts.” Mark doesn’t go into detail, but we can imagine the animals of prey Jesus would have to deal with as he made his way through the wilderness. So the wilderness wasn’t a cozy vacation to Cancun; it was a trek fraught with danger.

Not to scare anyone today, but we should be aware of the dangers ahead for us in the wildernesses of our lives. No doubt you are aware of them already as you left the baptismal waters to follow Jesus. The dangers appear at different times and in unexpected ways. Like the shards of rock and dry heat of the desert, difficulties, and challenges exist as we put our focus on getting closer to God and as we seek to walk with Jesus in our world. People may unfriend you for doing things Jesus did, criticize you for speaking up for the oppressed, taunt you for loving your enemies, or seek to counter your kingdom work. If those weren’t enough, temptations attract us with their shiny veneer and seek to lure us away with their trickery. They present themselves uniquely to our most pressing needs, testing our mettle and slowly chipping away at our discipline. As we fight them and carry on, wild beasts come close and sometimes prey upon our particular vulnerabilities. Forty days is a long time to deal with danger.

So yes, we should realize time in the wilderness is inevitable and that it has dangers, but we must also know that it contains helpers. Mark reports that angels were there with Jesus and that they waited on him. These were God’s messengers, there to attend to Jesus as he made his way through the wilderness. Jesus was fasting and traveling so we can reason that the support from the angels was more spiritual than physical. In other words, they were feeding his soul rather than his body. He was their assignment during this time. As we look ahead to Holy Week, we see them again, attending to his needs as he encounters another kind of wilderness as he nears the cross.

Do we know, in our time in the wilderness, that God has put helpers there for us? This past week, not to mention this past year of pandemic, has reminded us how important helpers are for our survival. As we’ve dealt with existential threats lately, we realize how frail and dependent we are on the helpers God sends our way. Medical workers, grocery store stockers and checkers, National Guard, restaurant employees, teachers, Food Bank personnel, and plumbers come to mind as true helpers. But we also know helpers are the people who call and check on us, encourage us when we are down, give us hope, and remind us who we really are. Have you had a helper in your life lately? It’s a good feeling to be on the receiving end of such care. And it’s good to be on the giving end as well, as sometimes we are those messengers from God for other people. The wilderness is full of such helpers.

As we look back on this past week of snowmageddon and all the suffering that has come with it and even still continues for many in our area, we know a lot more about what a wilderness is like, dangers and all, but also with helpers along the way. As we enter into this season of Lent, may we be aware of the challenges ahead as we follow Jesus, never forgetting the help God provides.

Amen.

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