February 22, 2015 – In the wilderness

Mark 1:9-15

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.”

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Lent 1 February 22, 2015   (Ps 25, Genesis 9:8-17, 1 Peter 3:18-22) Mark 1:9-15

In the wilderness

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Jesus goes to the edge of the wilderness to be baptized in the Jordan by John – the Baptizer who is identified, remember, through a quote from the prophet Isaiah, as “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness…” And as he comes up out of the wilderness waters Jesus sees the heavens torn apart and a voice from on high says, “You are my Son, my beloved – with you I am well pleased.”

If we weren’t snowed out last Sunday we’d of heard the voice of God saying again, “This is my Son, the beloved – Listen to him!” God speaking from the mountain of transfiguration, half way through Mark’s gospel. But here, back in the beginning of the gospel, now the Spirit immediately drives Jesus into the wilderness. Consider – the same Holy Spirit that falls afresh on Jesus – now drives him into the wilderness – where he resides forty days, tempted or tested (same word in Greek) by Satan. And Jesus is with the wild beasts – and angels wait on him…

Each gospel tells the Jesus story in it’s own way. Matthew and Luke in their telling of the wilderness testing story say Jesus fasted the whole forty days and experienced three temptations from Satan. Matthew spends eleven verses telling the story, Luke spends thirteen. But St Mark, most succinct of gospel writers, takes only two short verses to tell the whole wilderness story, omitting all specifics of the testings and never mentioning fasting…

Yet Mark adds one detail that neither Matthew nor Luke includes – telling us that Jesus was with the wild animals in the wilderness….

(St Matthew also mentions angels waiting on Jesus, but in Matthew the angels don’t show up til all temptations are finished. And –) Only in Mark do we hear of Jesus being with the wild beasts and only in Mark do the angels appear to be there all along, waiting on Jesus – along with the wild beasts – and oh yes, Satan’s there too – along with of course the Holy Spirit of God – all together in the wilderness…

Which is how I remember my wilderness days. I’m really not sure when it was the Spirit driving me out into the wilderness, and when it was just my heart longing for wilderness time… But for many years I’ve sought wilderness… Which was not hard to do when I lived in Vermont on the edge of wilderness, on a dirt road, heating with wood, at the intersection of a class 4 dirt road that was unplowed in winter, where I’d walk, every morning, and often see deer, flush partridges… glimpse fox and rabbit, skunk and porcupine (at least see their abundant tracks)…

And whenever the Spirit drove me out or simply allowed me, I’d take my fly rod – and go walking forested banks of small brooks, catching wild brook trout… Wading northern rivers far from the nearest road…Paddling a canoe around remote ponds and lakes, fishing early and late in the day when few if any were out on the waters… Often I’d journey farther into the wilderness for days at a time, in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, on stretches of the upper Connecticut River in New Hampshire, in the rivers of the Rangely Lakes area of Maine… Here I’d always see moose… Standing majestic in the boggy end of a pond…or crossing roads unexpectedly at night…

Wild beasts are always there in the wilderness. Thanks be to God. And certainly Jesus is never afraid of wild beasts – nor are they afraid of him. And whenever I remember I’m in the wilderness mainly to be with Jesus – I’m not afraid either. Even when huge but not-very-bright moose jump out in front of my car… If I am praying properly my foot’s always ready to hit the brakes…

And even that time in northern Minnesota, winding my way through brushy fields after dark, after exploring an unknown trout stream, trying to find the road and the car by compass and star light… And that brown bear suddenly running across the field a hundred yards ahead of me in the light of the full moon… That time I didn’t really have time to be afraid, it happened so fast. But silent prayer always – and all was well… And another five minutes and there was the road… and the car around a corner… And probably the angels were helping me navigate all the while… As I prayed… Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me… Lord Jesus have mercy… and Thank you Jesus… Amen

Temptations were always there also in the wilderness – If for Jesus, how much more, I suppose, to be expected for me. Though in retrospect it seems like temptations have always been there with me – and probably with everyone – no matter where we are. The difference in the wilderness is simply that now we actually have time to notice. Only in the wilderness it seems am I able to be very aware of so many things about myself – my distractions, temptations, testings and areas where I need to keep growing…

But the wilderness for me is mostly where I’m most aware of the presence of God… and how graciously God is always blessing… Blessing me, blessing us…

And maybe my strongest temptation in the wilderness is just to stay there, forever… Drop out… become a fishing bum…And never go back to the everyday wilderness of this world…

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And yes, of course, there is wilderness… and there is wilderness… Charles Tindley, Methodist pastor and hymn writer wrote – Beams of heaven as I go… through this wilderness below… guide my feet in peaceful ways… turn my midnights into days

Tindley preached and pastored in the inner cities of Philadelphia and Wilmington. His songs arise from urban wilderness… When the storms of life are raging, stand by me – When the storms of life are raging, stand by me…

At our Annual Conference pastor’s lenten day last week, retired Bishop Ernest Lyght reminded us that all Tindley’s songs came from experience. Once, he said, there wasn’t enough food in the house for the Tindley family’s Sunday dinner. His wife and children asked what should we do? Tindley told the family… Set the table as usual. They did. As he led the family in saying table grace, there came a knock at the door… And a man was standing there with bags of groceries. Food delivered as if by angels. The word angel means literally messenger – and we have all been waited on by angels at various times… Messengers who sometimes go unrecognized – though ever-present… Messengers of grace who wait on us and help us in this wilderness below…

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Every year we vicariously follow Jesus into the wilderness and remember his forty days of testing and temptation… Jesus himself was recapitulating Israel’s forty years in the wilderness… A time when Israel often put God to the test, and God put Israel to the test also… And very few among all the multitudes of Israel proved up to the test and ready for the promised land…But now Jesus passes all the tests on our behalf – and fulfills and summarizes all the law and prophets before him – saying – repent and believe in the good news…. Repent – turn to God – and believe – put all your faith – in the good news of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom… Very near… Close at hand…

So my Lenten exhortation is to not waste time making lists of things we are going to try to give up… Instead let’s just make time – and more time – make all the time that’s needed – all the time that’s good and blessed – just to be with Jesus…In the presence of God…

Because all that time Jesus spends in the wilderness – is all for us – all for our joy in believing. Jesus teaching us by example – how to break loose of all routines that bind us to desolations – and blind us to the presence of God.

The root of all spiritual formation – all spiritual practice – is simply to recognize ourselves as always being in the presence of God. Scripture says: “In him we live and move and have our being.”

Lent is all about remembering we’re in the presence of God. (7– 24– 365…)

Sometimes Lent gets a bad rap because we fall into thinking it’s a contest… With points given for things given up – points taken away for temptations not withstood… But the way I’m hearing the word of God today – there’s nothing there that suggests keeping score… Not even a word about Jesus triumphing over Satan. (That’s a given. A sure thing.)

The message of holy scripture for this first Sunday in Lent is simply about the importance of practicing the presence of God… Something even Jesus, who is God, makes time for… Plenty of time for…

Lent is meant to be a means of grace. A time for taking time… for renewal of life. And God knows we’re always in need of renewal. All movements, even God-inspired movements – even the church – become institutional, experience mission drift, loss of vision….(etc…)

This has always been a problem, from the get-go, even for Jesus’ hand-picked disciples. So quickly we forget what Jesus has just said and done… And go on doing all the same-old-same-old backwards stuff… This is the human condition. This is why we need Lent… (And if we don’t like the word Lent, then we need something just like it by another name.) We need time in the wilderness – time set apart – time to just be with God… facing up to the realities of our human condition… and our need… Our eternal need for God.

We need deliberate practice to slow down, refocus, center our lives in God. This just doesn’t happen for most of us, as part of our regular routines. We have to make it happen… Or rather ask God to make it happen, since we really don’t have the will or the ability to do it on our own. We have to ask God to let the Spirit drive us into the wilderness, metaphorically. We have to ask God to help us get the time with God we need…

And thanks be to God – God wants, more than anything else – just to be close to us – and closer-to-us-still… And God knows we’re all made in the image of God, yet no two of us are alike… So the specifics of our wilderness time with God will differ. Some of us will be able to get away from it all to practice the presence of God out in the natural wilderness… Others of us will have to do wilderness on the installment plan… Maybe a weekend retreat as a down payment, then regular daily times in prayer and listening… Taking a walk outside…Or sitting indoors in a quiet uncluttered place looking out the window at the birds and squirrels of winter… Whatever it takes to still our souls and rest in God’s presence… Here’s our wilderness.

This is where we regain strength for the journey… Hanging out with Jesus… Trying our best to follow… Even as Jesus leaves one wilderness for another…

Jesus leaves the wild place of the river Jordan for deeper wilderness time with the wild animals and angels. And after forty days there, Jesus reenters the everyday wilderness of this world – living now again among creatures often stranger and wilder than the wildest animals he’s left behind. And Jesus’ wilderness message for us is simple.

Repent – and believe the good news. The good news of Jesus and the kingdom of God – very near and close at hand. God’s kingdom presence here among us, within us, and coming in fullness…

And when we’ve had real time with Jesus in any kind of wilderness – now we’re made ready and able – to

Repent – turn and re-turn to God – ready to believe and put all our trust in God – and Jesus – who makes the presence of God known… in all his words and deeds…

As we believe… and follow…

Thanks be to God.

Amen.