February 22, 2015
White’s Memorial Presbyterian Church
Rev. Wanda B. Olive
First Reading: Genesis 9: 8-17
Gospel Reading: Mark 1: 9-15
Genesis 9: 8-17
8Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9“As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 11I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”
12God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” 17God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And 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. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
All this week I have thought about this passage as one that I’ve already preached. It bothered me that that there was nothing new about it. But the more I reflected on it, I came to understand that indeed there is something else to say about it. It’s about the forty days. It’s about the days of the Lenten journey. Forty days of inner work. Forty days to reflect on our own wilderness experiences.
The Gospel of Mark has such an immediacy about it. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark’s gospel compels us to reach the conclusion. Nothing glossy. Just the main points. Nothing is written between the lines. No explanations. Yet Mark’s description reminds us of the Israelites 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. And throughout that experience, God was with them.
Immediately after the Spirit descends at Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River, Mark describes, that same Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve had my own wilderness experiences. Wilderness experiences are times that test our faith. They are times of spiritual struggle. They are uncomfortable, out-of-sorts times. I suppose that is what is meant for us to experience during the Lenten season — a time of testing and a time of spiritual wrangling.
The Lenten discipline asks us to look down deeply into our own hearts. Kind of like what Zig Ziglar calls “A check up from the neck up.” I’ve always liked that quote. It makes sense that to understand where your head is, you have to understand what your heart claims is important. And how does one know what the heart claims is important? It is understanding that comes from self-discipline, prayer, fasting (perhaps important to some people), and personal and corporate devotions.
Jesus’ ministry began with a wilderness experience. “The Spirit drove him out into the wilderness . . . [where he was] tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts” (vv. 12-13). Now Mark makes sure that we understand that Jesus wasn’t left alone to fend for himself. To the contrary, angels were with him throughout his struggles (v. 13). Though the Spirit drives him through the testing of temptation, God did not leave him alone. Nor does God leave us alone in our time of testing and wilderness experiences.
One of the hardest wilderness experiences that I faced as a young adult was my brother’s cancer. He and his wife were new parents of a child born with Down’s Syndrome. Michelle was only a few months old when my brother, Dallas, was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that, to that time, was deadly.
Doctors at the University of Kentucky recommended that they remove his leg where the cancer was growing. Dallas told them absolutely not because he wanted to raise his daughter with two legs. They told him there was nothing else they could do for him.
Mom and Dad found out about M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas and began inquiries about possible treatments for Dallas. Agonizing weeks passed before the cancer center doctors were willing to begin an experimental treatment program. Weeks became months and then years of treatments and trips back and forth to Houston.
I felt numb. There was nothing I could do to help. Worse was that I felt spiritually dead. I had no church home or spiritual support. But there were others who ministered to my family. There were those who assisted financially (the trips and stays in Houston were expensive). There were those who offered prayers for my family. There were others who checked on my family through phone calls. At the time I didn’t know that we were being ministered to by angels, but that is how I see it today. Dallas has been cancer-free for a few years now.
Mark tells us that after John the Baptist’s arrest, Jesus assumed his call to ministry continuing John’s work. Jesus was driven out into the wilderness where he was tested, as I believe, each of us is tested. Jesus was called to ministry and so are we. When are we called to be ministers? Each of us is called to serve. We are ordained at our baptism. That’s right, at our baptism! Just like Jesus was.
In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor writes about wilderness experiences. She writes of a severe injury that left her with a concussion. It was a wilderness experience for her “All I can do is pay attention to what happens when I am lost in the wilderness, with no ability to help myself . . . consenting to be lost, since you have no other choice. The consenting itself becomes your choice, as you explore the possibility that life is for you and not against you, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary” (80). Wilderness experiences can deepen one’s faith or destroy it.
It takes radical trust to move through some wilderness experiences. This Lenten journey is a time to begin or deepen a personal relationship with God. After all, God tore the heavens apart to enter into that kind of relationship with you (v.10). Are you willing to venture deeper into the journey? What kind of temptations will you need to overcome?
Personal and corporate devotions are good starting points for a wilderness journey. Perhaps you will find your own cause or mission along the way. Perhaps your wilderness wanderings will help you to discover what you were put here on earth to do and be.
May God who claims you as beloved, assist you in deepening your spiritual journey through these forty days of wilderness.