Jesus is still dripping from his baptism when the Holy Spirit drives him out into the wilderness to spend the next forty days with Satan, some wild beast, and some very kind angels.
Now here are a few things worth mentioning before we begin. In Judaism the number forty is highly symbolic – often representing a testing period or marking a forward movement. Noah, was forty days at sea. Moses, was 40 years in the wilderness (both before and after he liberated God’s people from Egypt).
The wilderness is also symbolic. The Hebrew word מִדבָּר (meed-bar) can mean a barren wasteland or lightly inhabited place. But it could also mean a “wordless” place - like when you’re all alone with your thoughts.
Now, I try hard to avoid the wilderness. Like Jim Gaffigan jokes, “I don’t like the outdoors. I’m more “indoorsy.” Despite my rugged appearance, I’m not a fan of sleeping on rocks or waking up with a rash.
This wilderness Mark speaks of is a real place. The kind of location where an Instacart subscription isn’t going to do you much good. If you’re going out there, you better pack water, food, and a tent. But according to all three stories, the Holy Spirit didn’t give Jesus time to grab a toothbrush.
One minute he’s hearing the heavens declare “You are my Son, my beloved.” Next minute he’s out in the wild to be within himself to figure out what that means.
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This tells me that Mark is also speaking about that other wilderness as well. A place we try hard to circumvent. Jesus finds himself in this “wordless wilderness” to be tempted mentally and spiritually. The kind of test to move him forward towards his mission.
You know the place, don’t you? That space deep within where the wild beasts of shame, guilt, deception, and fear lurk. No one likes to go here, because it forces us to look at ourselves without all the filters and finery.
Yet this is where the Spirit takes us – to wander and wait for something holy to happen.
Maybe this is why Mark moves quickly. He is human like us. And has his own wild beasts to face. And I’m sure he doesn’t want to linger there any more than we do.
We might be tempted to skirt this wilderness, to turn away from encountering these wild beasts in our lives. But as Mark points out, this is exactly where God comes to meet us.
Unlike Jesus, we’re given a choice. We can run away, abandon our Lenten journey. Or we can sit in that space between the beasts and angels to be renewed by God.
This prods me to ask: what are you facing in life that is tempting you to flee? Better yet, what are you looking for that would cause you to stay?
I can’t answer that for you. It’s your faith journey. You alone have to make that choice. While that is a daunting ask remember this: you are never really alone.
Jennifer Moland-Kovash believes, “One of the biggest temptations we face during times of struggle and wilderness wandering is the temptation to believe that we are alone.”
To her point, the temptation is so great because this fear of being alone can become a wall that keeps you from going inside yourself. It can stop you from truly discovering what God’s gracious love can do for you no matter how much stuff you try to hide or avoid.
Whether it’s 40 days or 40 minutes, any time we spend in the wilderness of ourselves is bittersweet. When we "walk in the woods of anxiety or travel the deserts of despair," we don’t go there alone. God is with us, with angels to wait on us.
If we are going to live and thrive in Anamesa, then we need to spend time in the wilderness. We need to wander through all the different spaces between our beasts and angels, looking inward to find new ways of being the beloved children of God.
We need to face the wild like Jesus did, because this is where God comes to be with us – to renew us and prepare us for new possibilities.
Lent is an invitation to go where we dare not go. Yes, it forces us to face the things that make us uncomfortable. But when we go through it, we come out better; ready to do the work of God’s Kingdom.
In all three versions of this story, I can draw comfort knowing God’s providence is upon me. We do not head into the wild without feeling our baptismal water dripping down our face. And without hearing God’s voice calling us beloved. We can go out there because Jesus has been there. His footsteps are still fresh in the dirt.
As Emily Heath wrote,“Lent is an opportunity to spend 40 days alone with the one who has been there before.” She asks, “Have you ever had a hard time with faith? Jesus knew what that was like. Do you struggle to make choices? So did Jesus. Are you grieving? Jesus grieved too. Are you preparing yourself for something new, for something you don’t know how you are going to survive? Jesus knew what that was like, too.”
If you ask me, the biggest temptation is to not the fear of being alone and facing your demons. The biggest temptation is not trusting God enough to enter the wilderness at all.
Between the beasts of temptation and the angels of salvation we must make a choice. Will you walk with Jesus in the wilderness, to be transformed and renewed by God for a greater purpose? Or will you walk away?
Today, the Holy Spirit is prodding us to join Jesus on his mission. Like Mark realized, there is no time to waste. Watching what is unfolding in Ukraine, we know evil is real. When we see children fleeing for their lives, we are reminded of a time not too long ago when Satan and his demons tried to conquer the world.
God calls us out of our comfort to confront and stop these wild beasts that try to destroy all that is beloved in the Kingdom of God.
Out there, God calls us – to be angels that nurse the sick, feed the hungry, look out for every human life no matter the cost.
Out there we are called – to mirror the very love, mercy and grace that is given to us through Jesus Christ.
To follow Jesus out there means we are to stand with him, between demons and angels, and radiate God’s glory so brightly that the world no longer has a need for sun or moon.
Writing on the first Sunday of Lent, Henri Nouwen reminds us that, “Lent is the most important time of the year to nurture our inner life. It is the time during which we not only prepare ourselves to celebrate the mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus, but also the death and resurrection that constantly takes place within us.”
Nouwen reminds us that life is an ongoing process between our old self dying and our new self being reborn again - moving from desperation into a new hope, from old hurts into a new trust, and new love.
Lent is an inner event that takes place in the wilderness of our hearts. We must go in there, and be attentive to our wounds. When we do, we will see that God’s thumbprint has already been left there. Jesus has walked before us. And he is still within us, leading us home to God’s open heart.
We are given these 40 days, and every day, to really be honest with ourselves, and to see what the wilderness is offering – a new life, a new ministry, and new ways of being God’s beloved.
As you face the tough decisions and tougher realities, know that God looks at your heart, and cares for your wounds, with nothing but compassion and love.
Just as God watched over Jesus as he journeyed towards the cross and beyond, so too does God watch over you and me. We might not be given the easiest paths to trod, but that’s ok. Because Jesus has been there before. He is right here, right now ready to lead us today.
If you trust God just enough to follow him, then you can trust that you will not be led us astray.
Adapted from a previous message Alone, But Not Really on February 18, 2018
Brown Taylor, Barbara. Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2. [Westminster John Knox: 2008]. p.45.
Heath, Emily C. Reflections on the Lectionary. Christian Century, January 31, 2018. p.20.
Johnson, Deon. Wilderness. episcopaldigitalnetwork.com. February18, 2018.
Moland-Kovash, Jennifer. Living By the Word. Christian Century, February 8, 2022. (accessed on March 5, 2022).
Nouwen, Henri. Called to Life, Called to Love: Lenten Reflections. Creative Communications for the Parish, 1997
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”