Genesis 9: 8-17, Psalm 25: 1-10, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1: 9-15
If you have been in Sunday School or taught Sunday School, sometimes the characters of the bible are presented as superheroes. There is nothing wrong with that as this is appealing to children. I remember a video bible series that came out in the 1980’s and it was called Superbook. I remember using it in a Sunday School I helped teach in before I went to seminary.
Today, on this first Sunday of Lent we have Jesus temptation in the wilderness. Jesus can be portrayed as a Superhero overcoming the Devil in the wilderness. But in reality, Jesus forty days in the wilderness were difficult. Jesus struggled, he hurt, he wept, he thirsted, he wrestled and he suffered. We can say he was the Son of God, but Jesus was fully human. He did not overcome the temptations with superhero power. Lent is not a season for unshakeable superheroes. It is a season for vulnerable people whose wilderness journeys are never easy or straightforward. It is a season of vulnerability, honesty, humility, and penitence. We need Jesus in the desert wrestling with all the temptations we face as human beings. If he was a superhero, we could not relate to him. But knowing Jesus has gone through it and he is with us, we know that we do not do this alone.
Our reading from Mark gives us no colourful details about Jesus’s experience in the wilderness. Matthew and Luke give us a lot more detail. In Mark we don’t learn what the specific temptations were or how Jesus responded to them. All Mark gives us are a few terse sentences: “The Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was with the wild beasts and angels waited on him.” This is all Mark tells us. There are 3 interesting details that stand out for me.
First, Jesus did not choose the wilderness. It was not as if he went out there to explore on a hike for self interest or discovery. He felt compelled to go to this wild and unsafe place. Jesus did not want to go and it is very possible that he resisted. But he went anyway. Maybe it is strange but I find this detail comforting. I think it is because it rings true of life. Most of the time we do not choose to enter the wilderness. We don’t volunteer for pain, loss, danger or terror. But the wilderness happens anyway. We are forced to live differently in a pandemic, we have to go to the hospital, we get a bad diagnosis for ourselves or a loved one. Relationships break, children are hurting, or a loss of hope and faith. Wilderness can happen to us at anytime and most times we don’t choose it.
Does it mean God wants bad things to happen to us? I don’t think so. But God is ready to teach, shape, and save us even during the most barren periods of our lives. In the great grace of God’s love, even the desert can become holy. We live in a chaotic, fragile and broken world that includes deserts and God’s way is to take things of shadow and death and bring resurrection and new life out of them.
Second point is that our wilderness journeys sometimes last a long while. I have never spent 40 days in solitude and silence, with lack of food and water and facing danger. It must have felt like a long time. We are not sure how long it was exactly, 40 is a biblical number which symbolizes a long time. It must have felt like an endless time period for Jesus. We live in an impatient, quick fix culture. This is why living through this pandemic for almost a year seems endless. We just want it over. We want vaccines now. We want to get back to our normal lives. This applies to the other wildernesses we face. Why we ask? Why isn’t it over. Why aren’t our prayers answered ? Why did Jesus need the wilderness? Why do we?
At Jesus baptism, Jesus heard the words ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus heard an absolute truth about who he was. This was the easy part. The harder part was in the desert. Jesus had to face the questions and doubts about who he was. He had to learn that he was still loved by God no matter what tricks were played on his heart and mind. The time in the wilderness for Jesus was a time for him to decide who he was and how he would live out his calling. It is interesting what he chose: deprivation over power. Vulnerability over rescue. Obscurity over honour. He could have chosen to be a superhero but chose the quiet and mundane. It is hard to affirm Jesus choices. Sometimes we would like a miraculous intervention and the dramatic rescue .
Sometimes we need longer than we like in the wilderness to learn what it really means to be God’s children. The uncomfortable truth is that we can be loved and vulnerable at the same time. This is not a sentimental kind of love. This is agape love, God’ love that lasts for ever.
The third point is there were angels in the wilderness. Even in this hard place, God’s agent of love and care were there. This is a comforting truth. We don’t really know a lot about angels. But this point reminds us that even in the darkest places, God abides, and somehow without reason or explanation help comes. Rest comes. Solace comes. I think angels come in all kinds of form. Maybe not what we expect. I wonder what Jesus’s angels looked like. Were they winged creatures from heaven? or comforting breezes in the heat? Or were they a trickle of water for his parched throat? or were they the beauty of the constellations on a clear and cloudless night? We don’t really know. What do our angels look like? Do we recognize them when they show up ? Do we hear them say to us that we are God’s beloved ? And Can we be angel for someone’s else barren journey right now? I am sure we have heard stories of unexpected happenings when all seems lost. Or Maybe you have experienced someone showing up at the right moment. I know I have.
As we begin our journey into Lent, may we experience the companionship of the Christ whose vulnerability became his strength. May we enter with courage the deserts we can’t choose or avoid. I hope we can hear the words that we are precious and beautiful children of God. It is not easy, we all can carry a lot of baggage and hurts from our past. I think Lent is a time to let go of them and realize who we are as God’s beloved children and begin to treat others as if they are beloved children of God. This is not easy. The gospel of Mark continues as Jesus returns from the wilderness and boldly proclaims “The Kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news.” Jesus may not be a superhero but he is right with us all the way from our darkest places to our joyous places.
Let us pray.
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