Sermon for the first Sunday of Lent based on Mark 1:9-15 (Year B): Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness
Brothers and sisters, this morning marks the first Sunday in the 40 day season leading up to Easter Sunday that the church calls Lent. During lent, the church looks back on the 40 days spent by Jesus in the wilderness being tempted by Satan.
The Bible is full of stories of wilderness journeys. In fact, I would say that this seems to be one of God’s favorite stories, because God tells us this story again and again, using his favorite prophets and characters and swapping in different adventures, challenges, obstacles, and villains. I would also say that God seems particularly found of the number 40.
This is something God loves to do with his people: call them out of the places where they were settled and into the wilderness. Get up! Go out!
“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you,” God told Abraham and Sarah. “So Abraham went.”
The Israelites were called out of Egypt, out of their bondage and slavery, out of Pharaoh’s courts… and into the wilderness, for 40 long years.
“Come,” God said to Moses. And so Moses left the Israelites encamped in their tents and went up to God on the mountaintop. Moses spent 40 days and nights on Mount Sinai: and the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire.
In 1 Kings, a suicidal Elijah flees to the desert, running for his life. He, too, spends 40 days and nights in the wilderness before hearing God command: “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”
And this morning in Mark, we read that the Holy Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness for 40 days and nights.
When God wants his people, he calls them. “Go from your country” … “Come up to me” … “Go out and stand before me” … “Follow me.”
Now when I take a look around this church, brothers and sisters, I get the vague impression that many of you are not from around here. That’s just a guess, but I get the strangest feeling that some of you might not be from Bavaria.
Once, you were somewhere else. And now you are here. And so I wonder: when God called you out of the places where you were, what was it like? How did God tell you it was time to leave? When did you know to pack your bags? Were you fleeing from a political situation or from a life that was no longer bearable, no longer safe? Were you, like Elijah, running for your life? Or was God’s call disguised, so that you thought you were just taking an attractive job offer in Munich? Or are you here with a partner or husband or wife, in which case you may not even feel like God called you at all – perhaps you feel like you’re just “tagging along”. (And to let you in on a little secret, I know that feeling all too well!)
When you felt God calling you here, I wonder – what was it like? Was it an urgent pressing in your heart? Was it a desperate urge to flee? Did God call to you in the night, “Get up! Go out!? Or did God finally say, “let my sister go!”? Did you get up and go willingly? Or did you (like me) try to fight with God for the right to go “home” again, before finally giving up and saying to God, with great resignation, “oh, fine. If this is what You really want…”
And perhaps others of you are thinking: what is that crazy sister in the pulpit talking about? God didn’t “call” me. I didn’t hear a voice calling to me in the night. This is “just life”: no rhyme or reason. If you feel that way, I might challenge you by asking: can you think of one single man or woman in the Bible whom God called … by chance? Whom God brought out of her homeland and into a foreign place… on accident? (Strange… but I can’t think of any…)
I look around this room and I see the faces of many men and women whom God has brought out of somewhere else. You were called from wherever you once were – Ghana, Ohio, Nigeria, Australia, Edinburgh, Jamaica – and you came here. Or maybe you really are a Bavarian German, and God’s call was not over 3000 miles, but simply to get up on a Sunday morning and travel into this house of God. Well, I consider that the call of God, too.
But one way or another, we all came to be sitting at Peace Church on a Sunday morning in February, together: a congregation of people from every corner of God’s green earth. How? Why? I suppose details are God’s business. But when I stand in this pulpit and look out at the faces of Peace Church, I think: surely, surely, God must have been calling and moving and stirring in God’s mysterious ways to bring so many people, from so many places, to worship God together. Because it is a beautiful sight, and an unusual one. And so here we are.
In a way, we might think of ourselves as wilderness people. Perhaps we feel a bit like the Israelites did. God brought them out of Egypt with a fanfare of miracles, led by a pillar of fire – but when the excitement died down, they must have looked at each other in the wilderness and thought, “oh Lordy! What now!?!”
They looked around them at the brown earth, the red dust, the blistering golden sun. They felt the weight on their backs of all the things they had carried with them out of Egypt. They looked at their ramshackle goat skin tents and compared them to the golden pyramids of Egypt. They munched on their dry manna, thought wistfully of the feasts they had known in Egypt, and started to reconsider whether that whole “Exodus” thing had really been such a great idea.
Sometimes I wake up in the morning, look around me, and think, “Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore!” Do you ever feel that way? Do you, like the Israelites, ever start to think, “Oohhh Lordy, what now?!” Or do you ever wonder, how did I end up here, of all places? Really? Here?
Brothers and sisters, here is one thing I know: God does not move by accident. God does not call his people into the wilderness by chance. And God never calls us into the wilderness as punishment, just to watch us suffer. In all of the times that God has told and retold his favorite wilderness story, not one single time did God call his people into the wilderness just to watch them wander through the sand and dust, and point and laugh.
God loves to tell the wilderness story because it begins with a disorganized, messy collection of any old people, and ends with the people of God. The wilderness story begins with people who do not know who they are – not really. It begins with people who are defined by the Empire they live in. It begins with people who live shallowly, wantonly, randomly, without purpose, without identity, without roots.
It ends with people who whose roots grow straight down, deep and true, right down through their core, into the soil of the living God.
God called Abraham to the wilderness to make him into a nation as numerous as the stars in the sky: God’s nation. God’s people. God called the Israelites into the wilderness so make them into God’s chosen people. God called Moses to the wilderness to shine his glory right down on him until Moses’ face was lit up like a lightbulb. He called Elijah through the wilderness to Mt. Horeb in order to brush against him as He passed by: light as a feather, the softest silence of God.
Listen to God’s words in the Exodus: “I shall dwell among the Israelites (and here we can just substitute “Peace Churchites”), and I will be their God. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them up out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them: I am the Lord their God.”
God calls us out of the places we were in order to dwell among us and to be our God.
God called us here because He is about to pass by.
If we turn now to the Gospel of Mark, we might wonder: why did the Spirit drive Jesus into the wilderness for 40 days and nights? If the wilderness is a place of identity formation – the place where we are transformed from “just any people” to “God’s people” – then what is Jesus doing there? Jesus is already God’s person, God’s man. Jesus knows exactly who he is. As Jesus rises from the waters of baptism, “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.””
Having heard that voice from heaven, it seems highly unlikely that Jesus was having an identity crisis. The Spirit descending like a dove? A voice from heaven declaring exactly who we are, and announcing that God is pleased with us? That would alleviate our need for an identity-forming trip to the wilderness, too. If God would do that for me every morning when I rise up out of the bathtub, I am pretty sure I could face my day with confidence.
And yet the Spirit drives Jesus – who is now very clear on the fact that he is the Son of God – out into the wilderness anyway. Well, that’s a story with no suspense. Jesus knows who he is. We know that Jesus is not going to get disgruntled in the wilderness and pound out a golden calf for himself. And when the tempter shows up on the sceen, slinging his guns and firing off one temptation after another, we know that Jesus is going to win the shootout show-down with Satan in the dust and the hot sun.
Why the wilderness, then? Why does the Spirit write Jesus into the wilderness story? To show us how it’s done.
In the wilderness, Satan the tempter pulls out his entire bag of tricks to try to get Jesus to forget who he really is and what he’s really there for. Satan does his best to distract Jesus from his true identity: God’s man. Satan is dangling the bait before Christ, but Christ, being Christ, doesn’t bite. Jesus knows who he is, and to whom he belongs. He knows the Lord God who sent him, and he keeps his eye on the prize.
Jesus goes out into the wilderness to show us how it’s done. He shows us how to walk through the wilderness with our eyes trained straight ahead, our vision clear, our roots growing down miles deep, driving straight down into the rock of Christ, fully rooted in God. Jesus walks out into the wilderness ahead of us to show us how to dwell so deeply in God that even the shiniest tricks and tin-foil temptations of Satan cannot do us in. Jesus goes out into the wilderness before us and every day with us so that we, wilderness people that we are, never, ever forget whose we are.
God’s Spirit is driving us into the wilderness now, just for a little while, just until we know, yes until we know, deep down in the roots and the depths of who we are, that we are the people of God. And when you go out of this place, into the dead deserts of the places where you must live, and do battle, and face the tempter’s tin-foil tricks: do not forget who you are.
You are God’s daughter, God’s son: the most dearly, deeply, endlessly beloved of God. And with you God is very, very pleased.