Into the wilderness...
READ: Mark 1.3-9
When I was a boy, about the ages of my own sons, the movie “Rocky” came out.
You know, the boxing movie with Sylvester Stallone?
I saw it at the movies with my dad, and that quickly became my favorite childhood movie of all-time.
The day after I saw it — and I’m not even kidding — I’d wake up at 5 am, crack two eggs and eat them raw, put on my hooded sweatshirt, and go for a run, culminating at the steps of our library’s front door.
Every. Single. Morning.
I don’t know why my parents let their 9-year-old boy do this, but when I look back on it today, I’m certainly glad they did.
Because it was that movie and all those early morning runs that created the runner in me.
Something to this day I still love to do.
But in the movie, do you remember how hard Rocky had to work?
Those early-morning runs in Philadelphia?
The hours spent punching sides of beef in the meat lockers?
The blood, sweat and tears in the gym — at the speed bag, the heavy bag and sparring in the ring?
All that preparation led to the one day that Rocky was able to stand in the real ring, facing his toughest competitor, Apollo Creed.
All that work. The preparing. The conditioning. Developing stamina and mental toughness. The testing…
And when Rocky is completely ready, then the real work begins, doesn’t it?
Everything that came before prepared him for the challenge that would come.
I learned that, too, toeing the line at my first every 10K race.
It was all the conditioning that allowed me to actually run the race.
And so today, I want us to talk and think about what it takes for us to live out God’s will for our lives — looking the most prime example: Jesus’s baptism and his temptation in the wilderness.
Again, Mark’s account of Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist is right to the point, compared to Luke and Matthew.
We hear Mark tell us that Jesus came from Nazareth, shows up at the Jordan where John is baptizing, and, Verse 10:
“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;[a] with you I am well pleased.”
This was a critical moment for Jesus.
Now, I understand that I’m probably overstating the obvious, but it’s significant to stop and think about who Jesus is at this point.
Mark’s Gospel begins with John the Baptist.
It alludes to a messiah coming, the one whom John is making a way in the wilderness for, if we were to jump back to Verse 3.
There’s no birth narrative.
No mangers, no wisemen, no star.
There’s John. And then “In those days” Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee…
That’s not to say that none of that other stuff happened; just that what’s important to Mark is showing that Jesus is the messiah because of the prophecies fulfilled.
And, remember too, that both Matthew and Luke, whose Gospels came after Mark’s, borrowed from Mark and added more of the accounts that they knew and understood.
And so the very first time we hear of Jesus in Mark is after he tells us John made the way for the Messiah, and now the Messiah is showing up at the riverbank to be baptized.
Just a month ago in this very church, we baptized baby Malcolm.
We initiated him into the Body of Christ — what we call the church.
We stood over the water in our baptismal font, and we vowed to help raise baby Malcolm and provide him all that he needs to one day make his own proclamation about God.
And here stands Jesus, having the baptismal waters poured over him.
He is initiated.
And God affirms his messiahship: Verse 11:
“And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
I like how the Common English Bible translates it:
“You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”
These are amazing words of affirmation, are they not?
A month ago, we affirmed baby Malcolm right here.
It’s just like that.
And just like that, Jesus understands something profound — something that has changed in him.
In fact, the sign of this is when the heavens open up, and the Spirt ascends on Jesus like a dove.
Jesus hears God’s words of affirmation.
Then the Spirit falls on him.
There is no doubt, he has been called to something much bigger.
What is that bigger thing?
Well, as soon as Jesus hears God’s voice and experiences the Spirit, the same Spirit drives him into the wilderness.
And there, Jesus finds himself among the wild animals, and with nothing and no one around him except Satan — the embodiment of evil.
And Satan tempts Jesus.
Mark doesn’t really tell us anything about the temptation — no rocks to bread, no tall pinnacles for testing God or offering the world…
Yet even if we never read the parallel Gospels of Matthew and Luke, we all know what temptation means.
And we all know what evil is.
And being tempted by evil is not easy to overcome, let alone in the wilderness for 40 days with no one else around to help.
That word tempted in the Greek is the same word that Mark uses twice when he talks about the Pharisees trying to trap Jesus by asking him certain questions…
Isn’t that interesting?
Have you ever felt this way — this kind of testing or temptation?
It’s more of like trying to ensnarl you, isn’t it?
And you’re fully aware of the danger that falling into that trap would bring.
Yet it’s still hard to avoid it.
It’s that kind of temptation.
And Jesus experiences it at — arguably up until this point in his life — what would be the lowest point in his life.
But he draws his strength from the power of the Spirit that preceded this trek to the wilderness;
and it’s also preceded by the fact that Jesus knows God’s will.
Again, only Luke and Matthew tell us that Jesus quoted Scripture to respond to Satan’s testing of him — Mark doesn’t speak to it.
But we do know that Jesus has been set apart by God for something bigger, and so he draws on all that he has for strength.
At the end of the 40 days, Jesus is ready.
In the last moments, the angels come to his aid and waited on him.
Served him. Diakoneo for those of you who were here last Sunday, remember?
Like Peter’s mother-in-law, who was healed by Jesus, then got up and served him. Diakoneo
Helping him for what comes next.
And that’s important to note here.
In fact, it’s the crux of the whole conversation.
Why the wilderness?
I’ll tell you, when I was out in South Dakota on the Indian reservation last month, a group of us were driving way out near the Badlands and our van broke down.
It’s South Dakota in the middle of the winter, and there was nothing around us for miles and miles and miles.
And, yeah, there are coyotes and bears and other wild beasts out there…
Cell phone service was spotty, and the road wasn’t well-traveled.
But I was with a dozen other people.
And eventually, a truck came by.
And we had our winter boots and parkas.
We were prepared.
But imagine if it was only me.
And I didn’t have a parka.
And it was in the middle of the night.
And there was no van…
And Satan shows up…
“If you do this one thing, I’ll give you …….”
The wilderness is void of help, of comfort, of rescue…
The only thing there is Satan.
For 40 days…
Yet this isn’t the test, not really.
This is the preparation for the real test.
It’s all the sacrifices we make when we’re getting ready to do something big.
Like run a race.
Or step into a ring against the champion.
But we’re not going to trivialize it now with my childhood stories or the fictitious Rocky Balboa.
They are great images to serve a point.
We know we’re in the season of Lent, and Lent leads to Easter.
But we know to get to Easter — the resurrection — we have to make the trip to the cross and to the tomb.
The wilderness is nothing compared to what Jesus will soon face.
Jesus will face tests from Satan again.
Like we spoke of with the Pharisees trying to trap him.
And eventually the people, who will send him to the cross.
The wilderness, then, actually prepares Jesus.
It actually strengthens him.
It’s not just to see if Jesus passes some sort of a test so he can be deemed worthy of something bigger that lies ahead;
it’s strength-training. It’s conditioning. It’s survival skills…
And not to downplay the reality of 40 days being tempted by Satan in the wilderness, but the real wilderness comes as soon as these 40 days are over with.
Without the baptism — the affirmation — there is no call to the wilderness.
And without the wilderness experience, there is no strength and preparation for Jesus’s ministry.
Again, the real wilderness comes when these 40 days are over with.
Our 40 Days
It’s by no coincidence, then, we are in the 40-day period of Lent.
Forty is such a significant number in the Bible.
How many years did the Israelites wander the desert? 40.
How many days was Moses atop Mount Sinai before he received the Commandments? 40.
And how many days was the prophet Elijah holed up on his mountain until God passed by him not in the wind or the storm or the earthquake or the fire, but in the still, small voice? 40.
Because the Israelites were being prepared to live out their covenant with God as God’s chosen people;
Because Moses had the task of bringing God’s people into the Promised Land;
And because Elijah had to anoint kings and his own successor to turn the Israelites back to God.
And of course, Jesus, who would need the strength and endurance to follow God’s will all the way to the cross.
The number 40 is not by chance for us in these days of Lent.
Because what are we really doing in Lent?
This is our wilderness.
This is when we empty our hands and can only go to God for our provision.
The things of the world that sustain you.
And maybe those things are idols, I don’t know.
When you go without them, you will be tempted mightily to cave in to those things.
And the only thing that can give you strength is recalling your baptisms.
That you are a part of the body of Christ.
That you are held by a Great, Big God.
And the only thing that can give you strength is God and only God.
You can see how trivial it is then to, say, give up chocolate for Lent.
And I know that chocolate has incredible powers….
But giving up something or doing something that you cannot do in your own power—
something that you need to be reminded to go to God with to get you through it…
So that at the end of the 40 days of whatever it is you’re fasting, you’re not ready to rest, but you’re ready to do God’s will.
You’re ready to toe the line for the big race.
You’re ready to lace up the boxing gloves for the fight of your life.
You’re ready to live a resurrected people.
These 40 days are the training ground.
This here is how we are strengthened.
Without the wilderness, we flat-out won’t be ready for what’s ahead for us.
What God calls us to do.
This is our season of preparation.
Are you ready?
Words of Affirmation
One more thing.
And we go all the way back to the beginning of these four very short, but theologically jam-packed verses.
How did it all start?
It started with God’s affirmation at Jesus’s baptism.
And it starts with us remembering God’s affirmation at our own baptisms.
Where God says to us “You are my child, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”
Will you repeat that after me now?
“You are my child” (respond)
“whom I dearly love;” (respond)
“in you I find happiness.” (respond)
We all have a hard road in front of us.
We all face our own wildernesses.
We all face temptation.
We all face our own weaknesses.
And we all are preparing for what God has for us.
And that’s not always easy.
But how about we do this:
Think about the last words that we tell one another each day.
When you drop your kids off at the bus stop, or say goodbye to your loved ones.
When you part from your friends and your church family.
When you hang up the phone.
Let there be a word of affirmation.
Let there be a word of encouragement.
Let there be a word to let them know that you believe in them.
Let these be your last words to them.
Sometimes, they are the only words we say to people.
Sometimes, they are words to people whom we don’t really know.
Our words are powerful, and they can truly change the world.
Because the world can be a hard, hard place.
Filled with all sorts of temptation, anger and injustice.
Filled with the embodiment of evil.
I don’t know this, but maybe if we spoke more encouragement, maybe if we spoke more love into the world, there would be no Nicholas Cruzes behind the triggers of AR-15 rifles taken into our schools and used for what can only be called pure evil.
Every day, we witness that evil manifesting itself in the world.
We certainly need the strength to be able to stand against it.
And be strong. To be encouraged. To be prepared.
To make it through this wilderness so that we can truly be ready to transform the world when we’re called to do it.
Let it start here, in these 40 days.
Be encouraged. Encourage others
Speak love. Speak Love.