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February 18, 2018

 “Strength for the Journey”

Mark 1:9-15

This past Monday morning on my day off, I went on a journey with my wife Paula and dog Angus. We decided to take a hike up the Bandersnatch trail. For those of you who have not been on the Bandersnatch trail, it is a difficult hike for sure.  There are a lot of switchbacks as you journey up the first hill- although “hill” is a bit too insignificant a word, but mountain is a bit too much, so somewhere in between.  After arriving on the first summit, the trail takes you back down into a ravine, only to place you at the foot of yet another hill/mountain with more switchbacks. After reaching summit number two, there is a final trek down the other side of that hill/mountain, placing you on Ashland Loop road which finally gets you back to the reservoir area some 3.5 miles later. It is quite a difficult journey- lots of effort to get to the end, lots of ups and downs, with many twists and turns.

Well, last Wednesday marked the beginning of quite another journey for us all, the beginning of the journey of Lent. The Lenten journey can be a lot like the Bandersnatch trail- lots of effort to get to the end, lots of ups and downs with twists and turns. Lent can be a time of intense introspection, a time of testing, a time of suffering as we give up things which are important to us, that we might remember Jesus, his suffering and the suffering of those around us. 

This passage in Mark is a traditional Lenten passage for this season in the church year.  We can see one obvious reason-Jesus’ 40 days of trial before beginning his ministry, which echoes the 40 days of Lent. His suffering and temptation by the evil one can be much like our own times of trial and suffering during Lent. But why the story about his baptism and the Spirit? And what of the kingdom of God being “At hand?” How are these two sections from Mark’s gospel tied to the journey of Lent? Let us begin where the passage for today does, with the baptism of Jesus. Jesus presented himself for baptism at the Jordan River. He was baptized by John, who was calling all to repent of their sins and be baptized.

Jesus’ baptism was different from John’s in that his was the first baptism by Spirit- the Spirit of God came into him when he went into the waters of the Jordan River. This was important because there was a belief at that time in the first century time that the Spirit of God was no longer present- that the Holy Spirit came to an end in Israel when the last prophets, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi died. From that point on, it was thought one could only hear God as a distant echo at best. The Spirit, however, had not left the people, and was about to break through in a new momentous way.  As the heavens were torn open, Jesus saw the Spirit of God descending upon him like a dove. The image of a dove was significant, for it hearkened back to the new beginning the dove symbolized when it brought a tree branch to Noah. For Jesus, baptism marked the beginning of something so new and powerful that he could never go back to his private life in Nazareth. His baptism in water and receiving the Spirit, the words of blessing by God all launched him on a world-saving mission. This was no tame, gentle dove of a Spirit, however. For just after God said, “This is my son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  Then the Spirit cast Jesus out into a time of struggle and trial. Why did the Spirit of God act in such a way?

Rev. Jill Duffield, explains the Spirit in this way. Mark's version of the Holy Spirit was an angry bird long before the video game came on the scene. The descending dove tears apart heaven to get to earthly Jesus as he comes up out of the waters of baptism. The Holy Spirit drives out, forces Jesus to leave, and expels him still dripping from the Jordan into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. Somehow that image of a gentle bird, branch in its mouth, doesn't do Mark's Holy Spirit justice. The turkey vultures circling above the unfortunate opossum torn asunder on my country road seem a more apt metaphor here.”

He was thrown out into the wilderness, by this wild, powerful Spirit to face Satan, lack of shelter, lack of adequate food and wild beasts. In Matthew’s version of the story, Jesus fasted for the entire 40 days in the wilderness! We have begun our fasting group at our church during Lent on Fridays from sunrise to sunset, and I had difficulty this past Friday dealing with my grumbling stomach, with my ability to focus, and resisting the temptation to find some snack and stuff it into my mouth. I even had to check the EXACT time of sunset on my smart phone, so that I knew when I would be able to eat something again. And I had a huge jug of water with me to help with my hunger and keep me hydrated.  I cannot imagine 40 days of what Jesus went through. And even if he didn’t fast as Mark suggests, scavenging for any food substance would have been arduous.

Why did Jesus have to go through such a difficult journey to begin his ministry? Was this some form of a spiritual boot camp? Was there something he needed to learn from this time of extended suffering? He faced the evil one, wild beasts and lack of food and shelter for over a month.  What did he glean from this experience?  And what hope can we find in this story as Jesus journeyed through the wilderness?

First, we learn that even though Jesus was God’s beloved son, he was still driven out into the wilderness.  So the first thing we learn from this story is that even though we are beloved daughters and sons of God, we are not protected from suffering, evil, temptation and trial. At times we too may be driven. Those times of difficulty awaken us from our slumber. Our experiences of loss help us to accompany others as they travel through the valley of the shadow. Our experiences of hunger help us to remember those who are hungry every day and to work for God’s justice so that one day there might be no hungry people in the world. Our struggles with temptation and evil can strengthen us in faith as we turn from them, relying upon God’s Spirit to help us and embrace light rather than darkness.

As we face our own wilderness experiences, we learn to share in the sufferings of the world and those around us. Theologian Dorothee Soelle wrote, “Suffering makes us more sensitive to the pain in the world. It can teach us to put forth a greater love for everything that exists.” Christ’s suffering in the wilderness prepared him for the suffering that was to come, and enabled him to put forth the greatest love for everything that exists in his death upon the cross.

Secondly, we learn more about ourselves as well in those journeys through the wilderness. Theologian Anthony DeMello says, “Every painful event contains in itself a seed of growth and liberation.” Those wilderness journeys change our depth, the very core of our being. I like to think that through each experience of suffering I have faced, I have grown and learned. Jesus, as he suffered, grew as well- He learned more about who he was, about his mission, and about the strength he had to resist evil.

Finally, we do learn that although Jesus was driven out into the wilderness by the Spirit, he was not abandoned in the wilderness. That forceful, “Angry bird” of a Spirit did not leave Jesus to fend for himself during a prolonged time of suffering and trial. Maybe that is what Jesus had to learn before he began his ministry, for his journey to Jerusalem and to the cross would be even more difficult as he challenged the powers of the day. I think that is the kind of Spirit I would like on my side as well, one which may try to teach me some profound truths about myself and the world and the God who loves me, yet who will not abandon me as I journey through my own times of wilderness and trial.

Perhaps we like Jesus need to learn those important truths from this story- that the God who claims us as beloved daughters and sons in the waters of baptism, who anoints us with the power of the Spirit, who loves us, who breaks down the barriers between heaven and earth may bring seasons of difficulty to us in this life, but does not abandon us in our own wilderness experiences. God upholds us, helps us learn and grow; God’s Spirit goes with us, and angels are sent to minister to us, until we come to the end of our wilderness journey.

I am thankful for my baptism, and for the gift of the Spirit, who accompanies me, who helps me face evil, trial, temptation loss and difficulty. Perhaps “angry bird” doesn’t quite fit the right description. Perhaps the Spirit is more like a mother bird protecting her young from a circling hawk up above, fending off those times of temptation. She is a powerful Mother bird who sends divine interference- just the kind of help we will need as we are sent out those doors to do Christ’s  into a world that does not recognize the very One who came to save it. For the kingdom of God is at hand. And we followers of Christ are called to go out and proclaim it.

 

Our Lenten journey began this past Ash Wednesday with the sign of the cross and communion.  So as we fast and pray, and give up some things; as we turn from temptation, may we remember as we face our own times of wilderness, Sisters and Brothers, that our darkest seasons in life are not evil infested- they are Spirit infused. There is no evil encounter, no time of trial, no traveling through the valley of the shadow where God is not present. This does not lessen the pain of loss, the struggle of sin, or the difficulties we may face on our journeys through times of wilderness.  Yet the God who claimed us as beloved in the waters of baptism, the same God who accompanied Jesus from his suffering and death to an empty tomb through the power of the Spirit will  accompany us on all of the ups and downs, the many twists and turns, and will always be strength for whatever journey lies ahead. Amen.

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