Lent 1 B: Wilderness Faith

Dear Partner in Preaching,

Somewhere along the line – whether in a college English course or seminary preaching class I can’t quite remember – I was taught to craft a tight, clear theme sentence to guide the whole of the essay or sermon. I’ll confess that I don’t do that every week, but I will this time around. And keeping with the brevity of Mark’s Gospel – and, indeed, his somewhat truncated version of the temptation – I’m going to keep it short: the same Spirit that descends upon Jesus at his baptism now drives him into the wilderness.

Did you ever notice that, by the way? That immediately after his Baptism Jesus is driven – not just led, mind you, but driven – into the wilderness by the same Spirit that just earlier had descended upon him and conferred to him God’s profound blessing?

To be honest, I had only noticed half of that. That is, I noticed that Jesus’ baptism came immediately before his temptation and concluded that receiving his identity as God’s child was essential to weathering the temptations and struggles to come. Similarly, I would suggest in such sermons, the identity given us at Baptism is what guides us through the challenges and struggles that await us on our journey as well. And I still stand by that. (And it’ll preach, if you don’t like what I write below. J) But this year it struck me that it is Spirit that drives Jesus into the wilderness, that place of challenge and struggle and purification and testing and temptation.

Why? Did Jesus need to be in the wilderness for some reason? Did this wilderness period of struggle and temptation provide something essential to his ministry or accomplish some end that isn’t immediately apparent?

We don’t know for sure, of course, as Mark doesn’t say. But I have wondered if one fruitful approach to this text might be to assume that indeed the Spirit’s prompting wasn’t random, that the Spirit drove Jesus to the wilderness with some purpose. And if we can imagine that, then might we also look at some of the wilderness places we have chosen to go recently and wonder the same.

But there’s the rub, isn’t it. Truth be told, we rarely volunteer to go to wilderness places. We don’t often look for opportunities to struggle. Which is probably why Mark reports that the Spirit drove Jesus rather than simply make a suggestion. J And the same is true with our periods of trial, temptation, and struggle. We don’t choose these – they happen to us. Even when the challenges in front of us are of our own making – let alone those put upon us by others or the fortunes of life – we rarely want or actively seek such hardship. But can we possible imagine that the Spirit might make use of us during these challenges? That’s a whole other question.

At this point, I want to be absolutely clear: I am not suggesting that God causes us misery or suffering. Not to teach us something, and definitely not to punish us or put us in our place. Notice that the Spirit doesn’t tempt Jesus, but rather drives Jesus to the wilderness. Similarly, I don’t believe that God even wants us to suffer, let alone causes us to. But I do wonder if we can imagine that perhaps God is at work both for us and through us during our wilderness times.

These questions shouldn’t be asked lightly, especially when the struggles we face are major. I’m not advocating a spiritual panacea, let alone inviting people to stay in situations of danger or personal degradation. Far from it. God wants only good things for God’s children.

And yet struggle, trial, even misery – that is, wilderness times – abound. And I wonder if we can look at the struggles around us in light of this story and ask, “Even though I did not wish for this, how might God be at work through this difficult period. What can I get out of this? How might God use me to help someone else?” These kinds of questions aren’t meant so much to redeem struggle and suffering – as if that’s our job! – but rather to remind us of God’s presence during those wilderness times that leave us feeling stretched beyond our abilities. Because, you know what? The same Spirit of God that descended upon Jesus at Baptism and drove Jesus out into the wilderness also accompanied him during that time and brought him back again.

So also, God will not abandon us during our sojourns in the wilderness but might even, from time to time, drive us there for our benefit or that of someone around us. God is, after all, in the business of taking that which seems only to cause death and somehow wring from it resurrection life. And that’s not a bad thing to remember at the beginning of Lent. So I want our people to be able to look at their struggles, hear the promise of God’s presence with them, and then look for God at work in and through them for the sake of this world God loves so much.

This won’t be an easy sermon to preach, Dear Partner, as I know there are many pitfalls in preaching about challenge, trials, and suffering and lots and lots of bad theology out there. But if handled with equal measures of sensitivity and courage, this passage might just help us invite our people not just to survive the wilderness times of their lives but to emerge from them renewed in hope, faith, and confidence. Thanks so much for your efforts to do just that, and blessings on your proclamation.

Yours in Christ,

PS: My annual Lenten devotional series begins tomorrow, as we cover the Passion According to John. Feel free to let folks know. Thanks!