“Into the Wilderness” Colchester Federated Church, February 18, 2018, (Mark 1:9-15) First Sunday in Lent

Writer Margaret Silf retells a Native American story about a boy facing initiation rites as his first step toward manhood.  The boy was sent out to the forest at night, blindfolded and alone, to confront his fears.  The night passed very slowly.  The boy heard every sound, every rustle of leaves and the wind in the trees.  He was terrified.  His mind wandered, wondering what wild creatures might be lurking near him.  The fears of the supernatural even haunted him.  What spirits may be out there seeking to hurt him?  Perhaps worst of all, the boy was aware that he was alone and incredibly vulnerable sitting there by himself in the middle of the forest.

When dawn finally arrived, one of the elders of the tribe came to remove his blindfold.  The boy was so relieved to greet the morning light.  Though the first thing he saw—sitting alert among the trees nearby—was his father.  You see his father had been there beside him all night, only feet away from his beloved son.  His father had been there watching over him, ready to protect him should danger come.  And now his father stood up, beaming—walking over to his son to embrace him with pride.[1]

When hearing this traditional Native American story it can remind us of Jesus in the wilderness.  Like the young boy who had to go out to the forest to face his fears, maybe that’s why Jesus needed to spend the time alone in such a desolate place.  It’s like even Jesus needed to be in a refiner’s fire, facing his fears.  He had to come out the other side truly ready for what God needed him to do to bring about God’s realm in this world.  A rite of passage or a rite of initiation is not an uncommon story.  In some cultures, the warrior has to go on a journey to prepare themselves for what is to come.  In Judaism there’s Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and in Christianity we have Confirmation—religious rites of passage to mark a young person moving from childhood to adulthood in the faith.

When Jesus is out in the wilderness being tempted it was a rite of passage of sorts.  It moved him from one part of his spiritual journey to another.  For we begin the First Sunday in Lent in the wilderness with Jesus.  It took a process for him to get there and then another process in the wilderness to move him to begin his ministry in Galilee and beyond.  Really, we begin the First Sunday in Lent by hearing the story of Jesus’ baptism again.  That he went to the Jordan River to get baptized by John.  And just as he was coming out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  Jesus hears a voice from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”[2]  So far so good.

But then we read: “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” The same Spirit that had just descended on him like a dove drives him out into the desolate wilderness to face temptation.  Unlike Matthew and Luke’s account of the Temptation in the Wilderness, we don’t read specifics here in the Gospel according to Mark.  Instead, Mark presents us with a much shorter and more concise account of this wilderness wandering.  We do know that Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days tempted by Satan.  “And he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”[3]  Yet we don’t hear what exactly Jesus faced or even the interaction Jesus had with Satan like we hear in Matthew and Luke.  What temptations exactly did Jesus need to face and overcome?

We are not told.  In some ways this makes the story of the temptation in the wilderness more relatable.  We remember that Jesus was a human being and that he faced temptation.  What tempts human beings?  What tempts us?  We could consider the 7 Deadly Sins (otherwise known as the Capital Vices or the Cardinal Sins): pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth.  Is that what Jesus was facing in the wilderness?  Having to overcome all these pitfalls that ensnare human beings too easily even now?

Some folks have said that the worst of the 7 Deadly Sins is actually pride.  Because all of the other sins may in fact stem from pride.  When a person is overly proud they can be easily offended and angered.  They can behave in terrible ways by thinking that they are above any rules or beyond reproach.  They can view themselves as deserving that which does not belong to them.  To quote from the book of Proverbs, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”[4]

So was Jesus in the wilderness overcoming pride after just being affirmed in his baptism as God’s Beloved, with whom God is well pleased?  Is this the ultimate temptation he faced?  It’s impossible to say for sure just going off what’s written in the Gospel of Mark.  Though it’s written in such a way that this story can make all of us really stop and think.  By not being specific, we can easily identify with Jesus facing down hard stuff in the wilderness.

This week has been a difficult one in our country.  There are articles and images everywhere of another school shooting—the 18th school shooting in 2018 alone.  This time it happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and seventeen people died.  They are not nameless and faceless victims, we know them: Jamie Guttenberg, Meadow Pollock, Alyssa Alhadeff, Nicholas Dworet, Gina Montalto, Luke Hoyer, Martin Duque, Alex Schachter, Joaquin Oliver, Carmen Schentrup, Alaina Petty, Peter Wang, Cara Loughran, Helena Ramsey, Chris Hixon, Scott Beigel, and Aaron Feis.[5]  We name these seventeen people who died in Parkland, Florida from the pulpit this morning because we may be tempted to normalize school shootings, behaving as if this is just the way it is.  We may be tempted to not think about this event because it’s too painful.  We may be tempted to not go here at church because this could get “political.”

These children of God had parents, friends, teammates, teachers, coaches, doctors, and pastors who loved them and will miss them every day from here on out.  They are not nameless unidentified victims of gun violence.  The fact that we see so many mass shootings in places like Newtown and San Bernardino and Orlando and Las Vegas and Parkland and may be tempted to normalize this violence, or numb ourselves so that we don’t have to think about mass shootings, shows how lost our society has become.

Though we are Christians, my friends.  We are part of the Body of Christ.  If one part of our body is hurting, we are all hurting.  We follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ—a teacher who taught us that above anything our calling as his disciples is to love one another as God first loved us.  Children are being slaughtered when they go to school to get an education.  Innocent children are literally losing their lives.  And others are worried about what school may be next when they should be worrying about too much homework, a pop quiz in Algebra, or finding a date to the big dance.

As people of faith we are part of the world.  We are not above and beyond what is happening now on the ground in our country.  We can’t afford to sit on the sidelines when our perspective that life is sacred and a gift from God may be exactly what people need to be hearing.  After a week like this, how does Jesus’ call to love look in our lives?  Maybe it looks like signing petitions or picketing or calling elected leaders to encourage Common Sense Gun Laws.  Maybe it looks like speaking to your children and grandchildren, ensuring that they would know what to do in case the unthinkable happened at their school.  And if another student is behaving in questionable ways to say something to a trusted adult.  Maybe you are a card carrying member of the NRA—what laws make sense to you to prevent the slaughter of innocent children?  How can we put our differences aside to come together and find a workable solution to the problem of mass shootings in our society?

We may very well be in the wilderness as a country right now.  In a place that’s desolate and seems hopeless sometimes.  Because we can’t seem to go here and attempt to figure out a path forward through this madness.  And it is madness.  These are difficult conversations to have with people who may not see eye to eye with our perspective.  But giving into hopelessness?  That’s a temptation that we just can’t afford to succumb to because the stakes are too high and innocent lives are involved here.  We are Easter people living in a Good Friday world.  But Christ is with us, beside us, and before us calling us to radical love.

Now last week we talked about mountaintop moments with God, moments that are Thin Places and all of a sudden what separates us from God disappears as we are plunged into an encounter with the Divine.  Those moments that give us courage to go out into the world and put our Christian faith into action.  The world does need us.

We have a hopeful perspective to offer the world as Christians.  We can declare to anyone who has the ears to hear and the eyes to see that we are all God’s beloved children, worthy of love and respect.  We are responsible for one another.  We are called to love, even our enemies and people who persecute us—Jesus taught us that.

Whatever temptation it was that Jesus overcame in the wilderness, that part of his journey gave him the strength to come out the other side focused on love.  That is what can give us hope on a week like this week.  Out of the temptation in the wilderness came love.  A love so great that Jesus was willing to go to the cross and beyond, to shatter the ways of sin and death and show us what a life fully devoted to God looks like.  It’s not a journey Jesus took without personal cost.  But take that journey Jesus did.  We can embody his love.  We can’t afford not to.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Margaret Silf, One Hundred More Wisdom Stories, 127.
[2] Mark 1:11, NRSV.
[3] Mark 1:12-13.
[4] Proverbs 16:18.
[5] Nina Golgowski, Willa Frej, and Doha Madani, “These are the Victims of the South Florida School Shooting,” HuffPost, February 15, 2018, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/victims-marjory-stoneman-douglas-florida-shooting_us_5a849eefe4b0058d5565935e