“First Sunday in Lent”: Mark 1:9-15

Rev. Dr. Jan Gregory-Charpentier
Kingston Congregational Church
February 21, 2021
Genesis 9:8-17
Mark 1:9-15

Ah, Wilderness

We read a portion of these same verses six weeks ago when we
celebrated the Baptism of Christ Sunday, and on that day I, and a
medley of your voices, encouraged us to remember our baptism, to
remember that we too are cherished, chosen and called. That
particular Sunday, the first Sunday after Epiphany is one of those benchmark Sundays in our
liturgical tradition: the gospel reading, no matter which gospel we’re
in that year, is always the same, always the story of Jesus’ baptism.
And the same is true today: the traditional gospel reading for the first
Sunday in Lent is always the story of Jesus’ 40-day sojourn in the
wilderness, no matter which gospel we’re in any given year. This year
it is Mark. And as we know, Mark is spare with details—which means
every word counts. Every building block of this story is essential, or it
wouldn’t have made it into Mark’s streamlined gospel. Baptism and
temptation…blessing and trial…water and wilderness…are always
part of the Jesus story, always part of the good news, always part of
the narrative of grace. Six weeks ago, we proclaimed “Remember
your baptism!” This Sunday, the first Sunday of Lent, might be said to
also come with its own exhortation, “Remember the wilderness!”
Ah, wilderness! In the Bible (New and Old Testaments)
wilderness is both a lived experience and a spiritual state. Whether it
is waves and water, like Noah, or dry mountain deserts, wilderness is
that place of paradoxical grace, dangerous blessing, precarious
intimacy with God. If it doesn’t kill you first, it promises to change you.
God is forever plunging God’s beloveds into wilderness. Abraham
and Sarah, Moses and the whole Hebrew tribe. Elijah, on the run from
Jezebel, found a cave in the wilderness; John the Baptist took up
residence in it. And Jesus, following in their footsteps, spent forty days
there. It seems in the biblical tradition there is no way to the
promised land, or the Kingdom of God, without the experience of

I have to admit I have very mixed feelings about this. I love the
idea of wilderness―untamed beauty and all that―but I hate the
experience, the spiritual experience, of wilderness, of being
unprepared and vulnerable, out of my element and exposed. In my
all physical experiences of natural wilderness, when I’ve knowingly
and intentionally put myself there―John Muir Wilderness, Kings
Canyon Wilderness, Ansel Adams Wilderness, Yosemite Wilderness in
California―I went prepared, backpack full and fitted out with all I’d
need for the trek. Spiritual wilderness isn’t like that. Spiritual wilderness
is that place or event in our lives for which we’re unprepared and
ill-equipped. It’s those times in our lives when the ground has shifted
under our feet and the landscape is unfamiliar. Someone has
plucked us up out of our well-traveled routes with familiar landmarks
and tossed us off the map. And we are now in the wilderness.
Bereavement will put you there. Chronic illness will put there. Divorce
will put you there. As will mental illness, job loss or almost any kind of
major failure or break down in life. Wilderness is disruptive,
disorienting and dislocating.

As a global community, we’ve been walking in the wilderness
for about a year now. Pandemic has put us here. Awakening to new
needs for racial reckoning has put us here. Political upheaval has put
us here. Our once-familiar terrain and reliable road signs have
changed. So many of the ways we navigated our lives before aren’t
available to us now. Routines and supports we depended on have
been altered. We have had to redefine and rediscover who, what,
how and why we are. That is the demanding landscape of
wilderness. That is also the very definition of transformation.
Ah, transformation! Another one of those biblical, paradoxical
words. On the surface, it has a nice ring to it: transformation.
Everyone needs a little change now and again. A new day, a new
perspective, a new beginning. But most of us don’t choose real
transformation. Disorienting life change. We’re forced into it. We’re
subjected to it. Pharaoh’s army or a cataclysmic flood has to push us
into it. Transformation, like wilderness, is a severe mercy, to use C.S.
Lewis’ phrase. But one, it seems, God’s people, even God’s Son,
cannot escape. Mark says right after his baptism, “The Spirit
immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness.” Now, only Mark
uses this word, “drove;” Matthew and Luke say Jesus was “led” by
the Spirit into the wilderness. I don’t know about you, but I think I’d
rather be led than driven. As the gifted preacher William Willimon
puts it, in Mark the baptismal dove turns into a thing with talons.
Mark continues: “And he was in the wilderness forty days,
tempted by Satan and he was with the wild beasts and angels
waited on him…” Only Mark adds wild beasts to this story. Matthew
and Luke don’t see the need for them; fending off the Tempter is
apparently is wild enough. But Mark is making sure we know that this
path of transformation is no easy road, no gentle shift in perspective
or warmly welcomed change. But I guess that was true for Noah,
Moses, the wandering Hebrews and Elijah, too. Forty days or forty
years, either way, wilderness, transformation, journeys that drive you
from one way of being in the world to another, are fraught with
hazards. Keep your eyes and heart open lest you fall. But so also is
the wilderness populated with angels. Blessings and gifts that enrich
us even as we stumble through the wilderness whittled down and
forever changed. Companioned by beasts and angels, driven into
the wilderness for an iconic 40-day journey of transformation, Jesus
steps back into the wider world with his purpose and his message
clearly defined: “The Kingdom of God has come near.”
What will we emerge from our wilderness with? With vaccines
coming on line, and a new administration in Washington DC, it feels
like the far end of our current wilderness is coming into view. Is our
identity any clearer? Have we named the beasts and entertained
the angels that this transforming time has brought us? What clear
and cogent message do we have to share when we like Jesus move
from isolation into engagement again with the world? If we let it, this
wilderness experience can bless and prepare us too, like Jesus, to
reemerge clearer and true to our essential purpose. I would love to
know what you think you’ve learned about yourself, or church, or
faith through this honing wilderness! What beasts did you discover?
What angels? What clarity have you gained on your defining
purpose, your essential message? Ours as a church? Let’s not waste
this wilderness experience by leaving it unexamined.
Ah, wilderness! Ah, transformation! It’s not what we usually ask
for, but it in life it seems unavoidable. And in the biblical narrative, it
even seems to be salvific. This transformational time has been both
beastly and blessed. If we own it, if we live it, if we “Remember the
wilderness,” it can become a holy touchstone for us in the future, a
time when we learned something important about who, what, how
and why we are. Barbara Brown Taylor, another well-known
preacher, says Jesus never really left the wilderness behind, but
rather he carried that essential experience with him and frequently
sought it out again, slipping off or staying behind as he often did to
pray “in a lonely place” or “up a mountain,” or “a little way off.”
Even as pandemic eases, let’s take some of our
wilderness—that place where we are most real, most vulnerable,
most unguarded and, therefore, most open to Spirit of God—with us,
too. That’s not an easy way to be in the world. Mark is quite clear: it is
full of peril as well as promise. It exposes us to whatever is out there,
be they beasts or angels. But it is, it seems, if you read Bible, the only
way to be transformed.
That being so, let us join together in the affirmation of faith that
is printed in our bulletins and on the screen…

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