To really understand this wilderness story, we have to go back just a little bit, to Jesus’ baptism. Picture this: A crowd has gathered. They stand on the bank of the Jordan River, buzzing with anticipation as John the Baptist leads Jesus into the water. Jesus goes down into the waters of the Jordan River, and when he emerges—silence. The crowd watches in awe as a dove from heaven comes down out of the clouds and a voice that could only be God’s breaks the silence, saying; this is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.
I picture it as a mild, sunny day. I picture overflowing joy. I picture perfect in the moment that Jesus is baptized.
The kind of peaceful moment we’d want to stay in forever. Like the first time you held your child. Or that instant you realize that you’ve fallen in love—and you know your partner loves you too. It’s the moment the depression lifts, the cancer is gone, someone tells you you’ve done an outstanding job and you’re able to believe them. Or even more simply, the rare moment your to-do list is completely checked off and you can go to sleep without worry running through your brain. It’s the feeling of absolute safety. Absolute love. Absolute peace.
And then not a second later—before Jesus even has time to dry off the river water—the Spirit of God sends him out into the wilderness, where he is suddenly alone, hungry, and tempted. There is no dove from heaven. There is no voice of comfort.
There is only Jesus and the tempter, and the fear that this moment—40 days so far—would last forever.
And we, too, can relate to this experience. Because it seems more often than not that our perfect moments are too fleeting, and we are quickly met with wilderness times.
Wilderness times when we are tempted to give in to self-doubt, despair, loneliness, anger, hopelessness. Wilderness times when we are tempted to give up on God’s promise of abundant life for all people, and tempted to simply do what we need to do to get by. To get ours. To narrow our focus to only what we want, need, feel. To give in to the crushing lies that the tempter tells—whether that tempter for you is depression, negative self-talk, the cultural narrative of power and wealth, false beauty ideals, addiction, privilege, or fear of those who are different.
These are lies the tempter tells us when we are wandering in the wilderness. And Jesus gets it. He’s been there too.
As Karoline Lewis says, just like us, Jesus was tempted “to satisfy his own hungers when millions go hungry. To insist that God’s loyalty and promises need to be tested on a regular basis. To choose the power that the world values over obedience to God.”
The wilderness is a hard, hard place.
Audry West writes that “It is no accident that Jesus winds up in the wilderness after his baptism.He is not lost, and he is not being punished for something he has done wrong (assumptions that we sometimes make about our own ‘wilderness experiences’). [Rather], throughout the scriptures, the wilderness represents a place of preparation, a place of waiting for God's next move, a place of learning to trust in God's mercy. And it frequently shows up in this language of forty days…
- Forty: the days and nights that Noah and his family endured the deluge on board the ark, after which God made a covenant never again to destroy the earth with a flood (Gen 7:4, 12; 8:6; 9:8-17);
- Forty: the days and nights Moses fasted on Mount Sinai as he inscribed the words of God's covenant for the Israelites (Exod 24:18; 34:27-28; Deut 9:9);
- Forty: the days and nights Elijah fasted in the desert before receiving a new commission from God (1 Kgs 19:8);
- Forty: the years the Israelites wandered the wilderness in preparation for their arrival in the Promised Land (e.g., Exod 16:35; Deut 2:7);
- Forty: the days of the season of Lent as [we] participate in Jesus' ministry and follow his way toward the cross.”
For forty days and nights Jesus remains in the wilderness, getting ready for what comes next.
We here at Salem find ourselves in a wilderness time, too. Preparing for what comes next. Last Sunday we voted to embrace the vision of a home for women. In the months ahead, we will continue to discuss and dream about what that actually looks like, and what it will mean for the identity of this congregation. Beloved, we are being asked to reflect on where Salem has been, and who Salem will be.
It’s a kind of wilderness time, and in it, I wonder how we are being prepared for what God will do next.
While we don’t get the details in Mark’s story, we know from other accounts that Jesus is tempted in three ways…
First he’s tempted to use his power to feed himself while millions go hungry. Not only does he refuse, he takes that lesson and goes on to feed many. He goes on to make a few loaves and a few fish enough to satisfy thousands. He goes on to become for us bread and wine. He goes on to call us to feed those around us, trusting that we, too, will be fed.
Next, Jesus is tempted to use his status as God’s beloved to put God to the test. But he refuses to abuse his relationship to God. Jesus never pulls rank. Not in the wilderness, and not for the rest of his life. He places his trust in God, even as he endures the taunts of others. Even as he hangs on a cross. Jesus knows who he is—beloved—and so he lives to make others beloved too. He calls us to do the same: to come alongside those who suffer, to stand in solidarity with them. Never to pull rank or blindly benefit from privilege, but to trust in and embody God’s mercy for all.
Finally, Jesus is tempted by political power. The offer to reign over all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. He instead chooses to use his divine power to serve—not reign over—all the kingdoms of the world. Jesus goes on to inaugurate a new kind of kingdom, where the hungry are fed, the lonely are loved, the oppressed go free, the afflicted in mind, body, or spirit are made whole. Particularly right now, it’s worth noting that we are called to serve Jesus’ kingdom, not to grab after power, seek to control others, or in any way reign over our fellow humans. We are called to use our gifts to lift one another up.
Jesus’ time in the wilderness, the ways he was tempted, they prepared him for what he was going to do next. In these 40 days of Lent—in our own wilderness times—I wonder: how are we being prepared for what God will do next in, with, and through us?
What have we already learned from our time in the wilderness?
What temptations have we already experienced? Overcome? What tests have we failed and yet here we are—still kickin’? Listen, I don’t know all of your stories, but I know that we’ve all seen some THINGS over the course of our lives. I know that we are all wise in our own ways. I know that we’ve all learned invaluable lessons, sometimes the hard way.
Like Jesus, we have lived through all manner of experiences—good, bad, and indifferent—and as a result we are better prepared to be compassionate, kind, understanding, wise, generous, patient, forgiving, loving.
Now, to be quite clear, I don't believe God makes bad things happen, or that God tests us for fun. I just don't. And the gospel is clear—Jesus’ tests and temptations came from Satan—not God.
But I do believe that God can take any scenario, any wilderness—no matter how awful or stressful or tragic—and bring blessing from it. We worship the God of redemption, and nothing—no wilderness time and no wilderness person—is outside of God’s power to redeem. To make holy. To make whole again.
As Audry West writes: “The promise of the gospel is that Jesus has already gone ahead of his followers, even to the most forsaken places of the wilderness; he meets us in the most difficult tests of our own lives. No place is so desolate, so distant, or so challenging that Jesus has not already been there; no test or temptation is so great that Jesus has not already overcome it.”
So think about the deserts you've traversed. The wildernesses you've found yourself in. What have you learned? Who needs to hear it? Is there someone still wandering that wilderness who needs a companion on their journey?
What do you see happening around you now, in our national wilderness?
Following the way of Jesus, how will you use your God-given power to respond?
Church, in a world that is hurting so badly, how are we—Salem Lutheran in South Baltimore—preparing to serve? Who are we preparing to become?
The wilderness is a hard place to be but remember this most important thing: We are not alone.
There are angels here to wait on us.
There is a promise of peace to be found.
There is abundant, joyful, and everlasting life on the other side of this wilderness time.
Get ready for it.
Thanks be to God.