"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6.8

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19

"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12

Friday, February 24, 2012

Sunday Sermon: Jesus in the wilderness for Lent 1

Mark 1:9-15

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Do you ever wonder if you’re in a parallel universe? Only recently in the classroom I was talking about Lent and one girl just looked blank. This, of itself, is not unusual in my classes, but she looked more blank than usual.

Well, I said, trying to explain, Some people choose to give up things like crisps or biscuits, cake or chocolate.

“Oh” she said, with the dawning of understanding on her face, “It’s a diet is it?”

More of which later.

Given that Genesis talks in depth about Noah and his experiences and that 1 Peter introduces an explicit connection between Noah’s Flood and Jesus’ Baptism, and also given that there are generally no coincidences in the way that the lectionary readings are put together, it would help to be clear about these links. Noah enters the waters in the ark, wanders for a time over the wilderness of the ocean, and emerges with a new covenant – a new agreement with God and a new proclamation of the reign of God; Jesus enters the waters of John’s baptism, wanders for a time in the wilderness of the desert, and emerges with another new covenant and a new proclamation of the reign of God.

Today’s passage for the first Sunday in Lent is typical of Mark in its brevity and urgency. In six verses the events are laid out - three major events: Jesus’ baptism, his time of testing in the desert and first preaching in Galilee. The sequence of events is significant, not simply because it seems the natural order of things, but because of its symbolism. In a new exodus Jesus retraces the journey of Israel: baptism (Red Sea), struggles in the desert (40 years) and good news (entry into the Promised Land).

There is a lot of symbolism here for those who enjoy such things.
Typically the story of Jesus in the wilderness is used on the First Sunday in Lent to introduce the Lenten fast but it is difficult to listen to a text when there are other texts lurking in the background talking about the same subject matter, often in ways more elaborate and more familiar. Mark’s is the text before us today, but Matthew’s and Luke’s are also in the background but Mark, unlike Matthew and Luke, doesn't actually say anything about Jesus fasting during the forty days he spends in the wilderness. The suggestion here is not so much that Jesus fasted as that he committed himself entirely to God’s care, like Elijah and the Israelites and Noah before him. Mark shows Jesus relying on the provision of God for his sustenance and safety and, given that Mark never specifies how Satan tempts Jesus, as Matthew and Luke do, perhaps we are meant to understand that such deep trust in God is in fact what overcomes the Enemy’s testing.

This isn’t just a passage full of allusions to past events, though: it is also a passage about prophesy. In these six verses Mark alludes constantly to his own Scripture the Old Testament. As he told us in 1:2, the words of the prophet Isaiah resound through the centuries. Isaiah provides so many references for today’s gospel passage. The placing of God's Spirit on his chosen one to bring justice to the nations is part of God's description of His servant in Isaiah 42:1.

The "beloved one" (verse 11) does not just convey a message of warm feelings on God's part toward Jesus. It also conveys the message that Jesus is the servant sent by God as promised in Isaiah. Isaiah's prophecy also gives Mark - and us - a deeper sense of what god's kingdom may be and Isaiah 52:7 connects the one who brings good news with the Jesus of Mark’s Gospel.

But all this prophetic preparation does not diminish the qualities of loneliness and violence that this passage embodies, a loneliness that gets worse for Jesus as the gospel story unfolds. It is a theme that persists throughout the gospel. The immediate follow-up to Jesus' baptism when the Spirit throws him out into the wilderness is shocking – and it is meant to be. We’re so familiar with the story that we may not stop to consider the dramatic change of circumstances as the wonderful affirmation of Baptism leads directly to testing and a sense of loneliness which begins in the wilderness, home to prophets of Israel and to Israel itself in the years of wandering. Jesus too is there, the testing of his calling witnessed by no other person.

Jesus' proclamation of the "gospel of God" follows immediately upon the arrest of John who had also been preaching repentance in preparation for Jesus. More violence and loneliness. That arrest is unlikely to bode well for John … or for Jesus as he well knew.

At the end of Lent and the end of Mark both violence and loneliness come to a culmination in Jesus' cry of abandonment on the cross.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

O.K. so we’ve done a bit of theology: we’ve tried to unpack a little of the symbolic and prophetic elements of today’s gospel and I really hope that in some way that has helped us to understand more profoundly what we might have been tempted to see as a familiar story.

Now what?

You know, I’m sure I say this every time, but unless this story has the power to move us, to make links to our own lives and to challenge and change us, it will remain nothing more than a story. What are we to learn from it given that Lent is the traditional time for reflection and sacrifice and given that Jesus has shown us the way?

Well, let's look at the wilderness experience. Have there been times in your life when you have felt isolated and abandoned in the wilderness, grappling with both your circumstances and God? I know I have - over the last three years since I graduated from theological college: I have a strong sense of anger, loss and hurt, frustration and abandonment and I don't see an end to that in the short term. So, what am I to do? I only have one choice. I have to do as Jesus did and rely on God to see me through a difficult time and, like Jesus, I have to learn to rely fully on God because I can't do it in my own strength.

Too much about me there maybe but there will be - maybe have been - similar times in your lives where you can't see your way through the morass. So what do you do? Do you give up? I suspect that won't solve anything. Jesus' wilderness experience is a real experience for many people at some stage in their lives and maybe what keeps us going is the sense of Jesus as fellow sufferer and therefore a realisation that God enters into our suffering and is there willing to support us as he did Jesus in the wilderness.

And its a struggle.

Let's lighten the mood a bit.

Are we really back to giving up chocolate and crisps? As 2 Tim 1.1-14 puts it: … for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. Self-discipline? Crisps and chocolate – or whatever? Self-discipline? Really?

I’ve brought some visual aids with me and it occurred to me that one way to seek to apply today’s gospel would be to take a good hard look at our lives. At risk of revealing far too much about myself I have four things I want to examine and consider. But as we have a look at my visual aids you might want to try to think about what might be in the bags that you could have brought for the occasion this morning had you had advanced warning.
Let’s start with the bag itself: Harvey Nicholls – Oooh there’s posh! But I could have chosen from several bags: ZARA, NEXT, H&M. I could have chosen the Dunnes bag, but I didn’t because that’s too cheap, and I am much more classy than that. I am much more cool and trendy, hot and happening. I am “Man at Harvey Nick’s”. See this bag in my hand. When I look at the male models there or in ZARA and NEXT on-line, I know that I will look just like those studs and I will become desirable. When I look at the women on these sites, I know that my wife will look just like those beauties after she buys all the Harvey Nick’s, ZARA and NEXT stuff and she will look fantastic. And the two of us, in ZARA clothing, will be the most alpha couple that you have ever seen. We will be the sort of people others aspire to be.

Envy motivates you to work harder. Envy motivates you to improve yourself and look more classy and dress more desirably. Envy sees the possibilities and what we can do for ourselves.

But we don’t do envy. We’re Christians.

As we think about envy what was in your bag that gets in the way of you relying on God?

Is there a sacrifice to be made there?

What else have I got in here? Ah, a mirror. Pride. Pride, the word has the letter “I” right in the middle.

I look great in this mirror. I look great in every mirror, now I come to think about it: so handsome, so intelligent, so… je ne sais quoi … I mean is it wrong to take a pride in your appearance? And doesn’t it feel good to know that we are a little bit better than those around us? It’s so good to our sense of self-worth to know that those around us are just a little less intelligent, a little less well off, a little less personable, a little less athletic, a little less musical, a little less gifted than we are. One of the great joys of life is feeling subtly superior to people around us.

But we don’t do pride. We’re Christians.

As we think about pride what was in your bag that gets in the way of you relying on God?

Is there a sacrifice to be made there?

What else have I got here in my bag? There are endless possibilities of course. Ah, a twenty pound note. This note is absolutely wonderful, with the picture of Her Majesty on it. If you have one of these, it will bring you great happiness. If you have ten of these, then you will have ten times more happiness. If you have a hundred of these, you will be a hundred times as happy. A thousand of these … yeah well, you get the idea. Money means we can buy more things. Can’t you see yourself stretched out on an exotic beach or driving that very classy car? Oh, what a vision. Don’t we deserve the best things in lIfe?. And they’re not really spoilt when we remember that others are hungry and starving.

But we don’t do greed. We’re Christians.

As we think about greed, what was in your bag that gets in the way of you relying on God?

Is there a sacrifice to be made there?

What’s next? Laziness? Yes. The remote control for the TV. My little fingers can control the tube. Oh, look at that channel. Oh, and that one. Oh. Couch potato, here I come. Couch potato, here I am. Wife, would you bring me a cup of tea? A beer? Something to eat? Wife, wait on me. Wait on me. Bring me chips. No, not any green salad. More chips please. I’ve had a busy week. I need to lie back on the sofa, stretch out and relax. I read that kids nowadays watch at least twenty hours of television a week but TV is so educational. So informative. So mind shaping. Watching TV does not teach passivity. Watching TV does not teach laziness. Watching TV teaches relaxation and mellowness.

But we aren’t lazy. We’re Christians.

As we consider laziness, what was in your bag that gets in the way of you relying on God?

Is there a sacrifice to be made there?

And we could go on.

One could be forgiven for thinking that we have trivialised Lent: you know, making small sacrifices which mean nothing. You want to know about fasting, ask your Muslim friends. They understand fasting and who knows, perhaps Lent was once far more like Ramadan. If giving something up is the major symbol of those things which distract people from God, we might well ask what those distractions are today: Food. Possibly; Time? Technology? Consumerism? How can we adopt an approach to those things which cloud our relationship with God? Perhaps less giving up and more taking on would help: a greater commitment to recycling, eating locally produced foods, leaving a smaller carbon footprint on the planet... So many challenges, choosing one could be life-giving in so many unexpected ways.

This gospel puts before us God's own son in his wilderness experience and this season invites us to share, however inadequately, in that experience. Yet, there is good news announced here. It is good news in chapter 4 that some seed "brings forth as much as a hundredfold." If we make Lent a meaningful experience what benefits could come our way in a deeper understanding and reliance on God? It is good news in chapter 4 again that "To you (plural) has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God..." During Lent, perhaps we can focus our own attention on that kingdom that Jesus brings among us. He challenges us (chapter 4 once more) "Let anyone with ears to hear listen."

Are we listening to that good news? The good news for this first Sunday in Lent is that our God understands. Our God has been tempted, too. Our God has experienced it all. In Lent, we accompany Jesus into the wilderness, so that God can lead us out the other side as we learn to depend wholly on his grace.

We accompany Jesus into the wilderness and learn to depend wholly on God’s grace.

It’s a mockery to try to do that by giving up biscuits so let’s try and take this Lent a bit more seriously eh?

Posted early in the hope of some constructive feedback.


  1. Well done. You do a good job of making clear that the real task of Lent is to circumcise our hearts.

  2. I had no idea that the wilderness stories are different - or at least that Mark is different from Matthew and Luke. I found your interpretation of Mark really fresh. Thanks too for being prepared to make yourself vulnerable. I found that really helpful and I do hope it is resolved soon.

  3. Has it truly been 3 years? The time probably seemed longer for you. I had nothing to offer in the way of constructive criticism, because I like your sermon.


  4. I liked your bag of the deadly sins. Well done.