Welcome to the Wilderness

First Sunday in Lent
February 21, 2021
Mark 1:9-15

My friends, I want to begin today with some words of reality. The Lord Jesus is not going to repair your bursted pipe and collapsed drywall. No one can go back in time to prepare the power grid. The lives that were lost this week will not come back. I do not know what the fallout from this will be for our infrastructure, for our homes, and for our neighborhoods. That’s the sobering reality. We had no choice in the matter. Welcome to the wilderness.

But that doesn’t mean that what we’ve experienced and are experiencing is something novel. The unrelenting, the forced nature of this situation is echoed in our text from the Gospel of Mark. The Holy Spirit “drives” Jesus into the wilderness (Mark 1:12-13). The Spirit is unrelenting, Jesus must go for a season of fasting and temptation. It’s not an invitation, it’s not a casual recommendation. Jesus isn’t making a choice to give up chocolate for Lent or some feeble devotion like that. This is divine imperative. 

This is how it has always been with the people of God. Adam and Eve are driven from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:24). A great fish swallows up the prophet Jonah to deliver him to Nineveh (Jonah 2:10). And most remarkably, in a strange ritual decreed in the book of Leviticus, the priest Aaron confesses the sins of the people on a goat and then the goat is driven into the wilderness. That scapegoat carries the burdens of the people, carries their sins and it must, it must, be driven out (Leviticus 16). It is divine imperative. 

Now, I’m not saying that Jesus is the new scapegoat. But the similarities here are just too striking to go unmentioned. On the one hand, the scapegoat in the Old Testament is driven into the wilderness carrying the iniquities of the people as a type of sacrifice for sin. On the other hand, Jesus bears our infirmities and is driven into the wilderness for a time of temptation. This is the sobering word of reality I have for you today. Though we tell ourselves that we have free will, in reality we have very little of it. It didn’t matter who you chose for your electricity provider, because at some point this week you probably shivered. And even if you could drive somewhere warm, even if you had a generator, that was a choice that millions of others could not make. Part of what we experienced this week is the decreed nature of life – there are some things that we would rather not choose, and yet we must live through them. Welcome to the wilderness. These wilderness times will be especially trying, difficult, and hard. They are forced on us, and out in the wilderness we come face to face with the evil one and the wild beasts. 

And yes, this week in the wilderness we also came face to face with evil and wild beasts. All too predictably, we have seen people use this situation to score points. It’s just another form of sinful exploitation – real people suffering, freezing, and dying are used as political footballs. Scapegoats – both animate and inanimate – were appointed. Misinformation is disseminated to divert blame and to obfuscate reality. Back in the Old Testament, the scapegoat was used to publicly acknowledge everybody’s sins; the whole community participated in that rite of confession. Today, we use the scapegoat to blame somebody else. Welcome to the wilderness.

I understand that this might make you uncomfortable. But I ask you to keep listening for I am hoping to make a theological point. In this we see a startling contrast between the rulers of this world and the true ruler of creation. Some point their fingers and blame others, because the temptation to gain power is just too great. The other takes up our faults, our sins, our iniquities, and is tempted on our behalf. Welcome to the wilderness. 

And yet there is good news all throughout this, too. The angels waited upon Jesus (Mark 1:13). Not to take away his pain, not to make it all go away, but to sustain him through the trial. I do not mean to mitigate the very real suffering of our people – the frostbite, the flooded apartments, the lost money, the death, the stress of it all. That is real. The good news is not that Jesus will make it go away but that Jesus has been through it too, and will go through it with us again. In the wilderness we will meet Jesus, for Jesus is already there. I do not wish to glorify suffering, but perhaps it is in the suffering that we see the true nature of God. We see a God who is always willing to give, to serve, and to sacrifice; as so many people of good will continue to give, to serve, and to sacrifice. This week I saw you clean out the damaged homes of fellow parishioners, I saw you make dinner for your neighbors without power, I saw you open your homes. As the angels waited upon Jesus you waited upon your brothers and sisters. That is also the wilderness. The wilderness binds us together.

So often people ask me, “how do we make the bible relevant for today?” My response is usually something like, “how has it ever not been relevant?” Just read this story. Out of no choice of his own, Jesus is driven into the place of suffering to be tempted and to face evil. And despite that, he is cared for. Welcome to the wilderness. Welcome to life. Perhaps there is no scripture passage more relevant than Jesus in the wilderness and its antecedent, the scapegoat. This is our reality.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the end of the story. Unlike the scapegoat, Jesus returns. Jesus comes out of the wilderness to begin his ministry, proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is at hand (Mark 1:13). The wilderness has always been a formative place. In the wilderness, the Israelites draw near to God and are fed by holy manna (Exodus 16). In the wilderness, Elisha becomes the new prophet for Israel (II Kings 2). John the Baptist is preaching and baptizing in the wilderness (Mark 1:4). I hope, and I pray that we come out of this present wilderness as a people newly formed. With more foresight. With the public will and public courage to make the choices we can so that these disasters don’t happen again. I pray that we do not forget this wilderness time but rather that we have the courage to remember it and to amend our lives accordingly.

Welcome to the wilderness. Welcome to Lent. These forty days are a divine imperative, not a choice. Throughout this season, we must come face to face with all the ways we have laid on our sins on others, with all the ways we have fabricated scapegoats to ease our consciences. And then finally, after six long weeks of penitence, when we are worn down to the point of spiritual exhaustion, we must hand our sins over to the Lord Jesus. Graciously, Jesus will take them for us. Jesus will take our iniquities, our sins, and our burdens and carry them into the wilderness of all wildernesses, the cross. And the best part about it? It’s not our choice. God chooses, God demands to take our sins from us and to carry them for us. Welcome to the glorious wilderness. 

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