Deuteronomy 8.1-10

Mark 1.9-15

Wilderness Living

First Sunday in Lent

I hope we all enjoyed spending time in our “happy places” after last Sunday, because since then the liturgical calendar has turned, we are now in the season of Lent, and as Jim Antal reminded us at our Installation celebration a few weeks ago, there are times God leads us to places we would rather not go.

            Calumet, Michigan is located in the far northwest corner of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. In fact, it sits on a smaller peninsula that juts out from the main peninsula, called the Keweenaw. If you think of the lower peninsula as a mitten, with my thumb jutting out into Lake Huron, the Upper Peninsula (or the U.P.) looks like this, and Calumet is way up here on the tip of my thumb jutting out into Lake Superior. It’s about 1300 miles from where you and I sit this morning. By the early 1900s Calumet was a booming mining town, rich in copper ore. It was such a major commercial hub that when the state legislature was deciding where to locate the capital, Calumet lost by one vote to Lansing. But come the 1920s, when ease of access and technology, not to mention unionization drove the copper mining industry south and west to Arizona and New Mexico, Calumet’s population plummeted from the tens of thousands to around 4000 souls, and the town became a shadow of itself. When Debbie and I moved to Calumet in 1980, where I took the pulpit of the Congregational/Presbyterian Church a mere two weeks after my ordination, we discovered that one of the town’s quaint characteristics is that it is 100 miles to the nearest stoplight, in Marquette. That is also where the closest McDonald’s was, and the local joke was that if someone asked you how to get to McDonald’s you just told them take a right at the first light. It was beautiful country though, especially if you like snow – the average is about 175 inches of snowfall every year, and in our second winter we got 260 inches. But the signs of economic decline were everywhere, and most young people, once they were out of high school, left for jobs or college and never came back. It was and remains a depressed community. But those four years in the relative wilderness of the Upper Peninsula were salutary ones: I learned how to become a pastor to the dear souls of the Congregational/Presbyterian church, and they were kind and patient with their wet-behind-the-ears minister; Debbie and I, hundreds of miles from our closest family somehow figured out the push-pull of marriage and of a loving and dynamic relationship all by ourselves; and we learned how to be parents as we welcomed our first daughter Clare Ruth while we lived there, whose 35th birthday, incidentally, is today.

            I thought about those four years on the U.P. when I read our New Testament lesson this morning from Mark. Immediately after Jesus’ baptism, his commissioning, as it were, after the heavens opened and the Spirit rested on him and a voice from the heavens blessed him, that same Spirit, Mark tells us, drove Jesus out into the wilderness. Now in Matthew and Luke, we get a rich story of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness: the tempter lures Jesus with offers of power and majesty: “turn these stones into bread,” he says; “throw yourself off the pinnacle of the temple and watch the angels rescue you;” “bow down before me and the kingdoms of the world will be yours.” You and I have heard the story before. But Mark is exceedingly spare; he tells us everything we need to know in two brief verses: “[Jesus] was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” Mark only tells us two things about Jesus’ wilderness experience: it was a place of temptation, and it lasted a long time, which is figuratively what the 40 days mean. Now you and I may read this and assume that Mark gave us a bare outline because Matthew and Luke already fleshed it out for him. But when Mark wrote, there was no Matthew nor Luke; those two gospels didn’t come about until fifteen or twenty years later. But Mark’s readers would have picked up his cues immediately: the number 40 and the wilderness experience could only have meant one thing to them: the Hebrews’ forty years in the wilderness between the exodus from Egypt and their arrival in Canaan, the Promised land. In those two brief verses, Mark said everything he needed to say.

            Michelle told us a little about those forty years this morning. She told us that the Hebrews too were tempted by hunger; God fed them with manna on their journey. We also know they were tempted by other gods: one of the reasons they were in the wilderness for so long was because of that nasty incident with the golden calf while Moses was on Sinai. And I never put two and two together before Michelle, but this is the first time I noticed that the promised land is not only a land of wheat and barley, vines and fig trees and pomegranates, of olive trees and honey, but also a land of copper mining – shades of Calumet Michigan!

            But still, Mark is telling us that Jesus’ time in the wilderness can be read through the lens of the wilderness experience of the Hebrews. The wilderness was a place of trial, it was a place of temptation, at times it was a place of tragedy, and it was also a place of transformation and the presence of God.

            This has been a horrible, horrible week. A lot of folks have pointed out that the shootings at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, took place on Valentine’s Day. And so it did. But they also took place on Ash Wednesday, that day when Christians around the world are reminded of our mortality and our need for penitence, and of the ways the two are connected. This week we were also reminded of the ways our mortality and our need for penitence are connected to the prevalence of gun violence against our children. You don’t need me to draw the connections; they are pretty direct. Maybe you saw the same photo I did in Thursday morning’s paper, of the Parkland high school mother clutching her daughter closely – the mother still had a cross of ashes on her forehead. That photo really hit home, a wordless image that shouts out the connection between the two: Ash Wednesday and Parkland, mortality and sin and our need for penitence. I’ve said it before and I’m so tired of it and sad bordering on angry to be saying it again, but with eighteen school shootings to date in 2018, I could preach on this topic every single Sunday and it would be gruesomely appropriate every single week. In weeks like this one it feels as though we are living in a permanent wilderness, a place where our common human mettle is sorely tested and tried. We would not be wrong to point out that as Lent begins in the wilderness with both this morning’s scripture lessons, so it began in the wilderness on Wednesday afternoon.

            And there’s something more about that wilderness: it is not a place we go into of our own volition or accord; it’s not a place we want to be at all. The Hebrews were there for forty years – the Bible’s way of saying a long time – because of their hubris and stubbornness. Jesus was there for forty days – again, the Bible’s way of saying a long time - because the Spirit drove him out there. He didn’t go into the wilderness because he wanted to. Remember how we said a couple weeks ago, when we were talking about the Lord’s Prayer, that God doesn’t lead us into temptation? I may need to rethink that one; “And immediately,” Mark says, “the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness… for forty days, tempted by Satan…” It’s not a place Jesus wanted to go. And seventeen high school students and teachers dead in the course of six minutes on a Wednesday afternoon is not a place we want to go either. In fact, even though I know better, it is a place I never want to go again. Nobody ever said the wilderness is a good place to be.

            Now, I’ll be honest, I don’t have a nice neat way of tying this all up in an inspiring little sermonic package. Maybe it will be good for us to leave some loose ends dangling this morning; maybe it will inspire us to do something about tying them up ourselves. But I will point out just two characteristics about the Bible’s wilderness stories that might be able to bring us hope in a dark time. The first is that throughout those forty years between Egypt and Canaan, God’s people were never left alone. When they were hungry, God fed them. When they were discouraged, God encouraged them. Their clothes never wore out and their footsteps were sure. And finally, though it took longer than a generation, God’s promise was fulfilled. Throughout his forty days of trial and temptation, Jesus was never alone; Mark tells us that God’s angels watched him and waited on him. Mark, being Mark, doesn’t tell us exactly how this happened, only that it did. God is always present.

            And second, in both cases their experience in the wilderness was transformative. This is how Vicki Kemper put it in this morning’s Lent devotion:

“Jesus’ experience – and that of his Hebrew ancestors – suggests that disaster is holy ground, that wilderness is where we are found and formed… Maybe that’s why the Spirit forces God-pleasing, wet-behind-the-ears Jesus into the wasteland: so that he will learn who and whose he is, to prepare him for what is to come, to create a life-shaping bond between him and the Holy that not even death will be able to break.”

“Who and whose he is;” I wish I had written that. The Hebrews finally reached Canaan and became Israel. Jesus stood at the threshold of his ministry and brought the message that would sustain his life work: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent and believe in the good news.” Those forty years steeled the Hebrews and transformed them; those forty days drew the contours of Jesus’ message and ministry; may these forty days of Lent remind us that trial and temptation and tragedy can prove to be the kiln in which the human spirit is tempered and annealed.


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