Reader: Marg Lunam. audio begins with the scripture passage; sermon begins at 1:10

Lent 1 Texts: Psalm 130, Mark 1: 9-15

The first Sunday in this season of Lent always lands us in the wilderness … in the desert. No, not the winter get-away in Palm Springs! -- not, at least, for most of us. We’re talking wilderness in terms of the bible’s metaphor for the last place on earth … the place we don’t want to be and would give anything to not be there … a place of uncharted territory. No matter which of the Gospels we read from, the first Sunday of Lent takes us into the wilderness -- which is the terrain we inhabit for the next 40 days. 

Why there? Of all the possible places, why on earth, there?

In part, the answer lies in the stories we have … the stories of Jesus in the wilderness. And the stories he’s steeped in, of his ancestors in the wilderness. And the stories we ourselves have lived of our own wastelands …
when grief came pounding at our door, or depression,
or we got handed the pink slip, or were informed of the diagnosis
or when our marriage collapsed, or our body
or our mind went vacant
and the usual comforts or distractions or whatever we count on to get us through, they weren’t there or they proved useless.   You know those wastelands?

These are the kinds of times that test us. And as brutal as these wilderness sojourns are -- for us, for Jesus, for the Hebrew people -- chances are we discover some things there that we might never have otherwise come to know or trust. This is the question Lent asks us: When all else fails, when we can’t count on what usually gets us through, what is there? What do we have to go on?

The people of Israel wandered in the wilderness for 40 years not because it was so far from Pharaoh’s Egypt to the Promised land, and not because they got lost, but because there were things they had to learn and unlearn that couldn’t be rushed, that needed time, and there was no place like the wilderness to reveal it.

When it happened that there was no food or water, it took no time for them to figure they would die. It took no time for them to long for the life they left as slaves in Egypt. It took no time at all before the anxiety rose to such a level they were ready to kill. It took no time for them to decide God didn’t care … that God was gone … left them to themselves.
You can see it can’t you -- maybe even know it your own bones --how quickly things can turn nasty, how quickly we become bent out of shape in these desert times.

But there, in this place of emptiness, of no available resources, manna came from heaven, and water from a rock. There, in this wasteland, they came to discover, ever so slowly, their life was in the care of One who truly loves them, who has a plan for them, to give them a future and a hope.

As Jesus came up from the waters of the Jordon River at his baptism, do you remember, the heavens were torn apart, and a voice from heaven announced ‘you are my beloved … on you my favour rests.’ Right there, Jesus heard the absolute truth about who he was. That was the easy part. The much harder part came in the wilderness, when he had to face down every vicious assault on that truth. Perhaps all temptations --for Jesus, for any of us-- come down to this: to wonder, to second guess, to entertain the question am I really who God says I am? Always? Whatever … whenever? God’s beloved?

So here, in part, lies the wisdom of the wilderness journey.
Here in this place we wouldn’t choose because it lacks what we think we need, we learn to separate emptiness from God-forsaken; we learn that hard-ship doesn’t mean God-forsaken; we discover it’s possible to be hungry, to be in pain, to be desperate AND not be God-forsaken. We learn to hold together being afraid, AND being loved; being in distress or in need AND ‘beloved.’
That’s the wisdom of the wilderness journey … that we might learn to trust, whatever happens, the truth of those words “you are my beloved.”

In this place we wouldn’t choose because it lacks what we think we need to survive, we can discover what truly gives life, what truly empowers and sustains us. Grace happens. Gifts are given that
we didn’t even know we needed … because the wilderness is not simply a wasteland where wild beasts and tempters roam. For all its hostility, it’s also the place of God’s surprising provision. In the words of Mark’s gospel, “Jesus was in the wilderness 40 days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts, and angels waited on him.”

“I wonder,” asks Debbie Thomas, “what Jesus’s angels looked like. Did they manifest as winged creatures from heaven? As comforting breezes across the sun-scorched hills? As a trickle of water for his parched throat? As a wild animal that surprised him with a tame and tender gaze? As a rock to lay his head upon? As the swirl of constellations on a clear, cloudless night?

What do your angels look like? What have they looked like in the past? When they ministered to you, held you, braced you, did you hear a new version of God’s voice, calling you ‘my beloved‘?
If yes, then what would it be like to enter into someone else’s barren desert now, and become an angel for their journey? …

This week, we begin the wilderness journey of Lent -- a journey that would have us learn our true names, teach us who and whose we really are … and how it is that God is for us.
When angels in all their sweet and secret guises whisper “beloved” into our ears, may we listen, and believe them.” [1]

I pray for us journeying mercies.

[1] Debbie Thomas, “Into the Wild” posted on February 11,2018.