Thrown into the Wilderness

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAGenesis 9:8-17

1 Peter 3:18-22

Mark 1:9-15

Mark spends two whole verses to describe what to Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. That’s it. Jesus is baptized, receives the Holy Spirit, and is immediately driven into the wilderness or desert. We are told that Jesus is there for 40 days, he is tempted or challenged by Satan, was with wild animals, and waited on by angels. Those are some pretty exciting things, but Mark leaves us with a bare-bones, Spark Notes version of the story. If George Lucas wrote stories the way Mark’s author did, then Star Wars would have played out a lot differently. We would see Luke Skywalker making friends and allies in the fight against the evil empire, training with Obi-Wan and Yoda, learning how to wield a lightsaber, traveling to the Death Star, and just when he is about to confront Darth Vader, the long-anticipated villain, we get a black screen with yellow text that gives a quick summary of what transpires next, “Luke and Vader fought each other, and Darth Vader revealed that he was Luke’s father.” Roll credits. The End.

So the big question is why? Why doesn’t Mark give us any juicy details for what happened to Jesus in the wilderness- with SATAN? With WILD ANIMALS? With ANGELS? At least Matthew and Luke list the three temptations that Jesus resisted and provided a little bit of back-and-forth dialogue between the Prince of Darkness and the Savior of the World. But Mark? He gives us next to nothing!

Mark forces us to wonder about the details and fill in our own temptations with our imaginations. What we do know about the story, however, is that Jesus went to a place where there is virtually no life- save that of a few hearty wild animals, that he was cast into a contest of wills with the being whose sole purpose throughout the rest of Scripture seems to be exposing the weaknesses of God’s created humans. And we know that Jesus won. The other thing we know, is that God’s spirit, the same one that rested on Jesus in his baptism and ours- the one that accompanies him and us when God says, “You are my beloved child,” is what drove him out into the wilderness in the first place. It doesn’t say that the Spirit suggested that Jesus head to the wilderness for 40 days or that the Spirit took him by the hand and gently led him there, but the Spirit drove him out. It sounds almost like Jesus didn’t even have a choice. The literal translation would be something like the Spirit “tossed him out” into the wilderness.

The Holy Spirit picked Jesus up like a baseball, and tossed him into the wilderness and into Satan’s trials. Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever felt like someone or something picked up and dropped you off at a place you didn’t want to be? It is a rare occasion when we wake up in the morning and decide to face some hardships and trials when we don’t have to. We don’t wake up in the morning and decide, “You know, I think I would like to lose my job and have the power shut off to my home today,” or “You know, I think I would like to feel my heart wrench from the memories of my late friend, spouse, or child.” We get thrown into these situations and rarely do we choose to be thrown into them.

It is often in these challenging and difficult trials that we grow the most. We learn the most about God, ourselves, our faith, our neighbors, and the special ways God calls us to survive in this world and the gifts God uses in us to heal it.

I am not saying that God causes our pain as a way of making us grow. We don’t really know what things in our lives are preplanned by God or which things are the result of human sin or the brokenness of our world. We could debate that forever and indeed that is what religious thinkers have done for millenia. We can, however, be sure that God is present in our trials and temptations- whether or not they were caused by God in the first place. God promises to love and support us in the good and tragic places of our lives.

A good friend of mine is always looking for God in the inconveniences or pains of her life. It is a gift that many people have- just not always me. I was talking with her on the phone one day and she was telling me about how she was on her way to a job interview and she got a flat tire. She was initially angry and upset at this great inconvenience, but she said to me, “I think God gave me that flat tire. I got the car towed after that and while I was waiting for the mechanic to replace the tire I got a phone call from a friend whom I hadn’t spoken to in years. If I had gotten to that interview, I would have missed the call and maybe not reconnected with my friend.”

I have no idea whether or not God gave my friend a flat tire. I think it is a wonderful gift to be able to find God in the mundane, the extraordinary, the good, and the bad. But I still worry about where to draw the line for God-caused tragedies. Did God give me the flu so I could spend more time with my family? Did God cause me to lose my job so I would learn to trust in God more? Did God cause the death of my friend so that I might trust in life after death or appreciate her life better or appreciate our lives better? We really can’t know- we don’t have a Scripture verse in our lives that literally appears before us in these situations and says, “Immediately, the Holy Spirit drove me into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan,” or one that says, “Immediately, the Recession, the racism, or the cancer drove me into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan.”

What we do know is that Jesus was accompanied by the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit that descended on Jesus as God announced God’s favor on him was with him in the wilderness as he endured untold trials and temptations. The Spirit may cast us out into the wilderness like it did for Jesus or some other force may cast us into the wilderness. But always, the Spirit is with us- God is with us- Jesus is with us. We may not know whether or not God put us there, but we can be sure that God is with us there now. When we are in the wilderness- a place devoid of life save a few threatening wild animals and the Accuser who just wants to prove that we will break under the weight of a few choice trials and temptations- when we are in those places, God’s Spirit is still resting on us. That Spirit calls to us in the midst our trials and it reminds us that we are God’s beloved and nothing is going to change that.

Find hope in the promise of God’s Spirit is in the midst of our wilderness. Let’s try to see how God encourages, teaches, and loves in the midst of suffering. And even when we don’t know how God is at work, know that God loves you and walks with you in the wilderness- no exceptions.

The author of Mark is so sparse in his description of Jesus’ temptation, because he chose his words carefully. He chose to tell us what was most important. He tells us that Jesus endured trials in the wilderness- he faced crushing challenges just as we do every day. He tells us that Jesus was sent there by the same Holy Spirit that rested on him when God proclaimed him as God’s own beloved child. He tells us that when we find ourselves cast out into the wilderness- whatever those wildernesses might look like and whether we were tossed there by the Holy Spirit or some other less divine force- we go with the same Spirit that claims us as beloved children of God. God will see us through our wildernesses and will be present in all of our trials and temptations. Amen.

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