In the Wilderness

2021-02-21 Lent 1
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February 21, 2021 / 1st Sunday in Lent / Richard Holmer

1st Reading Genesis 9:8-17 / 2nd Reading 1 Peter 3:18-22 / Gospel Mark 1:9-15

In the Wilderness

When you go into the wilderness you can expect to be tested. In the wilderness you can escape from many of the problems of civilization: noise, traffic, pollution, prying neighbors, crime, congestion. Out in the wild there is fresh air and pristine beauty. There is solitude and peace. You can step away from the rat race. However, in the wilderness you also step away from the security and convenience of civilization: no cell service, no electricity, no hospitals, no stores. What you forget to bring, you must do without.

If you make a mistake, you must deal with the consequences yourself. If you don’t take measures to safeguard your food, a bear may eat it. Hikers in the Grand Canyon have died because they didn’t bring enough water. If your matches get wet, you may end up shivering – and unable to cook your food. Sprain your ankle and you just have to limp along as best you can. For all its beauty, the wilderness is indifferent to your well being and survival. The wilderness is unforgiving. Those who go there will be tested.

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After his baptism, the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness. He was in that wilderness for 40 days, tempted by Satan – and he was with the wild beasts. Jesus had to deal with all the physical challenges that come with being in the wilderness. Mark doesn’t say what wild beasts were there – but Jesus probably had to sleep with one eye open. It was a grueling test just to survive. On top of that, Jesus had to deal with the devil. It’s interesting to note that the word translated as “tempted” can also be translated as “tested”. Jesus was tested by Satan. This was a spiritual and existential test. Mark doesn’t provide any details – but both Matthew and Luke do.

Jesus was tempted to prove his identity. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, prove it.” Jesus was tempted to use the divine powers at his disposal for his own benefit. He was tested to see if he would stick to his mission – or take another, easier way. The testing didn’t end after those forty days in the wilderness. Jesus was tested over the course of his ministry: He was tested by the resistance and unbelief of his own people. He was tested by the dullness and doubts of his own disciples. He was tested in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross. Would he persevere, despite all the rejection, suffering and sacrifice?

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We know what it is to be tested. Every temptation is a test – a test we sometimes fail. And we face other tests as well. Grief can be a severe test. In the span of a single year, I experienced the death of my sister-in-law, my brother and my best friend from college. It was devastating. Three persons who meant so much to me, persons of genuine faith, persons who had so much to live for – all gone. I still struggle to make sense of it. I feel the loss – and I still ask why.

Illness can be a time of testing – especially a chronic and debilitating illness. Suffering tests our faith and our hope, be it physical suffering or the pain of loneliness, injustice or failure. Consider the ongoing test of being convicted and imprisoned for a crime you did not commit.

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Prosperity presents another kind of test. Success can cause a person to imagine that his or her life is of more importance, more value than the lives of others. With wealth comes responsibility. Will it be used to bless others – or only to add comfort and luxury to our own lives?

To have power is to be tested in its employment. Power can warp and corrupt our priorities and our decisions.

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As it was with Jesus, so it is with us. We are tested all along life’s way. Our Prayer of the Day reminds us that the wilderness is not a place we visit – it’s where we live.

“O Lord God, you led your ancient people through the wilderness and brought them to the promised land. Guide now the people of your Church, that, following our Savior, we may walk through the wilderness of this world toward the glory of the world to come . . .”

We are walking through a wilderness. This truth is more apparent to us in this time of pandemic. We are tested by the threat of a disease that pervades the entire world. We are tested by restrictions and sacrifices being made to counter the onslaught of this virus. We find ourselves in a challenging wilderness – both personally and collectively.

This is at the heart of the test: Will we continue to trust God, come what may? Not just believe that there is a God, but trust our lives to God’s care? When we face setbacks, suffering and sorrow, we can be tempted to give up on God. This is the temptation to despair. The temptation is to believe that God is not with us, that God’s Kingdom has not come near, that the Good News is Fake News. Coming out of his own time of intense testing, Jesus calls on us to trust in the presence of God – to dare to have faith in the Good News.

This is what we know:

  • The Israelites were tested for 40 years in the wilderness – and they failed many of those tests along the way. Nevertheless, at the end of their wilderness time, God brought them to the Promised Land.

  • Jesus was tested for 40 days in the wilderness – and he came out of that wilderness proclaiming Good news of the Kingdom of God. Testing continued right up to his crucifixion – when he was pushed to the precipice of despair, wondering if he was forsaken by God. But three days later God raised Jesus to fullness of life.

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We are being tested now by all the aspects of this pandemic. And we can expect more tests to come.

It is because we trust in God, because we trust that Jesus is with us, that we carry the hope of redemption.

Will we finally make it through the wilderness of this world? I trust the answer is YES.

Thanks be to God.