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. . . Into The Wilderness
a sermon based on Mark 1:9-15
by Rev. Thomas N. Hall

Today is the first Sunday in Lent. And the traditional way that we kick the season off is reflected in the words of the gospel: at once the Spirit sent Jesus out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. That’s as good a place as any to begin our own Lenten journey: in the wilderness . . . being tempted . . . alone . . . confronting doubt.

Just this morning I received among my mail a postcard from one of our college students, a sophomore Latin and Greek classicist wading through Homer and Ovid. On one side was a picture of a teddy bear standing in a garden beside its wheelbarrow, trowel in paw. This bear had produced a bumper crop of carrots and lettuce that filled the wheelbarrow. I especially enjoyed the garden scene since snow has turned our village into a frozen wasteland with twelve inches more arriving tomorrow night.

Then, as I turned the card over, I found myself looking no longer at a garden but instead at a barren wilderness. The note read, do you think we could talk sometime? I’m going through a time with a lot of doubts, and it makes me very uneasy. From garden of delight to godawful wilderness with the flick of a card. It doesn’t take much to turn the most luxurious garden life into a very lonely wilderness, does it? We’re all of us just a turn, just an event away from the wilderness of testing and temptation.

The temptation of Christ has generated scores of dissertations and spawned countless theological debates. Even playwrights and producers have caught wind of this story and juiced it into imaginative and steamy productions. And why not? In a sense, this story is all of us-we’re the college student struggling with our faith, we’re in the wilderness alone and facing doubts that confront us like a devil. We’ve been tempted to compromise our faith, to take the shortcut at the expense of others, to make choices that carry painful impact or betrayal. And at the moment that we face such choices-we’ve just flipped the card over and we’re in the wilderness again. We know deep down inside that it doesn’t take much to turn our gardens into deserts.

But the odd part of all of this is that Mark doesn’t seem interested in the slightest with this story. It’s just a blip on his gospel screen; it comes and goes in a single blink. While Matthew requires 220 words in my translation to tell this story and Luke uses 240 words, Mark skips by with a paltry 32 words. Reminds me of Woody Allen who once remarked that he had taken a speed reading course and was able to read the entire 1,400 page War and Peace in fifteen minutes. His critique of Tolstoy’s tome is classic. When asked to comment about the novel, he said, "It’s all about war." That’s so Mark. He just skims over the wilderness, does a fly-by past the three temptations, sprints past Jesus’ powerful rebuttals hurled against the devil and completes his story in 32 words. "It’s all about temptation," he seems to say.

But sheer volume does not guarantee the full meaning. Sometimes less is more. Mark, with great brevity creates a world of meaning that early listeners could enter. So let’s walk through Mark’s abridged version to learn his Lenten lessons.

What does Mark tell us? He says that the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by Satan. To us the number forty might suggest the big four-O, or maybe the measurement around our waistline or the speed we usually drive in town. But to first century listeners versed in Scripture, forty meant something much different. Forty simply meant a long time. A very long time. Forty is the number of years Israel wandered in the wilderness; forty is the number of days that Elijah fasted. Forty is nearly always connected to some wilderness and is almost always a time of testing.

The testing? For Israel, time the wilderness was not just rearranging dust day after day. Time in the wilderness was learning to trust God for their very existence. That was the test-to trust God or to whine about lack. Their wilderness sojourn is one of failing the tests over and over again. Even Moses failed the test-so much so that he was kept from entering the land God had promised Israel. Died just outside the city limits on Mount Pisgah.

So here in Mark’s gospel, the number forty and the wilderness turn up again. No one has ever passed this test. Not Israel. Not Moses. Not us. Yet another visitor turns the post card over and leaves the garden for the wilderness. Mark says the Spirit drove him. Not that the Spirit is pushy nor that Jesus drags his feet about this test. Mark wants us to know that God has arranged the whole thing. Again.

There is one final clue for what Mark sees in the temptation of Christ. Two words: wild animals. Where does that come from? Neither Matthew nor Luke mention anything about animals. Strange detail to include, don’t you think? But not for Mark’s earliest audience. Early Christians saw Christ in the wilderness with the animals in a parallel universe with Adam in the garden.

Adam’s garden also had animals-in fact, he was the chief caretaker of them. And he probably had bears and carrots and lettuce in the garden, too. But temptation will turn any garden into a wilderness. So Adam finds himself on the flip side of the postcard-from luscious garden to dangerous wilderness. And it happens so quickly-when they saw that the fruit looked delicious and would make bring wisdom they both ate . . . the womyn and the man.

The result? "Their eyes were opened," the Scripture says. Their eyes weren’t just opened about each other’s lack of wardrobe either. They had thought they were in a garden. Looked like a garden, smelled like a garden; had beautiful fauna and flora. But it turned out that they were in the wilderness and that they sinned and failed the test of trust, they became alienated and the fabric of their relationship with God and creation was ripped apart.

So Adam failed the test. Israel would later fail the test. We’ve failed the test. So what’s one more attempt going to hurt? Jesus enters the wilderness-driven by the Spirit. So what? Plenty have done that before. We know the trend; we see what’s coming. Here it comes-strike one, strike two, strike ____; wait a minute!

Mark intimates that with this candidate something unexpected happens. The newest GMATs candidate not only gets a perfect score, but more. Jesus reverses the postcard! He turns the wilderness into a garden! The wild animals when added with the angels suggest what would have been reality for humanity if Adam hadn’t sinned. A wilderness transformed into a paradise! Out there on the backside of the desert, a new garden is created. A new Israel emerges. A new Adam arises. A new possibility is born.

Hear the Good News of the gospel: "As I walked with my beloved Son as he encountered Satan in the wilderness; as I raised him up from even the darkest hour, I will walk with you through the wilderness as well. I have a land of promise for you. I have a mission for you to accomplish. I will raise you up and bring you through every wilderness."

While every garden is but the flipside of a wilderness, the good news of the gospel according to Mark reminds us that every wilderness can become a garden of life and growth and trust because one day long ago the Spirit sent Jesus out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. Amen.