. . 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. Thats 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?
Im 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 doesnt take
much to turn the most luxurious garden life into a very lonely wilderness, does it?
Were all of us just a turn, just an event away from the wilderness of testing and
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-were the college student struggling with our faith, were in the
wilderness alone and facing doubts that confront us like a devil. Weve 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-weve just flipped the card over and were in the wilderness again. We
know deep down inside that it doesnt take much to turn our gardens into deserts.
But the odd part of all of this is that Mark doesnt seem interested in the
slightest with this story. Its 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 Tolstoys tome is
classic. When asked to comment about the novel, he said, "Its all about
war." Thats 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. "Its all about temptation," he seems
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
lets walk through Marks 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
So here in Marks 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, dont you think? But not for Marks earliest
audience. Early Christians saw Christ in the wilderness with the animals in a parallel
universe with Adam in the garden.
Adams 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
The result? "Their eyes were opened," the Scripture says. Their eyes
werent just opened about each others 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. Weve failed the test.
So whats 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 whats
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 hadnt 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
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.