First Sunday in the Midst of Lent

TEXT: Mark 1:9-15

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan … (Mark 1:12-13a)

For Mark, the gospel story does not begin with angelic visitors or a prophetic dream. It does not open with a miraculous birth or a poetic hymn to the incarnate Word. In Mark’s Gospel, there is no soaring prose. There are no travellers from the East, no expensive gifts, no awestruck shepherds, no jealous, brooding king. Instead, Mark’s Gospel hurls us, ready or not, into a lonely and barren wilderness—a desert—where everything either bites or burns or stings.

And in Mark, Jesus gets there so quickly! First, he is baptized by John in the Jordan River, and then—in the next breath—we find him in the desert, under the blazing sun.

Matthew and Luke, at least, allow him to linger a while at the riverside. In Matthew, he even has time for a conversation with his cousin, the Baptizer. If it were a modern story, they might have posed for a photograph together, their arms around each other, grinning for the camera.

After all, it’s hard to imagine a more significant happening than the baptism of Jesus. As he emerged from the water, the heavens ripped open, the Spirit descended like a dove, and the voice of God proclaimed, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” This ought to have been a picture-perfect moment—a moment to savour and remember and celebrate.

But there is no photo op. Almost immediately, Jesus is driven out into the desert to live with the wild beasts and be tempted by evil. Driven out! Notice that? It’s like the Spirit chased him—forced him—out there.

It’s not exactly what you would expect, is it? After all, God was pleased—no, make that “well pleased” with him. But directly from this moment of glory, Christ is driven into the harsh wilderness—into the desert.

The desert. When it comes to deserts—at least as topographical entities, as geographic locations—I’ll bet most of us Canadians don’t have a lot of direct experience (not with hot deserts, anyway).

Experts say that deserts are formed under unique climactic conditions. Maps show that they cover about one-third of the earth’s land surface. Globes indicate they are found only between specific latitudes.

That’s what the geographers tell us about deserts. But it’s not the whole truth about them. There is another kind of desert besides the wilderness of sand and sun and scorpions; and we are all familiar with it.

The truth is, sometimes—no matter where we live, no matter where we travel—the desert is all we can see. Sometimes, despite what the weather report or average rainfall may indicate, we find ourselves right in the middle of the desert: blinded, disoriented, sunburned, just about dying of thirst.

Sometimes, the desert feels so familiar that we can name every shrivelled plant, every venomous snake, every blistering ray, every irritating little grain of sand. Sometimes, the wilderness is where we live.

The single mother, stretched so thin that she almost disappears, knows the desert of exhaustion and despair.

The abused child, exploited by adults, knows the desert of a trust betrayed.    

The convict, numb to the brutality that surrounds him, knows the desert of violence and guilt and regret.

The bereaved one, suddenly alone, struggles through the desert of sorrow and grief.

We know the truth about deserts, don’t we? The truth is, despite what the geography books tell us, deserts are not found only in North Africa, or southern Nevada, or in the Sinai peninsula. Some of the harshest deserts are not marked on any map. They lie just around the corner. They wait for us behind closed doors. We visit them in our dreams.

But there’s something else that is true about deserts—something that Mark wants us to hear. Jesus has been there first.

That is the good news we find as Mark begins his narrative. No desert on earth is so remote, so barren, so seemingly inhospitable to life, that Jesus has not walked there first. And the presence of Christ in the wilderness reminds us of another truth about deserts. Despite all appearances to the contrary, the wilderness is filled with life.

A handful of desert soil, baked and brown, blowing in the hot wind, can be filled with hundreds of seeds, waiting for that once-in-a-lifetime rainfall—just waiting for a chance to bloom.

That withered plant, yellow and dry, has living roots reaching deep into the ground.

That empty landscape—lonely in the harsh light of day, comes to life in the moonlight as reptiles and insects emerge from hiding.

That broken heart—so empty and forlorn—begins to mend as love becomes real again in a gentle touch, a kind word, a compassionate action.

That wounded spirit—overwhelmed by despair—finds hope again with a fresh challenge, a new reason to live.

That bitter soul—filled with resentment—comes face-to-face with a contrite and devastated enemy, and finds, in the depths of its own desert, the ability to forgive.

Even at its most desolate, the desert is always ready to burst into bloom at the first sign of life-giving water. Maybe that’s why God so often uses the desert as a place for transformation. Maybe that’s why Jesus emerged from the waters of baptism only to be driven there—into the wilderness.

I know that this Lenten season finds many of us traveling through the desert, wrestling with our own demons and being tempted by evil. Some people might look upon that journey and despair. But we should not. For we know the truth about deserts, don’t we? We know who has gone before us—and we know who will walk with us on our journey. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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