New Hope Fellowship, Fort Worth Texas
March 31, 2019
I found myself doing something this week that I would’ve never imagined just a few months ago. Going through my dad’s clothes and things with my brothers, taking what we wanted, and loading up the rest in the car to give away.
My dad was in a car accident in December, and he died a few days later from injuries sustained in that accident. So here we found ourselves this week, going through his things, getting his house ready to sell.
Sometimes you find yourself in unexpected places, dealing with unexpected things, sudden losses. Sometimes you look up, and you find yourself in the wilderness.
I preached last Sunday at Rising Star Baptist Church. It is a large African American church in southeast Fort Worth. I said there last Sunday that God calls us to a blessed life. God wants you to live a blessed life. And life is not one thing but a journey. So our life is a blessed journey.
And what I was telling them last week is that the first step on the journey is to receive the blessing of God. To hear that voice: You are my beloved son/daughter. With you I am well pleased.
Jesus is baptized. He hears that voice of blessing. And then what happens. Does he get whisked off to a beautiful, distraction free resort experience? No. He is led straight into the wilderness.
The next part of the blessed life, that we need to talk about today, is the journey through the wilderness. I’m sorry to tell you this—that a blessed journey has to go through the wilderness.
Nobody wants to wind up in the wilderness. Nobody plans to go there. Wilderness interrupts. Wilderness surprises. Wilderness breaks in.
Mark is describing a man in our text today who is being “driven” into the wilderness. But why? He is not driven to the city or driven to the temple. He is driven to the wilderness. Jesus is about to start his ministry, and his path forward is interrupted by wilderness.
This brings us to the question: How can we see that wilderness time as an opportunity?
Most of us are well aware that the wilderness motif is common in the Bible.
Jacob wrestles with the angel and is transformed in the wilderness.
Moses hears the divine call in the burning bush in the wilderness.
Israel passes through the wilderness to get to the promised land.
John the Baptist emerges from the wilderness to prepare the way for the messiah.
There was something about the wilderness that was transforming for each of these. There are some things that can only be learned in the wilderness.
The Judean wilderness is a place of
extreme physical stress.
Mark says that Jesus was “with wild beasts” in the wilderness. The Judean wilderness is not a kind place. It is very hot during the day and extremely cold at night, and if you are human, you are not at the top of the food chain. Water is notoriously hard to find, while in those days robbers, bandits, and demoniacs were plentiful. Not an easy place in which to survive overnight, let alone forty days.
There is something that is
about being in the wilderness. In other words, the wilderness experience challenges our highest values of
[Ken Corr in a sermon preached at First Baptist Church, Memphis, Tennessee]
The wilderness is not the kind of place you choose to go and spend forty days. But, according to Mark, the wilderness was exactly where Jesus needed to go before he began his public ministry. Jesus was driven, compelled to go into the wilderness. The wilderness intruded into his life, interrupted.
Could it be that we all of us sometimes need to be interrupted by a wilderness experience? Could it be—I shudder to think— that we all of us need to spend time in the wilderness—that place that challenges our values?
Could it be that there are some things we need to learn that we can only learn on the wilderness?
We are in the season of Lent, and what is Lent, really, but forty days in the wilderness?
Forty days to cleanse the system and open the eyes to what remains when all comfort is gone.
Forty days to remember what it is like to live by the grace of God alone and not by what we can supply for ourselves.
Barbara Brown Taylor says that Lent is Outward Bound for the soul. You know Outward Bound—where you pay these people to take you out and subject you to harsh conditions in the wilderness. It’s supposed to be good for you, build character.
Sometimes in an Outward Bound experience you have to go solo. They put you out all by yourself in the middle of nowhere and wish you luck for the next 24 hours. That is when you find out who you are. That is when you find out what you really miss and what you are really afraid of.
Some people dream about their favorite food. Some long for a safe room with a door to lock and others just wish they had a pillow, but they all find out what their pacifiers are—the
they use to comfort themselves, to block out pain and fear.
In the wilderness without those things they are suddenly exposed, like someone addicted to painkillers whose prescription has just run out. It is hard. It is awful. Going through withdrawals. It is necessary, to encounter the world without anesthesia, to find out what life is like with no comfort but God.
Taylor says, and I think she’s right, that 99 percent of us are addicted to something, whether it is
taking care of other people.
I heard this week a definition of addiction as something outside of us that we use to regulate what is inside of us. Another way to think of it is addiction is anything we use to fill the empty place inside of us that belongs to God alone.
To enter the wilderness is to leave all those things behind and see what you find out about yourself.
[Settling for Less, Christian Century, February 18, 1998]
We all of us find ourselves in the wilderness, sometimes. Even churches, sometimes, find themselves in the wilderness. It’s a good place to see what we can find out about ourselves.
Parker Palmer, the author of so many great books on the spiritual life, writes about going on an Outward Bound experience himself. He says they walked him to the edge of a cliff that dropped 110 feet. They tied a little line to his waist—a line that seemed to be sort of worn and unraveling in a few places, and they told him to start “rappelling” down that cliff.
Do what? he said; he had been hoping for a nice morning of instruction.
And in true Outward Bound fashion, the instructor said, Just do it.
So he pushes off—drops four feet and just crashes into the rock face. The instructor looks over the edge and says, Parker, I don’t think you’ve got the hang of this.
He says, No kidding! Now what?
And the instructor says, The only way to do this is to lean back as far as you can. You have to get your body at right angles to the cliff so that your weight is on your feet.
Parker said, I knew he was wrong, of course. I knew the trick was to hug the mountain, to stay as close to the rock face as I could. So I tried it again my way—and slammed with bone-jarring force into the next ledge four feet down.
The instructor says, Parker, it’s counterintuitive, I know, but lean out, lean free.
Palmer writes, The next step was a very big one but I took it—and wonder of wonders, it worked. I leaned back into empty space, eyes fixed on the heavens in prayer, made tiny, tiny moves with my feet and started descending the rock face.
Parker was about halfway down when the instructor called down to him: Parker, I think you’d better stop and see what’s below your feet. He carefully looked, moving only his eyes so he didn’t have to move his body, and saw that he was approaching a deep hole in the face of the rock.
To get down, he would have to go around that hole, which meant that he was going to have to deviate from his straight line of descent that he was starting to get comfortable with. He was going to have to swing to the left or to the right, which at that moment he felt would lead to his certain death. So he froze. He froze with fear.
Seeing him paralyzed there on the face of the rock, the instructor called down to him again and said, Parker, it’s time you learned the Outward Bound motto.
Great, he thought, I’m about to die, and she’s going to give me a motto.
But then Parker Palmer says this: The instructor then shouted ten words I hope never to forget, words whose impact and meaning I can still feel: If you can’t get out of it, get into it!
If you can’t get out of it, get into it.
Those words hit Parker Palmer with the force of a ton of bricks. He was in this fix, and he realized
no helicopter would come to rescue him;
the instructor on the cliff would not pull him up with a rope;
there was no parachute in his backpack to float him to the ground.
There was no way out of his wilderness except to get into it. And so he got into it, and his feet started to move, and in a few minutes he was safely on the ground.
[Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation]
You can’t avoid the wilderness. And once you find yourself there, once you get stuck in that place, the only way out of it is to get into it. The only way out of the wilderness is in it and through it.
You can’t avoid the wilderness. I read a quote from, of all people, Wynona Judd, and she said: It seems to me that there are three groups of people. There are
the ones going into the wilderness,
the ones in the wilderness, and
the ones coming out of the wilderness.
You can’t avoid the wilderness—that desolate place, that place of exposure. You can’t avoid it forever. And if you can’t get out of it, you better get into it.
The Spirit of God drove Jesus into the wilderness. And you and I need to face the sobering truth that the message of the gospel today is not
how to avoid the wilderness or
even how to get out of the wilderness.
It was God’s Spirit that drove Jesus into that barren place, remember. It wasn’t the devil. The devil met him there. But it was the same Spirit who called Jesus “Blessed” that drove him into the wilderness.
If you can’t get out of it, you better get into it. Like Jesus, getting into the wilderness just might be the thing you most need to prepare yourself for the rest of your life.
Wilderness interrupts and our plans and our lives. But there’s something else in this story today. And it’s important. Not only does wilderness interrupt our carefully planned lives, but wilderness is, itself, interrupted.
It’s in the very last verse. This is what is says: And suddenly angels waited on him.
a difficult time,
a lonely time,
a time of doubt and uncertainty,
a time not unlike periods of life through which
we must walk,
a wilderness in which we suddenly and
unexpectedly find ourselves.
Suddenly you find yourself wondering if your life has made any sense at all–wondering what you should do next.
But here is a promise that even the wilderness itself is interrupted, that the Spirit of God leads us into those wildernesses, and after the struggle–the promise is
that angels come and minister to him,
that God does come to us at the end of the day, the
end of the wilderness.
John Buchanan, pastor at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago tells a story about attending a seminar led by Walter Brueggemann, the noted Old Testament scholar. Buchanan said that as the lecture began he got out his paper and pen to take notes on what he thought would be a scholarly lecture.
But instead, Buchanan says, Brueggemann told everyone to put away their notepads and pens, and close their eyes …and recall a time when, as a young child, [you] were frightened, lying in bed at night, sure that the shadows on the bedroom wall were of a burglar at the window, or a monster, and the bumps and creaks on the stairway surely a warning of something horrible about to happen.
And you called out to your mother or father out of the darkness, in your fear, who appeared and took you in his or her arms and said, It’s OK. Everything is all right, I’m here. Don’t be afraid. That, Brueggemann said, is the fundamental, primary, and consistent message of the Bible: I’m here. Don’t be afraid.
In the wilderness the angels came. And this is always the message of angels. Think about it—every time angels show up in the gospels, every time angels interrupt life—to Mary, to the shepherds—every time angels show up they say the same thing: Do not be afraid.
A blessed life goes through the wilderness. No question about that. And even when you end up in the wilderness, according to Mark, the angels break in and get the last word.
Do not be afraid.
Do not be afraid.