February 22nd, 2015 “The Holy Struggle” Rev. Heather Jepsen
In all the years that I have preached the lectionary, in all the first Sundays of Lent that I have offered a reflection, I have never preached on this reading from Mark. The First Sunday of Lent is always a recollection of the temptation of Jesus, and whenever I have come up against Mark’s version of the story, I have chosen to go with another gospel. Matthew and Luke both give us a better version of the story. They both offer conversation between Jesus and the devil, as well as ideas of what the actual temptations might be. By contrast Mark gives us very little, hardly any details at all. As a preacher, it is not much to go on. But as a person of faith, this year I was drawn to Mark’s silence, this year I was more than happy to fill in the story myself.
Instead of looking for answers within the text, I began considering the story outside of the text. Mark doesn’t care how Jesus grew up or where he comes from. Mark offers us no touching birth narratives of angels and dreams. No, Mark doesn’t give us any background on Jesus at all. Instead, Mark starts with John, alone in the wilderness preaching repentance.
John is minding his own business when suddenly Jesus comes out of nowhere. Well, he comes out of Nazareth of Galilee, which is pretty much the same as nowhere. John does not seem to notice who Jesus is, he doesn’t point him out, and he doesn’t question the baptism. John doesn’t seem to do anything special at all; he just dunks Jesus right there along with everyone else.
In Mark’s gospel, the vision and voice, the dove and declaration, they are all just for Jesus alone. No one else sees the signs, and no one else hears the message. Only Jesus is given the vision, only Jesus hears the voice; I imagine within his own head, “You are my beloved Son.” And after that strange and great moment, Jesus wanders off alone into the desert.
As I mentioned, I was thinking outside the text this week. Who is Jesus prior to this moment? Where does he come from? Mark doesn’t say, and as a writer that leads me to imagine. I think we can assume he came from somewhere. There must be some house, some hut, some tent in Nazareth of the Galilee that this man called his home. I would imagine that in that time of limited resources that he must have shared his home with someone; his mother, his father, his brothers and sisters and their husbands and wives. There must have been some family back in Nazareth that he called his own. What compelled Jesus to wander off to the Jordan that day? What compelled him to stay away for so long afterwards?
I was trying to imagine the home he might have come from and all I kept thinking about was his mother. Even if we discount the stories that Matthew and Luke will offer in later years, I think it is safe to assume that this mother would have had a feeling that her son was different. I imagine Jesus mooning around the tent at night, glumly sitting by the campfire. Not satisfied with the family trade and yet also not knowing where he belonged in the world. It didn’t take much for me to imagine an exasperated mother encouraging her son to get out into the world, to “Go find yourself”.
It would appear that Jesus was drawn to matters of faith, and yet he seeks it by outside avenues. Perhaps he went to the synagogue and the temple before he headed out to the Jordan. Perhaps he was dissatisfied with those traditional approaches. Mark only leaves us to wonder. Jesus is drawn to something that John has to offer and so the young seeker walks the 30 miles alone out to the Jordan. He joins the crowd, he is baptized into the movement, and then he experiences a personal revelation. A voice tells him he is the beloved son of God. Now what?
I imagine that the question of “now what?” is ultimately what lead Jesus out into the wilderness. Who was he? Who was God calling him to be? What shape should his mission and ministry take? Mark tells us that “Jesus was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” It sure sounds like a personal struggle for identity to me.
I used to dislike Mark’s version of the story because he has so few details, but the more I am in ministry the more I appreciate this narrative. Mark leaves it up to the reader to imagine what happened to Jesus out there. We can only guess what he went through, and in doing so it makes the story much easier for us to relate to on a personal level.
Who hasn’t had some point in their life when they begin to wonder who they are? Many of us can transplant our own journeys on top of the narrative of Jesus here in Mark. We look around ourselves and at some point we realize that we no longer fit where we are. Perhaps we are young, and just finding our true identity in college. Perhaps we are older and trying to discern how we fit into a new married family. Perhaps we are just becoming parents and find that we need to redefine how we imagine the parental role. Perhaps it is later in life and we are dealing with an empty nest, retirement, or the death of a spouse. Throughout our life’s journey, we are forced to look around and discover that who we are, who we have become, no longer fits the place where we find ourselves.
And so we head out seeking answers, we head out looking to discover who we are and how we fit into the world. At some point someone tells us that like Jesus, we are a beloved child of God. You may scoff at this notion but it is true. I am fairly certain that all of us here this morning have heard it spoken at one time or other that we are a much loved child of our heavenly Father. How do those words shape and form our identity? How does that knowledge, of our own belovedness, drive our quest?
And so we wander and we wonder and 40 days might grow into 40 years as we seek to discover who we are, and who God is calling us to be. It is a holy struggle, a wilderness journey of discovery, a time of trial and temptation as various paths appear before us and we must choose which way we will go. Like Jesus we will see wild beasts on the road, and like Jesus we will be tended to by angels. Hopefully, like Jesus, we will come out of the journey knowing more clearly who our God has called and created us to be. Jesus is bringing the kingdom of God with him. Perhaps we too, will bring it along with us, when the time is finally fulfilled.
Today, as we collectively consider the period of trial and temptation for our Lord, I invite you to think about just where you are on your own journey of faith. The story that Mark tells us of Jesus is a short one, and yet he records several times that I would consider wilderness journeys for our Lord. So too, our own lives move in and out of this holy struggle, this search for answers, this change in identity. Where are you on the journey today? As we begin this season of Lent, I would remind you that wilderness journeys are an important part of our spiritual lives. Don’t be afraid to go there as you are called.
I want to close today with a poem by Ruth Brugess called “Desert”. She writes:
The desert waits,
ready for those who come,
who come obedient to the Spirit’s leading;
or who are driven,
because they will not come any other way.
The desert always waits,
ready to let us know who we are –
the place of self-discovery.
And whilst we fear, and rightly,
the loneliness and emptiness and harshness,
we forget the angels,
whom we cannot see for our blindness,
but who come when God decides
that we need their help;
when we are ready
for what they can give us.