“Follow, Into the Wilderness”
Mark 1:9-15 (1:12) – February 18, 2018
This past week, on Wednesday, our country was transfixed and horrified to hear of yet another mass shooting. This time, in a high school, in a more affluent town north of Fort Lauderdale. These students, these adults had absolutely no idea that anything like this shooting could possibly happen. Not there. Not to them. And, not on Valentine’s Day.
I wonder how many of those families who are even now preparing to bury their loved ones feel like they are lost in the wilderness? Grieving, angry, fearful, at a total loss. Not even able to process the horrific events that happened in so short a time on Wednesday afternoon. What kind of messages are the ministers in that community of Parkland, Florida preaching this morning? This first Sunday of Lent?
Our Gospel lesson from Mark this morning begins with Jesus getting baptized in the Jordan by His cousin, John the Baptist. The heavens open, and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descends upon Jesus. A voice from heaven is heard saying, “You are my Son. With You I am well pleased.”
This is the very beginning of Jesus’s ministry, and we find it right at the beginning of chapter 1 in Mark’s Gospel. And, immediately—one of Mark’s favorite words—immediately after the baptism, the Holy Spirit led Jesus out into the wilderness. Alone. All by Himself.
Imagine, being in the wilderness all alone. I am not sure whether a lot of people today could survive adequately in the wilderness, especially if they grew up in an urban area like Chicago. Perhaps Jesus was especially hardy. We are not told much else, except that He was out there for forty days, and at some point in this period, Jesus was tempted by Satan, the adversary.
Except—I’d like to focus on the wilderness. Jesus went to the wilderness for forty days.
Have you ever felt like you have been in the wilderness? Wandering there for forty days? Or, for even longer? Have you gone through experiences of lengthy unemployment or under-employment? What about times of sickness, and chronic health difficulties? Periods where there have been a whole series of illnesses and deaths of your loved ones and family members?
What about internal difficulties? Approximately one in four Americans suffer from some sort of mental illness or mental difficulty like depression, anxiety, or some sort of compulsion, if not the more severe kinds of affliction like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. That’s a lot of people. And, those people often feel like they are all alone. All by themselves. These people are in a great deal of internal pain.
These times of sadness, anxiety, fearfulness, even downright despair sometimes threaten to overwhelm us. These are truly times of wandering in the wilderness.
Let us go back to the families and friends of the people who were shot at Douglas High School in Florida, just five days ago. Here we have a whole community suddenly plunged into the wilderness. How on earth can they possibly cope? How can they find any way to hope for a better day or develop any kind of a positive outlook?
We are not going to leave these dear folks wandering in the wilderness forever. I will return to them and their dire predicament in just a few minutes. I want us to refocus on Jesus. Yes, the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus at His baptism. However, like my favorite commentator David Lose, it struck me that it is the Holy Spirit “that drives Jesus into the wilderness, that place of challenge and struggle and purification and testing and temptation.” 
Yes, we believe Jesus willingly withdrew into the wilderness for a time. But, what about other people, like those dear ones in Florida? Overwhelmingly, people do not willingly choose sickness or loss or deprivation, chronic pain, mental illness, or despair. And, what about us, wandering in the wilderness?
How are all of these people supposed to handle things when everything seems to be falling apart? With repeated, multiple losses, or chronic difficulties, or financial reversals? The list can go on and on. Some folks never get back on their feet, either physically, emotionally, financially, or spiritually.
When I was in my twenties, I had two small children. My former husband and I were in desperate straits. Even with college degrees, we could not find jobs. Even crummy jobs. Both of us had work for short periods of time, and then one or the other would get laid off, or the company would relocate out of state, or the position would close. No health insurance, for years. We were hitting the pavement, going to employment agencies, doing just about everything we could, for years. And, if it wasn’t for the long-term generosity of our mothers and families, we could possibly have been kicked out of our apartment and living in a car.
I know very well what it is like to do wilderness wandering. Struggling all alone. Seemingly, all by myself.
As David Lose says, “Truth be told, we rarely volunteer to go to wilderness places. We don’t often look for opportunities to struggle. Which is probably why Mark reports that the Spirit drove Jesus rather than simply make a suggestion.” 
As Dr. Lose tries to make absolutely clear, God does not maliciously cause us misery or suffering. God does not desire that for beloved children—which we all are!
Notice, the Holy Spirit is not the one who tempts Jesus. Instead, the Holy Spirit is the Comforter and Sustainer who remains with Jesus throughout His time in the wilderness. Just so, the Holy Spirit can be with all of us through our wilderness wanderings. Indeed, God can be at work both for us and through us during our wilderness wanderings and difficult times. 
Sometimes, it is not easy. Sometimes, years ago, I would cry out to God, “Where are you? Do you even care about me, at all?” This is one of the hardest times of all, when folks are tempted to totally give up hope. Some struggles—physical, emotional, financial, mental or spiritual—are so difficult to bear. And, what if you have several of these struggles at the same time? On top of each other?
I want to give people a warning. I am absolutely not advocating that anyone stay in a dangerous or abusive situation. If there is danger of any kind, or any sort of abusive behavior or language coming your way, please get out. Please call someone, call or text me. Or, tell someone you trust.
All the same, God can be right next to us through extended difficult times. Again and again, I have heard testimonies about Jesus sitting right by a person’s side, all the time they went through chemotherapy and radiation treatment for cancer. Or, Jesus sitting with a person while they were having treatment for debilitating depression. And, perhaps we can “look at the struggles around us in light of this story and ask, “Even though I did not wish for this, how might God be at work through this difficult period. What can I get out of this? How might God use me to help someone else?” 
Yes, our thoughts and prayers are with these dear ones in Florida, mourning the loss of their loved ones. Yes, we can come alongside of people going through wilderness wandering of many types. And, yes. God is there, too. As Comforter, Sustainer. As the Spirit was with Jesus in the wilderness, so the Spirit will be with us, too.
Thank God for heavenly mercies. Jesus promises never to leave us nor forsake us. Amen.
“Wilderness Faith,” David Lose, …in the Meantime, 2015.