Sermon for First Sunday in Lent: Driven into the Wilderness (February 21, 2021)

“Driven into the Wilderness”

Year B, Lent I, Mark

Sermon to Pohick Church February 21, 2021

The Rev. Dr. Lynn Ronaldi

It was almost exactly a year ago, on the first Sunday of Lent, that I unwittingly preached a sermon about entering into a “40-day wilderness journey.” Little did I know, we were about to embark on a desert experience on a scale like we’ve never seen in our lifetime. On so many levels, our lives have been completely disrupted, and a year later, we remain in a prolonged wilderness.

This Lent, Mark’s version of Jesus’ baptism and subsequent movement into the desert sheds light on how the Spirit of God moves us and invites us to discover the truth that sets us free.

As usual, Mark is brief and to the point, but what he does say packs a punch. In just a few sentences, Mark insists, no matter what disorientation the wilderness brings, the Spirit of God is here among us, actively doing something new in our lives. The reign of God is here to stay.

The heavens rip open, and Mark quickly describes what the Spirit is doing. In three terse, staccato statements peppered with action verbs, he says:

  • The Spirit descends on Jesus in the Jordan River and baptizes him.
  • The Spirit enters into Jesus and identifies him as his Beloved Son.
  • Then the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness to discover his truth, meaning and purpose.

Notice Mark uses the word “drive” instead of “led,” which is used in the other Gospels. Drive gives the story a sense of urgency and intention. The Spirit rips open the heavens, plunges into Jesus, and impels him into a place of isolation, hardship, and danger.

Why this sense of upheaval, force, and disorientation? What does it mean for us?

In Jesus, God is doing something so disruptive, so radically new and different, that the Spirit doesn’t just lead us toward the truth that sets us free; the Spirit compels us there. Perhaps the Spirit drives us in order to overcome our resistance to truth.

Think about it. Don’t we resist seasons of wandering when we get the disorienting sense that we’ve lost all our familiar landmarks? Don’t we deny it when the poor choices we make are exposed? Don’t we resist whenever familiar habits and a sense of control are stripped away?

Perhaps the driving Spirit longs to break through that resistance. God wants us to surrender to the divine forces of healing and transformation we can encounter only when we are apart with God. Maybe in the desert, we can suspend judgment, and really listen for what God is saying to us in our own feelings and experiences. God’s Spirit can finally get our attention and reveal what is really going on.

How can we know it’s the Holy Spirit driving us? If it is the Spirit of Jesus, we will recognize two inner movements:

  • First we experience the Father moving to embrace us as beloved son or beloved daughter. We are drawn by love – the experience of Jesus in the Jordan.
  • Second, we feel moved to embrace the world with deeper compassion. The Spirit of Jesus moves us to identify ourselves with a broken world, and become more kind and accepting.

Once we surrender to God’s Spirit, how do we discover what is really going on? How do we identify our brokenness? How can we discover our true identity?

Perhaps it is helpful to also look at the more detailed Gospel versions of the wilderness story. In Matthew, Satan tempts Jesus in three predictable, basic areas of human desire:

  • The temptation to survive by making bread from stones;
  • The temptation to show off by jumping off a high parapet and living;
  • And the temptation to seek power and rule over others.

Struggling with common temptations, Jesus grows in compassion for our human condition. Surrendering to the Spirit, Jesus reveals the process of becoming more fully human, and discovering our purpose and mission.

The late Thomas Keating says Jesus’ temptations represent our common, misplaced human desires that cause us to sin. He says we make poor, self-centered choices whenever we inordinately desire:

  • Security and survival;
  • Affection and esteem;
  • Or power and control.

Keating says we build a “false self” we think will protect us. So we seek

  • Security and survival when we are paralyzed with fear about suffering, or sin, or condemnation. We become judgmental, defensive, even rigid.
  • Affection and esteem when we fear not being lovable, or “good enough.” This is what’s going on if we’re constantly seeking to please others.
  • Power and control when we fear being manipulated, or out of control. This can manifest in attempting to control situations or people.

Hooked by these fears, we tend to live with a lack of integrity. We experience inner chaos, disintegration, and sin.

Do these fears and trials sound familiar? Our greatest temptation is usually the one we’re likely to deny. Honestly confronting and repenting of our weaknesses is painful. We resist the Holy Spirit. We keep the Spirit at bay by remaining busy, filling days with noise and activity.

This is why we need wilderness time – a time of honestly confronting desires. Solitude, surrender, and resting in the Lord are necessary if we want to be transformed and grow into our true identity as beloved sons and daughters. If we seek renewal and resurrection.

The Good News is: the Kingdom of God has drawn near, so near that it actually dwells within us! Jesus clearly says “repent and believe.” Our response is to repent of wrong desires and destructive hooks, and believe what the Spirit says!

Religious people have long realized the Spirit is no stranger to temptation and sin. In God’s hospitality, His Spirit welcomes and integrates all of it.

The desert monks and nuns entered the desert longing to overcome resistance and discover the depth of compassion and mercy that led Christ to die for us. They went into the wilderness to escape, only to find the world came with them. They discovered conflict, temptation, and sin was within them. And the Spirit of God was there too! They realized the Spirit drove them there to break down their resistance to healing and renewal.

The wilderness was where they learned to surrender. They realized the path to compassion is never escaping pain or resisting change. On the contrary: One-ness with Jesus calls for befriending pain, becoming vulnerable, naming fears, and allowing the Spirit to heal and renew them.

Perhaps in this current wilderness, our Lord longs for our nation, church, and each of us to stop resisting and really listen for His voice, and the truth that will set us free. This year we have been experiencing a long, hard wilderness. We are weary, afraid, impatient, and ready for it to end.

In the midst of this upheaval, we might also sense where the Spirit of God is moving us toward profound change. Many of us are re-evaluating our lives, meaning and purpose. We’re adjusting priorities. Evidence of this?

  • Several are retiring – often early, or earlier than anticipated.
  • Some couples are downsizing and moving into assisted living.
  • Others are discerning new career trajectories. Many are telecommuting, and predictions are that this will continue.
  • Some are moving home – physically closer to families.
  • At the very least, our sense of community is being challenged to transform.

Meanwhile, can we trust that the Spirit of the Lord is sending angels to minister to us? God truly longs for us to trust and rest in His Love and seek renewal!

Our Lenten program will offer insights from spiritual fathers and mothers, and simple spiritual practices to tend our souls. This Wednesday our speaker is The Rev. Martin Smith. Ironically, he was our first speaker last year when this began.

As we journey together these 40 days, remember the Good News: In this wilderness, the Spirit of God is wholly present to us, driving us toward the truth that will set us free. His Kingdom is within us. As we persevere, God is sending his holy angels to minister to us. The question is: will we surrender ourselves and be present to Him? Amen.