Scripture: Mark 1:9-15
There’s a wisdom story about a rabbi that asked God to give him a glimpse of what heaven and hell would be like.
God agreed to this request, and asked the prophet Elijah to be the rabbi’s guide on this adventure.
Elijah first led the rabbi into a large room. In the middle of the room was a fire with a big cooking pot bubbling away on it. And in the pot was a delicious stew.
All around the cooking pot sat a crowd of people. They each had a long-handled spoon, which they were dipping into the stew.
But the people looked pale and thin and wretched. There was an icy stillness in the room. The handles of the spoons were so long that no one was able to get the lovely food into their mouth.
When the two visitors were back outside again, the rabbi asked Elijah what strange place this was. ‘That was hell,’ Elijah explained.
Then Elijah led the rabbi to a second room, which looked exactly like the first. In the middle, a fire was blazing and a cooking pot was bubbling away, full of the same delicious, aromatic stew. People sat around the fire, with the same long-handled spoons in their hands. But they were enjoying lively, animated conversations with each other. And the difference? Well, the people in the second room were not trying to feed themselves with the long-handled spoons. They were using the spoons to feed each other. “Ah, this is heaven,’ said the rabbi.
(One Hundred Wisdom Stories from Around the World, compiled by Margaret Silf, pg. 55, Pilgrim Press 2003)
We are called to love and serve and to be in loving relationship with God and with others. In this way we are fed and made whole and God’s commonwealth is revealed. This, in a nutshell, is Jesus’ message contained in the Gospel according to Mark.
Mark’s Gospel is concise and often sparse when it comes to details. Mark includes only what he thinks is of utmost importance. Today’s reading from the first chapter of Mark is a good example. If Mark were writing for a modern-day newspaper we would see that Mark is providing the pertinent headlines:
Jesus Baptized by John in the Jordan River
Jesus Blessed by the Holy Spirit
Jesus’ 40 Days in the Wilderness
Jesus Proclaims the Good News of God’s Kingdom
In seven compact sentences, Mark introduces Jesus as commissioned by God and blessed by the Holy Spirit; as one who prepares for public ministry and then actively proclaims the good news of God. The rest of Mark’s Gospel is a telling of the stories of Jesus’ life and ministry with the implicit invitation for others to participate in Jesus’ ministry.
On this 1st Sunday of the Season of Lent, the Gospel theme always focuses on Jesus’ wilderness experience. Mark’s Gospel offers only two sentences to describe Jesus’ forty days of preparation for public ministry. Let’s hear these brief words again:
“And the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” (Mark 1:12-13)
This past week, as I was reflecting on these two sentences, it occurred to me that Mark gives us the gift of being able to fill in the details and make connections with our own wilderness experiences. We’ve all had experiences that we might describe as wilderness places – difficult times in our lives where our resilience and fortitude have been sorely tested. One comment that I read this week by Rev. David Lose stated,
“Truth be told, we rarely volunteer to go the 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. And the same is true with our periods of trial, temptation, and struggle. We don’t choose these – they happen to us. Even when the challenges in front of us are of our own making – let alone those put upon us by others or the fortunes of life – we rarely want or actively seek such hardship. …But I do wonder if we can imagine that perhaps God is at work both for us and through us during our wilderness times.” (www.davidlose.net /2015/02/lent-1-b-wilderness-faith/)
I have personally experienced, the wild beasts and the tempter mentioned in Jesus’ wilderness account as fear. Fear of an unknown and uncertain future, fear of failure and the temptation to give up and give in to the easy way rather than persevere on the difficult journey. But, by far the most difficult and trying time of wilderness in my life was the final six months of my father’s life. Six months, from the time of diagnosis of terminal cancer to his death. Six heart-wrenching months that took its toll on our whole family – physically and emotionally. Like Mark, I don’t need to give you all the details of the ups-and-downs of that experience. You’ve all had difficult challenges you’ve had to face in life. You know how difficult it can be to travel in the wilderness.
What struck me particularly about Mark’s words this week was that I noticed that Mark mentions that angels waited on Jesus in the wilderness. Wilderness places are often referred to as “God-forsaken” places. Today’s reading reveals there is no place – no wilderness – where God is not present. God is present in every time and in every place, no matter how bleak or inhospitable the conditions.
That was what I learned, not from Mark, but from my own wilderness experience. In the midst of hardship and pain, I discovered the most sacred, the most intimate moments of God’s grace and blessing. Once I learned to replace fear with trust in God’s presence I knew that I could survive any wilderness experience even the ones I do not welcome or invite.
This past week as I’ve been reflecting on the theme of wilderness I came across a recent news story that touched my heart and soul. The news was the confirmation, on February 10th, of the death of 26 year-old aid worker, Kayla Mueller, who had been kidnapped and held hostage by ISIS operatives in Syria.
I don’t know a lot about Kayla’s life other than she had a passion for helping others. Before going to Syria, Kayla had spent four years working for various aid groups in Northern India, Israel and the Palestinian territories. When asked what kept her going in her mission, Kayla said,
“I find God in the suffering eyes reflected in mine, if this is how you are revealed to me, this is how I will forever seek you.”
While in captivity, Kayla wrote a letter to her family that a former cellmate who was released was able to deliver. When Kayla’s family learned of her death they shared her letter with others. I’ll read a few lines from Kayla’s letter that reveals much about what sustained her in the wilderness of captivity:
“I remember Mom always telling me that all in all in the end the only one you really have is God. I have come to a place in my experience where, in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our creator because literally there was no one else…by God and by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in free-fall. I have been shown in darkness, light and have learned that even in prison, one can be free. I am grateful.”
And so, with gratitude for God who is present in every place and in every moment in life I’ll close with a prayer for our Lenten journey:
God of shadows and of light,
we give thanks for the life and ministry of Jesus Christ
and for people of faith throughout the ages
who have shown in word and deed
their devotion and service to you.
Bless each one of us gathered here today
as we seek to love and serve others in Christ’s name.