STRANDED IN THIS NAMELESS PLACE1
A sermon based on Mark 1:9-13
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
February 21, 2021
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
And the Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Mark 1:12-13
This Sunday begins the church season called Lent. Lent is a time of reflection upon the work of Christ as he makes his way in to the city of Jerusalem where he will be betrayed by one of his closest companions, brutally executed by the Roman government with the approval of the Jewish religious leaders, and then three days later arise from the grave on Easter morning.
Traditionally the first Sunday of Lent’s gospel reading is the story of Jesus being tempted by Satan in the wilderness for forty days. You know, the story of Jesus in the wilderness is included in three of the four gospels. I find it interesting that there are so few hymns that make reference to this story. Frankly, the only one that readily comes to mind is the beginning of the second stanza of Fanny Crosby’s hymn “Tell Me the Story of Jesus: “Fasting alone in the desert, / Tell of the days that are past, / How for our sins he was tempted, / Yet was triumphant at last…”2 However, the tune normally associated with this text is a cheery, lighthearted melody that does little to interpret the words. Honestly, I highly doubt that Jesus’ encounter with Satan was either “cheery” or “lighthearted.” I know that when I am struggling with sin and temptation, those words certainly do not describe the experience…
Mark’s telling of the story is the briefest. Just two verses and five sentences. By contrast, both Matthew and Luke’s version of the story are significantly longer and include many more details. Matthew tells the story in eleven verses. Luke uses thirteen verses. But even in the short amount of space devoted to the story, Mark’s account of the story gives some unique insights and things to consider…
In verse twelve, we are told that, immediately after his baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist, the Spirit “drove” Jesus into the wilderness. Both Matthew and Luke say that Jesus was “led” by the Spirit. They both use forms of the same verb ag-ō, which has the connotation of “walking alongside of” or even “of one person guiding another by the hand.” Mark uses a very different word to describe the action of the Spirit. He uses the word ekballō. It is not a pretty word. It means to be forced out…to
1 The title of today’s sermon is a line from a rather obscure 2005 song by Bob Dylan, “Tell Ol’ Bill.” Bob wrote the song as part of the soundtrack for a largely forgotten movie titled North Country. Although neither the song nor movie have much to do with the Jesus story, I thought this evocative phrase was descriptive of the story of our Lord’s wilderness experience.
2 “Tell Me the Story of Jesus” (1880) by Fanny Crosby; tune STORY OF JESUS composed by John R. Sweney.
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be ejected…to be violently thrown. It is the same word that Mark uses eleven times in his gospel to describe the action of Jesus to “drive out demons,” which were often characterized as violent.3
Why does mark use this word to describe the way Jesus went into the wilderness? The text does not give us the reason, but I have a few hunches…
This is really our Lord’s first test. Up until this point in Mark, Jesus has been affirmed by John the Baptist and has even been affirmed by the voice that called out from heaven at his baptism, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” I think that it would be fair to say that things had so far gone well with Jesus as he prepared for his earthly ministry. But now here was something different. The time for preparation was over. It was time for him to spread his wings. Jesus was being forced into the desert for a time of testing. And note this: Jesus was being driven into the wilderness by the very same Spirit who had descended upon him at his baptism.
In Jesus’ day, the desert wilderness represented grave spiritual, as well as physical, danger. The wilderness is where demons were said to dwell. It was also the place that served as a hideout for thieves, and bandits, and murderers. There was danger at every turn…
I suspect that Jesus did not want to go to the desert wilderness any more than anyone else would have wanted to. It was a lonely place fraught with perils. But I think that God knew that it was necessary for Jesus to go to the wilderness. He needed that experience and he needed it here at the outset of his mission. When he emerges from the desert experience, Mark tells us that Jesus immediately began proclaiming the good news of God by announcing, “The time has come. The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.” (verse15)
Here I think is a key teaching of this passage: If Jesus was going to preach the good news of the kingdom with any integrity in the towns and cities of Galilee, it could only be after he had been to the front lines of spiritual conflict…and had emerged victorious.
This is true of almost any topic or field of endeavor. It is the one who has personally experienced something who is the one who is able to speak with the most authority about it…
Years ago in a previous church that I served, I taught a series of Wednesday evening sessions on the Jewish Holocaust of the Second World War and of what should be our response as 21st Century Christians. After one of the presentations, a deacon in the church came up to me to express his thoughts on the matter. He told me that he had an uncle who had fought in the European theater during World War Two. His army unit had been one of the first ones that liberated one of the worst and most infamous of the Nazi concentration camps. He went on to describe in horrifying detail what his uncle had witnessed. He talked about the stench of the partially burned corpses in the gas ovens. He spoke of seeing piles of dead bodies lying in a trench. He described the unspeakable depravity that went on in
3 For one striking example, see Jesus’ healing of a boy with an evil spirit in Mark 9:20-27.
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that place. He told about the emaciated prisoners that he saw who were little more than walking skeletons. And then he told this deacon in no uncertain terms, “Don’t let anyone ever tell you that the Holocaust didn’t happen. Don’t let anyone ever say that it is a myth or a fable. That is simply not true. I know what happened. I know how evil it was. I know because I was there…”
Jesus came to announce that a new world order was on the way. He came to announce that the kingdom of God was breaking into the world in new, dynamic, and unmistakable ways. He had come to announce that evil would no longer have free reign on this earth, as God was in the process of recreating a new heaven and a new earth. This is the core of Jesus’ message. But if he had not done battle with Satan in the desert—if he had not overcome the temptations that the Devil would hurl at him—then his words would have been hollow. They would not have had the ring of authority. Those who heard Jesus preach often remarked that he spoke with authority—not like the scribes and the teachers of the law.4 Because he had encountered and defeated the devil on his own turf, Jesus was competent to tell the story and preach the good news to all who would hear it…
It is worth noting that, while it was the Spirit that drove Jesus into the wilderness, it was not the Spirit who tempted him. James makes this clear when he writes, “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone.” But sometimes God uses the wilderness that we find ourselves in for our spiritual growth and benefit.
We all go through times when we feel like we are in the wilderness. Sometimes it is because of our own actions. We do something foolish and being in the wilderness is the natural consequence of our actions. Other times, we find ourselves hurled into the wilderness thought no actions of our own. All of a sudden we find that we are in a spiritually dry place…a place where God seems to be far away…a place where we feel like we are on our own. I think that it’s part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
When these times come in our lives, instead of trying to figure out what went wrong…or why we are finding ourselves in the wilderness…maybe the best approach is to consider the situation and to ask God what it is that He would want us to learn from the situation.
I have had some times in my life when I have had to walk through some dark valleys and in the wilderness for extended periods. And yet, as I look back on some of those events, I can see how they have helped me to be a better follower of Jesus and a better minister. Because of losing a parent when I was only 23 years old, I can be of help to those who are coping with a comparable loss. Because of a suddenly broken long-term romantic relationship that I suffered through many years ago, I find that I can now empathize better with those who have to go through the same kind of thing. Because I was essentially fired from a job that I dearly loved, I can now better help others who have had to experience a similar trauma in their lives. I can authentically be of service and help to those facing similar situations.
4 One example is a few verses later in Mark 1:22.
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In these kinds of situations, many Christians turn to Romans 8:28 for comfort and solace. You may recall that, in that verse, Paul wrote, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” The truth of that statement has proven itself to me over and over again in my life—even when what has happened is not particularly pleasant. Whether it was in the wilderness or whether it was due to my own foolish choices, God has been faithful to take the troubles that befall me and work them into something positive. And here is something else that I have discovered…I would call this a corollary—a secondary truth based on the first truth—the one expressed in Romans 8:28. That corollary is: God never wastes an experience that we have.
I have discovered that God has a knack for using past experiences in our lives to guide us and to guide others in the life of the Spirit. And God takes the raw stuff of our life—all of it, both the good and the bad—and works it for our good. It becomes apparent to us if we take the time to see it for what it is and contemplate how God uses all of the stuff of our lives to make us into more spiritually mature children of his.
So what about you this morning? Thin with me for a moment. Can you identify the times when the Spirit has led—or even driven—you into the wilderness? What was God teaching you during those times? How has his Spirit used those wilderness experiences in your life to grow and develop you more into the person that he created you to be?
Whether the Spirit leads or drives you into a wilderness experience, don’t rebel or feel bad. Open your spiritual eyes to see what God has in store for you…
And to God alone be the glory! Amen.