1st Sunday in Lent
- Lent 1.21 “A plain, old… sermon on Jesus in the wilderness” Mark 1.9-15
I had a parishioner, after my last sermon, complain: “I just want a plain, old [expletive deleted] sermon on Jesus and whatever is going on in the Gospel for the day. Like old fashioned Sunday School. Just explain to me what’s going on without all your literary, philosophical, musical, current events, and film BS that I don’t appreciate or understand.” When I inquired what was wrong with those fun little extras, exactly (which you won’t get anywhere else!), the problem, as best as I could understand (the conversation was a bit testy) was twofold: 1) it seemed like I was just showing off my fancy education and 2) it made the parishioner feel like unless one can see how all these obscure, apparently unrelated things, stories, music, art, life, actually do come together beautifully, almost magically, in Jesus, that one has not really grasped the Gospel all that well. (Also my taste in music and literature was deemed questionable, especially for the youths).
That impression is not entirely incorrect. I do want to get under your skin with the Word. If IT makes you uncomfortable, challenges, even annoys, well… This is the Way! I stumbled (undeservingly!) into an amazing education by wonderful teachers—a little gospel light that deserves, I think, to shine. And I do believe the Gospel links up to, well… everything. But as Auerbach said: “The world of the Scripture stories is not satisfied with claiming to be an historically true reality—it insists that it is the only real world, is destined for autocracy… Scripture stories do not, like Homer’s, court our favor, they do not flatter us that they may please and enchant us—they seek to subject us, and if we refuse to be subjected we are rebels.”
I take a different tack on preaching. My goal is not dissolving the mystery of Christ, but deepening IT—not making it clear, but making it truly strange…
When Jesus taught the crowds (and his own disciples) he often used elliptical little stories that did not make people go “Wow! That’s so clear! Now I understand everything!”. No. The effect of Jesus’ teaching was usually to baffle, befuddle, annoy. It made people go not “Wow!” but “Huh? What?”. When Jesus asks the disciples if they understand everything they go: “Yes.” I think they’re bluffing.
I think of sermons as movie trailers that invite a deeper dive into the Word. But even when we do that, in bible study, the goal is not to have IT explained so you can understand. No! The goal is repentance, dust, ashes; the end is worship—wonder, love, and praise of Christ.
So on this the 1st Sunday in Lent, in pursuit of this noble goal, I give you: “a plain, old, [expletive deleted] sermon on Jesus in the wilderness…”
After his baptism by John in the Jordan, the Spirit drives Jesus out into the desert. Why? Scriptures suggest 2 reasons:
In Leviticus, on the day of atonement, they would take 2 goats, transfer the sins of Israel onto the goats, kill one, and send the other “into the wilderness to Azazel”. Jesus is both goats: by dying on the cross he takes away sin as the first; by taking our sin into the desert he confronts Azazel as the second. Both make desert journeys.
Now about that desert/wilderness. The Greek word ερημον we usually translate as “desert” or “wilderness” and those translations are OK. But, the Greek word ερημον contains more than the English words suggest. Literally it’s an uninhabitable place—because an apocalypse has desolated it, made it a killing field. Because Azazel is out there. That live goat won’t live long!
But Jesus endures the temptation, the hardships, the suffering of the ερημον. Without food, water, help, by the Word he is alone, he not only lives but thrives. It is Azazel who comes off worsted in that encounter. For the early Christians, especially the desert fathers, this was huge. What kills us—Azazel, the desert, wilderness, just makes Jesus stronger. And they wondered: could we follow him even there to the ερημον? Could the desert bloom like a rose?
Jesus comes to put a stop to this dying of ours, to reverse the process, to give us life and to give it abundantly, eternally, joyfully. In his baptism, Jesus took on his sinless, divine and human self the sin of the world. As the scapegoat, he dumped that shin in the wilderness where it can only hurt Azazel. So, yes, Jesus makes the desert bloom like Eden.
And the desert fathers realized that if you are baptized into Christ, you have died with him, already, and now can live anywhere, by the Word alone, even in the ερημον with Azazel. Well… sort of! There is a transformation that must occur in the ερημον. We see the desert definitely hastened the dying of the fathers who went there, while, at the same time, greatly increasing the life they had by faith in and with Jesus. It’s a paradox. You can’t understand the desert fathers. But you can read them happily; and, better still, you can follow them into the deserts of our modern world…
My all-time favorite novel is Paul Bowles’ 1949 masterpiece The Sheltering Sky. It tells an outwardly bleak, apparently Christ-less story of three Americans disgusted by what the modern technocracy has done to the world by WWII. So they flee into the North African desert. It destroys all three of them, in different ways. But one of the 3, Tunner, gains a better, truer life from the desert’s destructive power…
Jesus went into the desert made desolate by our sin, where Azazel dwells menacingly. Israel went there before him, with Moses; spent 40 years in the ερημον during the Exodus. And it killed all the adults—except Joshua and Caleb(!). It is only dying with Jesus that we live. Whoever tries to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses her life, for Christ’s sake, ever surely finds IT. That’s Joshua, Caleb, and the kids’ secret.
Jesus lives where all Israel died, long ago. He lives by the Word he alone is. He is King of the wild places, first and foremost. First thing he does is show his power in the most deadly zone. Because if Jesus lives and conquers Azazel in the ancient ερημον, he can live and conquer even more easily the desolate place that is your life in this modern world, now.
Lent is about this, I think, above all: journeys, deserts, dust, ashes. It’s about seeing how things really are with us. How we are all dying, slowly, painfully, in the desolation our sin has wrought; in what was once an Eden, paradise. No environmental program will clean up our deserts, or restore that Eden either. Only the body and blood of Jesus can do this.
You go into the desert every day, perhaps without realizing it? But if you go, faithfully, to die with Jesus, you will find the desert blossoms like a rose.
Because by dying on the cross on Golgotha, Jesus’ blood has become the life-giving remedy against sin, death, and all devils. Jesus will speed your physical dying—make no mistake! He’s the death of you before he is life to you!
There is no more deserted place in all the world than Golgotha. I visited it a couple years ago and it’s still spooky! But on that good Friday afternoon, desolated on the cross, in that cry: “My, God, my God why have you forsaken me? [Why left me to die alone in this desert!!!]”, in that broken body, that bloody mess, there is… life.
This is where we’re going on our Lenten journey that starts… now. It’s a narrow, dark, and difficult Way. But it ends well. And here, now, by Word and Sacrament, you get a little taste of the feast to come. In the Holy Name of Jesus. Amen.