Sermon February 18, 2024

The First Reading: Psalm 25:1-8

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust;
do not let me be put to shame;
do not let my enemies exult over me.
Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;
let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.

Make me to know your ways, O Lord;
teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long.

Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love,
for they have been from of old.
Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!

Good and upright is the Lord;
therefore he instructs sinners in the way.

The Gospel: Mark 1:9-15

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

And the Spirit immediately drove him out 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.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’

The Sermon

Every very year, on the first Sunday in Lent, we hear about the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness. While the gospels of Matthew and Luke are specific what the temptations were, Mark didn’t bother with details: Jesus was baptized, then he was tempted by the devil in the wilderness, and then he moved on to Galilee where he proclaimed the good news.

What all accounts have in common, however, is that after the baptism, before he was driven into the wilderness, a voice from heaven declared loud and clear: Jesus is God’s son, much loved, and God is well pleased with him. That was a high point.

But straight from this high point, Jesus went to the low point of the wilderness. It was quite a contrast. He was baptized and then exposed to the realities of this world. It was between these extreme opposites that Jesus’ life took place. Yes, he was the son of God, he had exceptional powers to heal, to feed, to control storms, and more, but he also went through this time in the wilderness, he had to deal with all sorts of hostilities during his ministry, and eventually he suffered a gruesome death. Jesus’ life was no different from ours in that he went through the whole spectrum of possible experiences – good and bad – and he did it in faith.

Faith did not prevent suffering and hardship happening to Jesus, but faith helped him through these situations. When Jesus was in the wilderness, he responded to every temptation with scripture, he did not lose his way.

The wilderness experience of Jesus was not a unique event for the son of God. All children of God experience them, no one goes through life without loss and hardship. We may think that being faithful is some sort of protection against calamities. And so we wonder why bad things are happening to good people. But we know from our own life experiences that having faith does not mean that nothing bad will ever happen to us. Faith does not promise a sunny life without disruptions. But hopefully we are so rooted in faith that we know how to deal with them and find a way through.

I think this is what the wilderness experience of Jesus is modeling for us. Yet, the temptations of Jesus are a tricky issue because they are often interpreted as a test from God, as if God wanted to check whether Jesus could really hold up.

And this is how troubles like difficult family situations, an economic crisis, a serious disease, or a sudden death, are frequently interpreted – as a test from God. It is the idea that God puts us into very difficult situation to see whether we will rise up to the occasion, whether our faith will be strong enough – or not.

I always wonder about this interpretation because, first of all, a test is something that we can fail or pass. And the question is what happens when we fail; when, for example, we are not able to handle a difficult situation properly, when we are not able to beat a sickness or resolve a conflict with others.  Does that turn us into failures in the eyes of God, and if so, what does that mean anyway? I also wonder what kind of God this would be, who puts people to test by imposing terrible crises and conflicts on them. It is a very cruel image of God.

When Jesus was sent into the wilderness, he was tempted by the devil and not so much tested by God. The purpose was to break the relationship between Jesus and God, which would have had severe consequences for Jesus’ ministry in the years to follow. He would have lost any integrity, and it would have been difficult for him to claim that he did God’s work.

It is not by accident that these three things happen in this sequence: First Jesus’ baptism – then the temptation in the wilderness – and finally the beginning of his ministry.

The baptism of Jesus was the beginning of his ministry, the entry into the real world. And so it is for us. When we enter the household of God, we do so with a purpose, the belief that God has called us to some particular work. Baptism means to live life rooted in faith. It does not mean a life sheltered from its harsh realities. We will struggle from time to time with temptations that come our way and given that we are only human and not divine, we may make the wrong choices and fail. But when we do, we also know that God is not keeping score, counting our shortcomings that will be held against us at a later point. Rather God waits for us to turn to him and make choices that are rooted in faith. This is what Jesus modeled for us when he faced temptations. And, like Jesus, we are God’s much-loved children. God wants us to live and to strive, to do ministry in the world.

Christian life is an invitation to follow Jesus, who showed us how to maneuver through all of life’s experiences in faithfulness, guided by the Spirit and loved by God. Amen.

And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard our hearts and souls in Christ Jesus. Amen.