Text: Mark 1:9-15
Most of the decisions we make are premeditated, logical, and meant to make life simpler. I have made several such decisions already this morning: Which tie should I wear so that my wife and daughter are not embarrassed to be seen with me? Out of the nine different possibilities, what is the easiest and fastest route to get from the parking lot to my office in the church? How many times should I look through this sermon before preaching it? I hope the answer doesn’t end up being at least one more time.
Some decisions, though, come from a very different place. They are born from compulsion, a sense that we must do something even if it makes life more challenging. I was reminded of this kind of decision recently when a dear friend called me. The last time I had been with her had been difficult and we had parted in an irritable way. When she called there was urgency in her voice and she said, “I was running this morning and it hit me that I had to call you and say that I love you.” Because she did not ignore the urge to make that call she instantly healed the pain between us.
Jesus understood what it felt like to be compelled to do something challenging. On this first Sunday of Lent we have heard the traditional text describing Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness following his baptism. Lent is modeled after this story, a time when all Christians are invited to enter into 40 days of serious spiritual searching.
But if we are not careful we will blow right by this story because we think we know all about it. After all, we know about the three temptations Jesus faces in the wilderness from Satan, and we know how he passes those tests with flying colors, so how much more is there to know? Except what I have just described for you is found nowhere in our Gospel reading this morning. The extended story of Jesus’ time in the wilderness comes from Matthew and Luke. Mark’s Gospel says just this:
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.
That’s it. Mark is the Jerry Bruckheimer of Gospel writers – lots of action but not big on dialogue. But the few words we get here about Jesus going into the wilderness hold important truths we ignore at our own peril.
The first thing to note is that immediately after he is baptized the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. That verb “drive” is forceful in itself, but it can literally mean “throw out.” So if you wish, you could read this sentence as saying the Spirit threw Jesus out into the wilderness. However you want to interpret it, one thing is clear:This is not a man making a premeditated, logical decision meant to make his life easier. He is compelled, driven if you will, and that force pushing him into his wilderness experience is the Spirit of God.
We should not kid ourselves about this side of the Spirit. She is not just the divine, comforting presence; she is not just the One who woos us subtly forward; sometimes the Spirit of God can be a force driving us, compelling us, almost throwing us into situations where we must face the truth about ourselves, or a relationship, or our place in the world. We don’t have to listen to her. We don’t have to call a friend and say “I love you” when we feel constrained to repair a wounded relationship. We don’t have to stay in the wilderness for 40 days once we have been chucked out there. But if we ignore that tug from the Spirit, then we miss out on the truths that can heal us and change us and set us free.
I don’t think it is any accident that the place Jesus feels compelled to seek out is the solitude of the natural world. We tend to think that his forty days in the wilderness was all about the temptations he faced, but Mark’s Gospel seems barely interested in that aspect of the story. Instead, we get this wonderfully vague phrase: “he was with the wild beasts.” It doesn’t say he struggled with the wild beasts, or ran from them, or overcame them. He was just with them. It is a picture of harmony with the natural world. And if the Spirit drove Jesus out into the solitude of nature we ought to at least wonder why.
In my mind the answer is pretty simple. There are things I figure out about myself when I walk alone in the woods that I struggle to figure out sitting in traffic. There are healing thoughts that enter my mind when I watch a flock of geese honk overhead that I don’t have watching television. One of the tragic losses of modern, urban society is how divorced we have become from the natural world. And while the Spirit urges us to seek communion with the created order, we have become experts at ignoring that urge. Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods describes the price our young people are paying because they have so little direct contact with nature. The phrase he uses to discuss this syndrome is Nature-Deficit Disorder and he presents evidence that shows the healing effects of getting young people out into the natural world.
The problem is we are scared of the simple things that will help us find the truths we so desperately need. We are afraid of too much silence and solitude. We are uncomfortable being in places where we can’t get a cell phone signal. We certainly don’t like the thought of being around wild beasts. But if we will take the risk we might be shocked at how much our souls can hear when we get quiet, and how many answers we can find just by walking beside a babbling brook. The Spirit wants to throw us out into such settings not just so we can see something pretty, but so we can know something real.
And when we stop ignoring the Spirit’s pushy ways, and start cultivating a willingness to act on them, we might be amazed at what can happen. David Beckmann, President of Bread for the World, spoke at a hunger conference in Raleigh this weekend at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church. Beckmann, perhaps the foremost authority on hunger issues in our country, told a simple story to illustrate what can happen when someone doesn’t ignore the urging that comes from the Spirit.
The story was about a Presbyterian lay woman named Pat from Birmingham. It seems that one day in the late 1990s in her prayer time Pat started feeling compelled to do something about hunger in Africa. When she mentioned it to her husband he seemed a bit incredulous about the notion that she could make much of a difference in an issue that seems intractable. But Pat decided not to ignore this strong feeling, so she went to see her pastor about it. He suggested that Pat contact Bread for the World and see how she might help their church get plugged in to that faith-based advocacy organization.
Pat did that at her church, but she didn’t stop there. She attended a Bread for the World conference where she heard about the emerging idea of wealthier nations using the year 2000 as a Jubilee Year when they would forgive billions of dollars of debt crippling poorer nations. So, Pat did what she was encouraged to do at the conference and contacted her congressman, Spencer Bachus. Bachus is a conservative Republican who admitted to Pat that he knew nothing about why debt relief was so critical to improving the quality of life in the developing world. But as it happens, Bachus was the chair of a banking subcommittee that would have primary responsibility for taking up any legislation recommending debt relief. And after much encouragement and education from Pat, Bachus became the primary sponsor of the Jubilee Act that passed in 1999. In the decade since then, this Republican congressman from Alabama has become the primary advocate for debt forgiveness as a means of helping hungry and poor people around the world. To date, these efforts have resulted in 87 billion dollars of debt being forgiven by the industrialized world which means nations in Africa and Latin America can buy food and build schools instead of using those same dollars to pay interest on debts they could never hope to pay off. And how did all of this happen? Well, the first step was that a woman named Pat in Birmingham didn’t ignore the compulsion she felt to do something about hunger in Africa.
In these Lenten days we are asking the question “Where is your treasure?” as a way of focusing our attention on the life of the Spirit. Jesus taught us not to store up treasures on earth that do not last, but to store up treasures in heaven that are eternal. But how do we figure out what our treasures are? It isn’t as difficult as it sounds if we are willing to let the Spirit throw us into places where we can learn the truth about ourselves and our relationships and our world. And once we start listening to that pushy Spirit, and hanging out with wild beasts, who knows what wonders might occur?