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The Rev. Dr. John H. Pavelko

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1st Sunday in Lent

Mark 1:9-15

It Ain't a Rose Garden

The Desert

The Judean desert is located between the mountains of Judea and the Dead Sea NW of the ruins of Jericho. It is a small desert by comparison to the Great Sahara and the The Arabian or the Gobi. The Judean desert is not the typical desert. It lacks the scorching, dry winds. The Judean desert has fascinating landscape with mountains, cliffs, canyons, plateaus and riverbeds but it is not a friendly or inviting place. The unwary can become lost among its maze of canyons or could become someone's dinner or suffer a life threatening bite from a scorpion or snake. Yet, after his baptism, this was the region into which the Spirit would drive Jesus.

The English translation is too comfortable. Tourists may be led into the Judean wilderness today. Carry their own food, sleeping and tent backpackers may voluntarily be led to experience the solitude of the desert. Jesus was not led. He was driven. He did not volunteer for the trip. He was not given a choice. The Spirit gave him an offer that he could not refuse.

Once in the desert, Jesus had to confront three threats that each of us face throughout our life. The threat of scarcity, the threat of loneliness and the threat of danger.

Desert threats

The river was located in the Algonquin Provincial Park. It was a windy and twisting river of S-type curves. The undergrowth of the forest came down right to the waters edge and easily entangled the errant canoe. The first leg of our five day journey should have only taken a little more than an hour, lasted over three hours. The youth were inexperienced in a canoe. They struggled to master the strokes required to avoid the undergrowth and maneuver through the curves. We arrived at our campsite tried, frustrated and edgy.

After setting up camp we enjoyed a swim in the lake and soaking up some rays of sun. By the time supper arrived I could tell that they had built up a huge appetite. My team had kitchen detail that first night. The menu called for rice so I went searching for the supplies. The box that I found said it served nine. Since there was 16 in our group I went searching for another box. After looking in every bag of supplies I finally asked our quartermaster if she knew where it was. She told me that she only bought one box because they always feed more than the label says.

At that moment I knew we were going to be very hungry that night. Ten teenagers and six adults finished that box of rice, meat and gravy like it was our appetizer. Our ration of desert did not help take away the feeling of hunger. The guys were so famished that when someone suggested that they try boiling the lake mussel, six guys instantly waded into the water. Maybe with butter, lemon and garlic those mussel would have made a feast but without those basic condiments, we might as well have sliced up our tennis shoes.

Those teenagers and adults learned what it felt like to do without on that trip and it was not fun. Without the proper knowledge and skill to live off the land we had to endure a week of scarcity. Mark does not tell us if Jesus had any food or fasted. Whatever he had, Jesus knew the threat of scarcity.

The second threat that Jesus faced in the desert was loneliness. Some intentionally travel into the desert to be alone. They enjoy the solitude. They enjoy hearing the unspoiled sounds of nature. Solitude can be a wonderful time of renewal but after a few days it is normal to begin to miss the company of another person. After a few weeks of being alone your mind can begin playing tricks on you.

We live in a society that is more connected than any society in the history of humanity yet survey after survey tells us that loneliness is a pervasive feeling among people of every age, every social status, every economic class. We are connected electronically; but disconnected relationally. I believe that the popularity of Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and other social networking sites relates to our sense of loneliness. We are filling our lives with artificial connections because we feel so isolated from meaningful friendships, yet Jesus could spend forty days in the desert alone, without his iphone, or computer and never worried fretted over the lack of wii-fi.

The final threat encountered by Jesus in the desert was the threat of physical danger. I had spent twelve days in the wilderness of northern MI. We canoed for two days and hiked for ten. We spent the final night alone along the shore of Lake Superior. A storm blew off the lake. I spent the night safely under a lean-to that I had made out of my poncho. I did not have much room but in my sleeping bag I was warm and dry. We were not allowed to build a fire in the state park.

The next morning the sun came out but a very strong cold wind was blowing off the lake. I found a spot among some small boulders about the size of your hand that was protected from the wind but in full sun. I laid down and wrote letters to my daughters and Carol. While I wrote I could hear the birds singing their morning song and the wind blowing. After awhile I sensed that something was wrong. The birds had stopped singing. I froze because I knew that something was behind me. Turning around I could see a cougar slipping down the bank towards me. Dressed in brown pants and a brown wind breaker I must have looked like a deer to him . I threw both arms in the air and held them as long as I could. He took off running. With my heart racing I grabbed two large boulders and chased after him. He ducked into the brush and I threw the boulders at the spot where I last saw him. The wilderness can be a dangerous place.

We do not think about the dangers of the desert at the time of Jesus. Mark tells us that he was there with the wild beasts. In the first century Desert leopards would have been quite numerous, along with fox scorpions and snakes. At night these nocturnal animals stalk their prey. Without shelter, without a weapon, without any form of protection, Jesus would have been very vulnerable.

The desert is not just found in remote regions or our national parks. We could be living in an apartment in a major metropolitan region and feel like we are living in a wilderness. The physical description of the geographical area is merely a symbol for the spiritual condition of the soul. There are times of our lives when God “leads” excuse me, drives us into the wilderness. We are not given a choice. He does not care whether we agree or not. He has a plan and a purpose. His methods stand in stark contrast to the common imagery of the sounds we sing. We prefer to walk with Jesus in a quiet garden while the dew is still on the roses. We would prefer to lean on the arms of Jesus during those difficult times. We want someone who will be our friend and will listen while we tell them all of our trials and temptations. Instead, we end up with a God who sends us out into a wilderness alone to deal with the scarcity of resources, loneliness, and physical danger.

The call to discipleship ain't no walk in a rose garden, is it?

But God does not send us out unprepared or ill-equipped. God provides for us in much the same way that he provided for his Son. It is not a coincidence that the baptism of Jesus immediately proceeds his temptation. God prepares his Son for the wilderness by bringing him through the waters of Baptism

The Baptismal Preparation

Before we can endure the scarcity, loneliness and danger of the wilderness we must know three three things about ourselves. We must be absolutely convinced that we are loved, that someone else thinks that we are of value and that we are competent. In his baptism God conveyed to Jesus all three the moment Jesus stepped out of the water. Mark records that Jesus heard a voice that said “You are my Son whom I love, with whom I am well pleased.”

With whom I am well pleased. How could the Father make it any clearer to the Son that he valued his worth? From the moment he began his ministry Jesus knew that he was valued by his heavenly father. Those are some of the most important words that a parent can say to their child, “You please me.” Children should always know that they are the delight and joy of their parents.

The second affirmation that God gave to his Son was his words of love. God offered these words before Jesus had done anything except walk into the river to be baptized. He had not healed anyone. He had not done any significant teaching. He did not have much choice about going to synagogue so we cannot count his religious life. God offered his love to his son unconditionally.

Having told his son that he valued him and also told him of his love, God reminded Jesus throughout his ministry of his competence through every act of healing, through every deliverance, in every miracle. Over and over again the Father affirmed the work of his son.

Neil Perry was a bright young man attending the all boys school of Welton Academy. Without his father's knowledge or permission, Neil tried out for a part in the local production of a Shakespearian play. Neil desperately wanted to be an actor but his father has already decided that Neil would make a fine doctor.

Before the play was to open Neil walked into his dorm room to find his father waiting for him. The father ordered Neil to withdraw from the play but Neil refused. Infuriated, Neil's father threatens to withdraw Neil from Welton and enroll him in a military academy. Without his father's approval Neil was crushed.

Many of us have been crushed either by the lack of our parents approval or by the constant bombardment of negative comments from our supervisor or other authority figures. Such negative feed back can have a devastating impact upon a person. It can emotionally cripple a person. That is why God sends us angels to stand with us when the wild beasts are all around us. Unfortunately we do not always want to accept the angels that God sends. We would prefer that they come dressed in different clothes or carry a more prestigious professional title or be better looking or have more financial resources.

God sends the angels we need, not the so-called angels we want.

Alone in the desert, Jesus had to confront three threats that each of us face throughout our life. The threat of scarcity, the threat of loneliness and the threat of danger. He was only able to do so by remembering his baptismal promises that he was God's son, He was loved by his father and that he was valuable to his Father. We cannot overcome our own fears without remembering the same.

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