The holy gospel according to Mark.
Glory to you, O Lord.
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And 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.11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
The Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to you, O Christ.
My father and stepmother recently moved to a tiny village on the shores of Lake Superior. My father is a nature photographer by trade, so it makes sense that he’d eventually move to the place that speaks to his vocational life- a place where waterfalls, and rocks, and trees, and animals are a lot closer than they are to you or me. To get to this tiny village, you have to make sure you have enough gas in the car, because besides their little town, the closest gas station is pretty far away. They make plans for and worry about things that I can’t even begin to list- like, bears. Actual bears in the backyard. Or, how much wood to have to get through the winter, or when they should drive into the larger city to stock up on food if they know a storm is coming. If someone has an emergency, they call the ambulance, which is two hours away, and get into the car speeding toward the hospital in order to meet the ambulance half way.
It is an interesting place to live, not just because it is so different than the life that I live here in one of the largest cities in the country, but also because they have a different kind of community up there. People don’t just land in this village, they make a choice to live there. Some of them are eccentric to say the least, but many of them seek out the wilderness because they love the quiet, and the cold, and the way that the earth and the water determine their lives.
The wilderness, whether it calls to you and beckons you to make it your home, or whether it is sort of like an alien land you might feel ready to visit every once and awhile, is the kind of place, that no matter who you are, you have to prepare for. Whether it is food or water, knowing what a person does about bears or other wildlife, the wilderness requires a kind of planning that is often taken for granted in cities.
And wilderness makes its presence known throughout scripture. Even today, after Jesus is baptized, called God’s son, the one in whom God is well pleased, suddenly, the Spirit is driving Jesus out and into the wilderness. The wilderness in many of our biblical texts is a place of desolation, a place of chaos. It is often desolate and deserted, a place where people face thirst, hunger, deprivation, where you wouldn’t know if you were going to survive. The wilderness often suggests a place where life doesn’t flourish, it is where temptation happens; it is not a place someone wanders into, it is a place they are driven into in order to face the most basic trails of being human.
Even now, the kind of people that choose the wilderness might seem a little tougher than the rest of us- the kind of people that should be on a show like survivor, tough even when far from the most basic needs of human life.
But we don’t just have wilderness popping up in our readings for today, we also hear about suffering from the letter of Paul to the Romans. Paul holds to realities next to each other- on the one hand, our knowledge that we are held and treasured and inheritors of a kingdom of great glory- that there is a not yet that marks our life together, God’s great vision for our world will be realized, and it is beyond our imagining. And, at the very same time, we live in this world, the one around us right now, where we know suffering, and struggle, and we wait for redemption. We hope for what we cannot see, sometimes through eyes that have been clouded with the tears of our own suffering.
You heard this text earlier this year, and the metaphor of a woman groaning with labor pains, of all of creation groaning with labor pains. And, I am sure you can imagine, as I stand before you preaching 7 and a half months pregnant, that little line in Paul’s letter certainly jumped out at me. The creation around us groans with labor pains, as it waits for the world that reflects God’s vision, even in the midst of a world that doesn’t reflect that vision right now.
When you are 7 and a half months pregnant, and aware that at some point in the near future labor is around the corner, I will admit, you think about pain a lot. And for most of us, we understand pain. Pain is a sign that starts in our bodies, maybe because we have touched something that is too hot, or we have pulled a muscle, or we have broken something. Most of us instantly recoil when we think of a physically painful experience in our lives. We don’t welcome pain, pain is a sign to us that it is time to stop, even if we might ignore it. When we burn our hand on the stove, the pain of that burn is what signals our brain to pull our hand away, to stop what it hurting us from hurting us anymore.
And a lot of pain is like that. Some of us might have higher tolerances for pain than others, but most of us have a breaking point. A level when we know that all our energy, all our focus needs to turn to making that pain stop.
But, not all pain is like that. When Paul calls on this metaphor of a woman groaning in labor, feeling the pain and suffering of bringing new life into the world, that pain, it isn’t a signal to stop. In fact, as any person who has birthed a child can tell you, you can’t actually just decide to stop. When a baby decides to make its way into the world, you have to keep going. No matter if the process takes a few hours or a few days, you have to keep going, because that baby has to make its way out of the warmth of the womb and into the world.
So, it is helpful when taking hold of this metaphor to think a little bigger than just the pain of a broken bone, because sometimes we encounter pain in our bodies that isn’t meant to signal us to stop, but that is better thought of as transformational pain. Transformational pain is what a woman feels as she brings a baby into the world, transformational pain is that feeling that comes when you push your physical body further in order to see what it can do- when you run a little farther or a little harder. Transformational pain is that pain that tells us that something is changing, and the work is hard, but that it is only hard because we are working for something greater on the other side. The thing with transformational pain is that sometimes we need the people around us to remind us that what we are experiencing isn’t the kind of pain of a broken bone, but rather the kind of pain that is stretching us, growing us, moving us toward something we cannot even imagine.
So when I hear that immediately after Jesus is baptized- in the book of Mark, only two short sentences later, Jesus is driven, literally driven out into the wilderness by the Spirit, I can’t help but wonder if maybe what was happening to him was something like this transformational pain that Paul alludes to in the letter to the Romans. Baptized by John, beginning the ministry to which he was called, Jesus is dipped in the water, the heavens are torn open, some kind of Spirit like dove comes falling down through the sky, and the voice of God booms out over the waters- “You are my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” Jesus, for the very first time in the Gospel of Mark is named as God’s son, called into this narrative that will take us from the first chapter all the way through the crucifixion.
But immediately after receiving this anointing, the Spirit doesn’t invite, it doesn’t gently nudge, it drives Jesus out into the wilderness- into that place of loneliness and chaos, the place that anyone who heard this gospel would know was not meant for human habitation. He is driven out to live among the wild beasts, to be tempted by Satan, to face the hard work of being alone in a place far from anyone who would listen or help. But, the verse you don’t get to hear, that comes just after our reading for today, is that once those forty days are over, the very first thing we hear is that Jesus is back in Galilee proclaiming the Good News, telling anyone and everyone who would listen that the kingdom of God, that they had been hoping for and yearning for, it had come near. It was so near to them, that they could reach out and touch it, the Good News was alive.
Now, I want to stop here for one moment, because I don’t know all that you are carrying with you this morning. But I am guessing that some of you hear these passages about suffering, and about pain, and about temptation and loneliness, and they aren’t just abstract ideas for you, but they are intimately close to your experience. You might be bringing with you a deep and painful loss, fear about your job, or paying the bills this month, or what the future holds. You might wonder about your place in this world, feel unmoored and without a clear direction. When someone says pain you might think of a relationship that hurts, that has been lost, or continues to fracture, despite your desires for anything else. Some of you might be carrying into this space the loss of your beloved previous pastor Erik, who did ministry alongside you, and helped you to be brave and true to the gospel, and now it feels sad and hard to keep on keeping on when someone you loved is not here doing ministry alongside you anymore. I don’t know what kind of suffering you bring into this place, but because we are human, I know that many of you are carrying something right now. And the pain is real. And I want you to hear clearly that God did not give you that pain so that you would learn some kind of cosmic lesson. God does not push suffering on us, or create the deepest and darkest moments in our lives because we need to be taught through suffering. The God I know doesn’t try to hurt us, God doesn’t work that way.
But what I do know, is that just as creation groans in hope of the kingdom of God being revealed in this world, God is with you in your pain, and with you in your suffering, and somehow, in a way that we often cannot see, will walk alongside you as that pain and that suffering transforms you. Not because God wants to teach you a lesson, or because we should be grateful for the pain and not call it what it is, which is kind of sucky a lot of the time, but because God promises that God will never, ever, ever let us go. Will never abandon us, no matter how hard life gets, no matter how tough it seems to hope for a different future.
And that’s what we see in this story of Jesus’ baptism, and that’s what we hear in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Not some idea that suffering shouldn’t hurt, or that we can’t lose hope in the midst of it, but the truth that God holds us as we suffer, that God holds us as we are in pain, that God holds us when we are scared and alone in the wilderness, that God holds us in the chaos and the uncertainty, because God is the great transformer, the one who sits in the rubble and the muck and the mire and sticks it out with us. These texts don’t erase how unfair and difficult pain can be, but they do remind us that with God, even what hurts can become what transforms us. Amen, and thanks be to God.