January 6, 2012

Life of Jesus: The Desert as a Place of Testing Mark 1:9-15

This week I heard the most depressing commercial for the New Year I have ever heard. It said something along the lines of...This year we have faced many difficulties. An earthquake caused a massive tsunami that destroyed a large part of Japan. Large storms and hurricanes destroyed part of the U.S. Joplin, Missouri was all but destroyed by a massive tornado. An earthquake shook the Eastern Seaboard causing less damage to Washington D.C. than our elected officials. Okay, that last part wasn’t in there. But after all that depressing stuff it then said in a happy and chipper voice, “Here’s hoping you have a great 2012...Happy New Year!!”

My first sarcastic thought was, What a peppy New Year’s Commercial!

No! If I were those people, I wouldn’t want to think about what the next year could bring. Look what if brought last year. Of course I’m sure there is some optimist out there, probably a former cheerleader, who is saying, “Next Year is going to be great! Great! Great!” But most people are not like that.

Then I started thinking...you know, life hasn’t been good for many people this past year. I think the commercial was a bit odd, but people have really struggled this past year. Besides the havoc caused by natural disasters, unemployment, family struggles, financial difficulties, and much more...have caused people to suffer some very tough times this past year. They have caused some of US to suffer this past year.

When tough times hit, people’s thoughts often turn to God. Some cry out for help. Others seek to lay the blame or accuse Him. Many simply see a reason to reject that God cares at all...besides if He really cared wouldn’t He do something about this mess we are all in?

We call them the “tough times” because they are tough, and how we respond in the midst of these times is very important for whether they continue to make our lives tough for many days to come or whether they are a springboard into great depths of discipleship and growth.

This morning we are going to look at a very important passage that reveals something about how we are to respond to the tough times in our lives...not just to get through them...not just to survive, although in the midst of those times we are often just hoping we will survive...but so that we CAN grow because of them.

Let’s look at today’s passage.

Mark 1:9-15
At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

Here we see Jesus at what is the beginning of his earthly ministry. Mark doesn’t waste time telling us about stables and angels and shepherds and mysterious magi...He jumps right into the meat of the story!

John the Baptist comes out of the desert preaching that the Kingdom of God is near...that people should repent...and that one greater than he will appear to baptize people in the power of the Holy Spirit, and immediately Jesus appears. John is fulfilling the Old Testament prophecy of Malachi and Isaiah by calling for people to prepare for the coming Messiah...and then Jesus shows up. Jesus is the one greater than John who will appear, Mark doesn’t want us to miss this connection.  

So Jesus shows up to be baptized by John, and when He comes out of the water...something amazing happens. Jesus experiences this profound revelation, and Mark chooses his words very carefully throughout this section. When he says the heavens are torn open, he uses the same phrasing as that used in Isaiah 64:1 where Isaiah is crying out for God to do something about the sin of this world, and he says, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down...” Please do something about this mess we are in! So when Mark uses this phrase here he is indicating that in Jesus, God has come down to do something about our sin.

Mark then says the Spirit descended like a dove...reflecting Genesis 1:2 where the Spirit flutters across the face of the deep to bring a new creation from the darkness and turmoil of the deep. It also reminds us of Mark’s own words just a few sentences prior where John the Baptist says one will come after me baptizing people with the Holy Spirit...and voila...here is the Holy Spirit!

Then in this amazing revelation of who Jesus is, God himself makes the declaration, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” This sentence borrows wording from three very important Messianic passages in the Bible. Psalm 2:7 reflecting the connection with King David, Genesis 22:2 reflecting the connection with Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac, and Isaiah 42:1 reflecting God’s suffering servant...bringing together three of the large-scale theological concepts about the promised Messiah.

It is easy, for me at least, to be blown away by Mark’s amazing ability to bring brilliant writing and insightful theological reflection together in this section. Beyond that, however, we have to recognize what a great spiritual high point this must have been on the human level. Jesus isn’t just being baptized, He is being commissioned and called to a ministry unlike any other in human history by God himself.

This isn’t unique to Jesus alone, though. Many of us have had times with God where His presence was so real it was almost physical, and these times are amazing. There have been times when I have heard an almost audible voice speaking to me. I attended Dayton Christian. I didn’t want to be there, and didn’t really want anything to do with God. But during one of my scheduled napping sessions which the teacher preferred to call chapel, I looked up at the person preaching, and heard a very definite voice say, “You can do that!” I knew I had just heard from God. I can’t explain how I knew, but I did. The voice was almost audible.

There have been other times, as well, where the presence of God is so real and close...and these time create this sense of joy and happiness and elation. They are wonderful.

But anyone who has experienced those times also knows what follows...we attach topography to our theology and say we have had a mountain top experience and then we face the “valley.”

It has become almost a christianese cliche to say we are experiencing a “valley,” but even those outside the church know what we are talking about. When we talk about a valley...we are talking about a low time...those dark days...those tough times which we all go through.

For those living in Israel it wasn’t the valley they used as the dominant metaphor for their tough times...it was the desert...the Negev. Along the entire Eastern and southern side of Israel is a massive swath of barren, dry desert. Just dirt, rock, and sand. The desert is a lonely place of death and dryness that devours people; place where wild things attacked and destroyed without fear because it was their territory. No one traveled through the desert because the land was a wasteland without water.

So Jesus is baptized and experiences this amazing revelation of God’s blessing and calling, and then enters a desert experience.

John Wesley said,
"So in all the children of God, extraordinary manifestations of his favour are [often] followed by extraordinary temptations." 
And so it is for us. Often after experiencing a special time with God...a heightened spiritual experience...an unusually happy season in our lives...we enter a valley or desert experience.

Some of you may have experienced a desert season yourself in the past...you might be in one now...or one might lay ahead for you...there is no getting around the fact that we will experience the desert some time in our lives.

If you are like me, you have read this passage and its corresponding passages in Matthew and Luke. The temptation is to fill in, in our minds, what is missing here in Mark with what we know from Matthew and Luke. We remember the fasting and the three temptations Jesus faces, the bread and the throwing yourself down from the temple and the bowing and worshiping Satan, and we read over this passage in Mark and miss a couple of important things being said.

Mark strips his version of the story down. There is no mention of fasting, and there is no mention of the content of Jesus’ temptations. Instead we have this odd statement in Mark 1:12, “At once the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness...” It is easy to miss this part...it is the Spirit...the same spirit that descended upon him like a dove that drove Him into the dryness of the desert.

It is tempting to think that our desert experience is brought on by our own sinfulness. We have done something wrong, and God is punishing us. And there are times when we do have to face the consequences of our actions and choices...but not all desert experiences are brought on by our sinfulness. Here is Jesus being driven into His desert experience not because of something sinful or wrong, but because the Holy Spirit is driving him to it. Sometimes, like Jesus’ experience in this passage, our desert season is brought on by God himself.

Jesus is driven into the desert to be tempted. The word we translate as “tempt” carries more than just trying to entice someone to do something wrong. It also describes a testing of a person’s character. It is way to see if the person’s character and resolve are true; to see if they can withstand the pressures that will come their way.

It is like butt-test machine at IKEA. Have you seen this? It is a machine that replicates someone sitting down, standing up, sitting down, standing up over and over again on one of their chair cushions to demonstrate that it will withstand any size of deriere...I mean any amount of sitting down you can dish out. That is “temptating” or “testing” the product to see if it will live up to its claim

Jesus has been given this amazing revelation, and now it is time to see if He will be able to withstand the challenge ahead. Often we make claims...and decisions...that are really easy to live with when things are going well, but it is only in the tough times that our character and commitment to those beliefs and decisions are validated.

Take marriage for example...it is easy to say “I love you” when everything is moving on the richer and healthier side of the marriage vows isn’t it? But real love is demonstrated when things get tough, and we gut it out and find a way to make things work.

Take a decision to go to college...it is easy to stay engaged when we like all our classes and get good grades. But real commitment to the degree happens when the classes get tough, we don’t like the professor, or get a bad grade in a class we need.

Maybe it is a chosen career path. It is easy to pursue it when everything is working and we are successful...but real commitment to the field is demonstrated when things get tough, we are on the verge of bankruptcy, no one is buying our product, or we are told that our way of doing things won’t work in the field...and we keep pressing forward.

Our commitment to God acts very much the same way...it is easy to love and follow God when we are employed, healthy, and loved by others. But real commitment is tested when we are unemployed, sick, and persecuted by others yet follow God anyways.

The Spirit that descended on Jesus at His baptism is the same Spirit that drove Him into the dryness of the desert to test His character, it is the same Spirit that often drives us into the desert to test our commitment and character.

I find it comforting to think that I am not alone in my times of testing. Jesus has been there and done that, as they say. He has been to the dessert..He understands our pain...He experiences it with us. I also find it comforting that out of that desert time and pain..something amazing can happen...if I let it.

Out of our testing we are given meaning, and purpose, and ministry!

It is easy to look back at our past and see all the desert times...the ways we have been hurt, abandoned, dry, depressed, and alone...and want to forget or ignore they ever happened. Sometimes we let them build a wall around us that we think protects us from the pain, but really just numbs us to life.

One of the most healing moments in my life happened when I began to see those desert times as times that have shaped my character and made me the man I am today. Like me or not, I am who I am because of the things that have happened in my past both good and bad!

You are who you are today because of the good and the bad experiences of your past.

And out of those experiences God wants to use you to make a difference for His Kingdom.

You can choose to let those hurts and hard times close you off, shut you down, harden your heart, or build a wall around you so that no one can get through...or you can see them as an opportunity to help others, heal hurts, change the world, and expand the Kingdom of God.

Our passage tells us that after His desert experience “Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” Out of His time in the desert, Jesus emerged as the man who would and could fulfill all the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah, and open the path to our salvation.

In 2000, Lori and I moved to Pleasant Hill, Missouri, just outside of Kansas City, to plant a church. I had all these grand expectations and plans...that just fizzled. We has seen God move in some pretty cool ways to get us into the community and make provision for the new church, but shortly after that everything went south. I thought my early life was tough, these were the toughest years of my life. The only way I can describe them is that they were like a heavy, dark blanket that I couldn’t find my way out from under. Nothing went as planned. The church never grew above 35. We had 5 major car breakdowns, Lori had a cyst that turned her femur into a hollowed out canoe that snapped one day in the park...which led to a $20,000+ surgery and a year+ worth of rehab...we were on the edge of financial collapse as a family...and I spiraled downward emotionally. They were dark days.

I did everything I could do to “get myself out of it.” I tried to think positive thoughts, tried praying, tried everything...and nothing happened. In fact, it felt like things got worse. I even tried threatening God. “You have to do something,” I prayed, “Or else I’m done! Done with ministry! Done with You!” And yet, I couldn’t bring myself to do that...so I backed down. I felt alone...and hopeless.

I wish I had understood this passage better back then. I don’t know if it would have helped, but maybe it would have...to see that time as a time of testing my character and resolve to follow no matter how difficult things get. To trust God even in the midst of the dryness and wildness of that desert time. And really it is out of that time that I felt crazy enough...I mean strong enough to accept God’s call to plant another church.

I don’t know what dry times you have or are or will experience, but I do know this...they are not without a purpose unless we allow them to be. As we start this New Year, I want to challenge us to redeem the past hurts and desert times and prepare for the future ones by resolving to view them as times of testing for something greater God has in mind.

 If we experience the dark and dry days and come out bitter and angry and void of faith or refuse to find our ministry out of them...then we have failed the ultimate test and purpose of those times.

But if they are filled with meaning and purpose...they are redeemed, if I can use a theological term...if we allow them to test our character and prepare us then God can use them to expand His Kingdom through us.

What a great challenge for us as start this morning at the very edge of a new year.

How might God want to use your desert experience to expand His Kingdom in the new year? What ministry might He be leading you to because of the testing you experience?

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