Finding Hope in the Wilderness

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First Sunday in Lent
February 22, 2015
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15
Peder Stenslie

My daughter Solvei is studying for a semester at Tromsø University in Norway.  The town is located way up north… above the Arctic Circle.  That means, in the middle of winter, it is dark in the morning, and dark at night… and pretty much dark in between.

There is a sense in which the ministry of Jesus is like that too.

In today’s Gospel reading, we once again hear about the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.  He is baptized in the River Jordan by John.  Immediately after that, he is driven into the wilderness where he faces terrible thirst, hunger, and temptation… he wrestles with evil.

The trials in the wilderness move Jesus into his public ministry.  His crucifixion brings it to an end.  That makes for a very harsh beginning for Jesus’ ministry and a terribly brutal end.

And in between, it didn’t get a whole lot better.  For the duration of his ministry, Jesus healed the sick, fed the hungry, cared for the outcast, and confronted religious hypocrisy.

Jesus announces in today’s Gospel lesson… and throughout his ministry… by his words and deeds… that the Kingdom of God has come near.

As we read scripture we are witnesses to the fact that everywhere Jesus goes… and everywhere the Kingdom of God is made known… conflict, shame, suffering, grief, oppression… darkness are encountered.

The life and ministry of Jesus affirms that this world is a mess.  Life is a wilderness.  It is hard.  It is fraught with danger and suffering.  It is full of powers we cannot control, and many of these are very frightening.  In this world, we contend constantly with darkness and evil within us and around us.

We often wish we could deny or hide this fact of our lives, but we can’t.  The final proof of it is our mortality.  In the end, we all die, and it’s usually not pretty.

The season of Lent is about facing truth.  It’s a time of reflection.  A time to ponder how trouble and pain are worked deep into the fabric of this world.

It affects us all.  We all bear this reality in our bones and it lurks pretty much everywhere in our world.  During the season of Lent we remember that life is a wilderness and we contemplate what that means for us.

However, our contemplation doesn’t end there.  We also embrace the good news that scripture proclaims to us.  Scripture shows us that God knows our wilderness… that his creation’s suffering is not his final will for creation… and that God is always with us in the wilderness… in the midst of our danger and suffering.

He is with us to sustain us… to work in us and change us… to bring forth his life in the midst of death.  He is with us to carry us through our trials and pains and the shadow of death to that mystery we call eternal life.

Everyone here is a wanderer in life’s wilderness.  We are all personal witnesses to the darkness of this world.

Students, your incarceration here at Y.C.C. bears testimony to truth of how broken life can be, how wounded childhood can become… the difficulty of growing up in a world full of trouble and danger.

All of us all carry wounds and scars from past struggles, and are presently engaged in new ones.  We are struggling (and too often failing) to be who we know we want and ought to be.  We – or people we love — are faced with serious illness, depression, addiction… loss.

We struggle to find a way forward.  How do we live in the face of that?  How do we hope?  How do we grow?  How do we give to the ones we love strength and care and hope?

During the season of Lent we remember… yes, it is true that our lives are a wilderness, but God is with us in the wilderness like a mother bear, who battles ferociously and relentlessly to defend and protect her cubs.  God has done and will do whatever is necessary in order to make her people whole and give them life.

The second reading from 1st Peter promises that Christ suffered for sins, once and for all.  We often think too small about this beautiful promise of God.  We often focus on our own personal misdeeds and imagine that Jesus died to erase them in God’s eyes.  And you know… he did.  But the promise that Jesus died for our sins is much bigger than that… and it’s very important we understand that.

The promise that Christ suffered for sins, once and for all, means he died for all of it… for the whole mess that life is.  Everywhere he went, that’s what Jesus and the power of God through him stood against.  Through his cross everything that afflicts and contorts his creation is confronted by the one who created and loves all that is.

The letter to the Colossians expresses it beautifully:  “In Christ all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”

Christ’s work at making peace… and making us whole… is complete through his work on the cross; but it is also going on now… here in the wilderness.

That’s why God is with us here.  Hope and healing are not just something we will know in the future after we die.  It’s something God is at work on now.

That’s important for us to know because God wants us to look for him in the wilderness.  He is always at our side to support and strengthen, comfort and lead.

God knows the wilderness that we live in.  God knows that our lives are hard. He promises us that Christ is our companion in suffering and struggling; and that all visible signs to the contrary, the dark and destructive powers of sin are already defeated.  They can’t have us.  We belong to him.

God has us, now and always.  We are called on to hold fast to and draw strength from this promise of Christ.

In the northern Norwegian town of Tromsø in the winter, it’s dark pretty much all the time.  And life can seem like that sometimes.  But the sun is still shining… and the world is moving and changing.

We know there is a sun shining in our future, even when we can’t see it.  And its light will fall on us – warm us and fill us with life.  That sun and that light is Christ.  His purpose is to reach us here and now.

So we need to look for him.  Fix our eyes, our heart and our mind on him; and he will help us — in spite of the darkness of our wilderness — he will give us life and strength and hope.

Amen.