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First Sunday in Lent
Light of Christ Anglican Church
The Rev. Jeffrey O. Cerar, February 22, 2015

The Meaning of the Desert

Text: Mark 1:9-13

Every year on the First Sunday in Lent, we read the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness by Satan. This year, we read Mark’s succinct version. In only five verses, he covers the baptism of Jesus and the temptation in the desert.

Mark tells us that Jesus came to the river Jordan and was baptized by John. He doesn’t give us any detail to address the question of why Jesus would need or want to be baptized. Mark goes on to tell us that the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus at the time of His baptism. And he tells us that the Father spoke and said “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” And then Mark’s account says,

At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert, and he was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. [Mark 1:12-13]

It seems odd to us that God would bestow His blessing on Jesus and assure Him of His love, and at once send Him out into the desert for 40 days. That is what I want to address with you this morning. I want to share some thoughts about this mystery from two perspectives: what God was doing with Jesus, and what God is revealing to us who are called to follow Jesus.

It is clear that this was part of God’s plan for Jesus. The text tells us, “at once the Spirit sent him.” It followed immediately on the heels of the baptism and anointing. And it was an act of the Holy Spirit. Why?

One thing that comes immediately to mind is that being in the desert gave Jesus time to be alone with the Father and the Holy Spirit. The Gospel writers only tell us about the temptation by Satan. But that was not something that would have filled up every minute of every day for Jesus. He was alone, away from the distractions of everyday life, with a lot of time to pray and reflect on God’s Word. He had just been baptized. He had been given a very powerful message: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” The Holy Spirit had just descended upon Him. And now, guided by the Holy Spirit, Jesus was alone in the wilderness to think about what all that meant. What was He going to do as the Father’s obedient Son? How was He going to use all the power that the Holy Spirit imparted to Him?

Maybe the scripture is suggesting a pattern to us for our own walk with Jesus. We are certainly distracted by daily life. Do we ever go out in the “desert” to be away from those distractions and to be alone with God? Do we ever spend extended time in prayer and the study of God’s Word, reflecting on those two questions:

• What am I going to do as Jesus’ obedient disciple?

• How am I going to use the power the Holy Spirit imparts to me?

And for us, there is a third question that Jesus didn’t have to ask: What is standing in the way of my being what God is calling me to be?

We don’t want to miss the symbolism of the 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert. It reminds us intentionally of the 40 years that the Hebrew people spent in the desert. Why were they out there all that time? —so that God could prepare them for what He had in store for them. It was a difficult time. It was a time when they had to put all their reliance on God. It was a time of learning. We would do well to make room for some times like that in our own lives. For, like the Hebrew people, we give God many reasons to work on us:

• to heal us of our sinful ways;

• to strengthen our resolve;

• to teach us to trust in Him;

• to overcome the fears that lock us into inaction;

• to increase our love of those whom God wants to save.

At two of our recent Parish Weekends, we heard from Bishop Dave Bena and the Rev. David Harper. Both of them likened the last few years of our congregational life to wilderness time. During that time, God has been giving us every opportunity to learn how to trust Him, and to have a passionate commitment to His plan for us. It has been a challenging time. But it has been a good time. And, given what is happening all around us in our culture and in the world at large, it has been a necessary time.’

That brings me to the second major significance of the Holy Spirit sending Jesus into the desert—the cosmic battle. Jesus began His ministry by engaging in the cosmic battle. He was confronted by Satan, the prince of evil, the destroyer, the father of lies. Before Jesus preached His first public sermon, before He performed His first public miracle, before He even called His first disciple, He took on Satan in the wilderness. That cosmic battle continued throughout Jesus’ life:

• It was Satan’s lies that caused the religious leaders to oppose Jesus.

• It was Satan’s lies that caused people to reject Jesus as Messiah.

• It was Satan’s lies that prevailed at the trial of Jesus.

• It was Satan’s cruelty that scourged and beat and mocked Jesus.

• It was Satan’s culture of death that pounded in the nails and lifted up the cross.

And that cosmic battle continues today. Everywhere we look we see it:

• Just a few days ago, the Islamic State released a video of the beheading of 21 Christians in Egypt.

• Israel, the home of God’s chosen people, the Jews, is surrounded by a dozen nations bent on their destruction.

• In our own society, Satan’s culture of death is running out of control:

o  Euthanasia is becoming acceptable in state after state.

o  Abortion is such a charged subject that we who oppose it are considered extremists.

o  Violent video games rewarded the players for the kills they amass.

o  There must be a dozen TV shows where you can tune in and see a body sliced open on the autopsy table.

o  Movies about serial killers and zombies are hugely popular.

o  Satan is saying that death is a cool thing to focus your attention on. Is it any wonder that young westerners are lured by ISIS You Tube videos to sneak away to join them?

• Satan’s lies are embedded in the curriculum for our children:

o  Historical revisionism denies the Christian roots of our nation.

o  Scientific theories that reject the existence of God are presented as fact.

o  Children are being taught at young ages that sex is a necessary aspect of adolescent life.

• The family, as the foundational element of society, is being ripped apart by divorce, adultery, cohabitation, pornography, alcoholism, domestic violence and drug abuse.

• This is all part of Satan’s campaign of lies that tell us we have a right to pursue anything our hearts desire, and that God is a spoil-sport for imposing limits on us.

When Mark tells us that the Holy Spirit immediately sent Jesus into the wilderness, He is telling us that the life of a person faithful and obedient to God’s will is not going to be easy. And if we are going to be like Jesus, we’re going to have to engage the enemy in this cosmic battle between God and Satan.

The temptations Jesus faced in the desert remind us that Satan is always after us. And although Jesus triumphed over temptation, we often do not. If we are going to be at all effective in the cosmic battle, we are going to have to come to grips with the things that are tempting us, and with the ways we succumb to them. That is why we set apart the season of Lent. It is a call for us to get real about those things in our lives that separate us from God. It is a call to come to grips with those things that impair our ability to serve Him effectively, to love one another obediently, and to fight like conquerors in the cosmic battle.

This morning I invited you in the name of the church to use the age-old Biblical tools God has given to Christians for drawing close to Him:

• self-examination and repentance;

• prayer;

• fasting;

• self-denial;

• and reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.

These are the things we can do if we carve out some time each day—and ideally, some real substantial time during the next 40 days—to go into the desert.

Mark's account of the Baptism of Jesus and His time in the desert ties together the meaning of what God was doing:

• He empowered and anointed Jesus through the Holy Spirit;

• He assured Jesus of the Father’s love;

• He sent Jesus into the wilderness for a time of preparation and reflection;

• And He began Jesus’ mission by engaging Him in the cosmic battle.

And this gives us a template that fits the believer’s walk with Jesus:

• God empowers us;

• He assures us of His love;

• He invites us to seek Him in prayer and Bible Study;

• And He calls us into the cosmic battle. For like it or not, we are His warriors in that battle.

All over the world, Christians are engaging in that cosmic battle.

• Some are students, fiercely hanging onto their Christian faith in the classroom.

• Some are Christian adolescents, hanging onto their sexual purity despite the immense pressure.

• Some are Christians in Syria and Egypt and Iran and a score of places around the world facing the loss of everything, including their lives.

• Some are Christians in America and Europe, clinging to Biblical faith in the face of false teaching in their own churches.

• Some are Christian shopkeepers, like 71-year-old grandmother, Baronelle Stutzman of Richland, Washington. She is tied up in court cases for refusing to do the flower arrangements for a same-sex wedding. She is being sued by the couple, and by the Attorney General of Washington, and her whole livelihood is hanging by a thread.

• Some warriors are Christians like Kayla Jean Mueller of Prescott, Arizona, who was captured and then killed by the Islamic State. Kayla was 26 years old, and a member of this generation of American youth who want to make a difference in the world. She was working with Doctors without Borders, because she was motivated to be of help to people who were suffering.

Kayla Mueller wrote her parents a letter, which was smuggled out of by two prisoners who were released. In that letter, you can see the template that Jesus’ baptism and temptation in the desert provide for the Christian life:

• She was assured that God loved her. She wrote: “By God and by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled.”

• She spoke of all the time she had had in prison to pray and to think.

• And she was empowered for the cosmic battle in which she was caught up. She wrote:

I remember mom always telling me that all in all in the end the only one you really have is God. I have come to a place in experience where, in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our creator.... I am not breaking down, and I will not give up.

This year, as we commit ourselves to a holy Lent, the time has come to go beyond exploring our own personal battle with temptation. The hour is late, and the clouds are darkening. The cosmic battle is raging, and the front lines are right in our midst. It will be to our great advantage to spend some time recognizing the urgency of our time. And as we do, we should ask ourselves three questions:

• What am I going to do as Jesus’ obedient disciple?

• How am I going to use the power the Holy Spirit imparts to me? and

• What is standing in the way of my being what Jesus is calling me to be?

In closing, let me remind you that the outcome of the cosmic battle is not in doubt. Jesus has won the victory. In the desert, He did not simply stand up to Satan’s temptations. He defeated Satan. And when Satan seemed to have won a victory at the cross, Jesus rose again triumphantly from the dead. Jesus has already won the cosmic battle. And although He honors us by inviting us to be His warriors as Satan continues to rebel, we do not run the risk of reversing the victory.

When we engage in battle, it is for ourselves and for those who are not yet saved. Jesus deploys us so that we can shine His light into the darkness. For He is the true light that gives light to the world. (John 1:9) He is the light that has come into the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. (John 1:5)

So don’t be afraid to engage. There sometimes comes a moment in a football game when the quarterback gets a free play. He has taken the snap, and the play is developing, but a penalty flag has been thrown because the defense was offside. That means that if the play is a bust, it will be replayed. But if it succeeds, his team can decline the penalty. So the quarterback has the freedom to try something bold. If it fails, no harm is done. But if it succeeds, there will be glory to celebrate.

Jesus has already won the victory, and He invites us to share in the glory.

© Jeffrey O. Cerar 2015

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