The Federated Church of Marlborough
Marlborough, New Hampshire



Sermon - February 18, 2018
Scripture Reading:
Genesis 9:8-17, Mark 1:9-15
Sermon Title: Wilderness

The Rev. Robert Vodra

     Mark certainly has a way to be brief.  From the reading this morning ďAnd the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.Ē The end. 

     This story is in the other synoptic gospels.  Matthew takes 11 verses, and Luke takes 13.  Mark only takes 2.  But apart from length and detail, I noticed another interesting difference.  In Matthew and Luke, Jesus is led out into the wilderness by this spirit, the one that spoke when Jesus came up out of the water from his baptism, but in Mark, Jesus was driven by this spirit out into the wilderness. 

     I have been thinking a lot lately about wilderness.  It is hard to find true wilderness today.  When I hear wilderness and desert I think about traveling out west.  Just after college I had accepted a job in Missouri.  Keri, and some friends from college, were working at Wind Cave, in South Dakota.  Now I grew up in New England, had driven lots of times from Danbury, Connecticut to Orono, Maine.  Took about 7 hours to go across 4 states.  So I got out my U.S. map, we still used paper maps back then, and South Dakota was just a little detour on my way to Missouri.  Stay a bit North, go across Iowa, Wind Cave is kind of near Mount Rushmore, the Wyoming side of the state, but I do 4 states in 7 hours, these two should only be part of a day trip.   From Kansas City, where I would stop to visit my grandmother on the way to my job, to Mount Rushmore, near Wind Cave, it is almost 1,500 miles!  So turned out to be a little, almost 3,000 mile detour.   But I did end up eventually dating Keri, and we have been married for over 20 years now, so guess it was worth the little detour.

     But driving out there, especially across South Dakota, is probably as close to wilderness as I have been.  Places where, except for the road, there is nothing to see.  There are no people, no houses, no visible animals, just hills, rocks, a few scrubby bushes and grass.  I stopped at one point just to stretch my legs, and as far as I could see it was the same.  I felt like if I wandered off a ways, closed my eyes and spun around I could be lost for days. 

     At Horton Center we did have kids go on hikes through wilderness areas of the White Mountains.  I am not sure exactly what designates a wilderness area in the White Mountains, but knew if they were going on certain trails they needed extra precautions.  We made sure all the kids had layers for warm or cold, had rain gear if there were any chance of rain, and each kid left with two liters of water.  But those wilderness hikes carried a two way radio that might be able to reach a radio at the trailhead, at least when they got close to the end of their hike.  They also got the big first aid kits.  They did not like carrying them, but it was important to have things they might need in case of emergency. 

     Lately I have been thinking about wilderness in my own life.  At some point in the next several months, you will be calling a minister.  Nobody has any idea who this might be.  Might be male or female, might be young or old, will certainly have different gifts than I have.  It will be a time of wilderness for the church as you get to know this next minister.  Probably a bit of uncertainty about what direction people are going, and at times may appear that there is no direction. 

     And I will be leaving into my own wilderness.  I have this feeling that God already knows where I will be, and who will be called to your church.  But that information is not always clear to us when we are going through it.  

     There is something uncomfortable about wilderness.  We have all been there.  Wilderness can appear at any time, even in the most familiar settings.  Suddenly a feeling where we donít know anyone, or know anyone really well.  A feeling like you are on your own.  A feeling that you donít know which direction to turn, which way to go.  And there is no way to pack or prepare for a trip through this wilderness.  No larger first aid kit, no radio, just to carry trust that it will all be right in the end. 

     And these are the times in which we are most vulnerable.  We are always making decisions.  You make little decisions all the time without even thinking about it.  You decided where to sit this morning.  You decided to stand or not for our hymn.  But we are often called to make bigger decisions when we are in those times of wilderness.  And to be honest, those are often the times in which we donít make good decisions. 

     I had a big shock when I went to seminary.  People enter seminary at all ages, so a few of us were in our 20ís, but the average age was somewhere in the middle 30ís, which was a younger average age than some other seminaries.  And the people who came to seminary had very different backgrounds: lawyers, nurses, accountants, teachers, homemakers, and a fair number of ďI used to work in an office, hated it.Ē  We were often encouraged to talk about our call, how did we end up deciding to go into the ministry.  I think I have shared with you, for me there were many smaller experiences, a few that had more significance, but looking back on my life before seminary, there are so many people and events that it is hard to even narrow it down.  

     But when some of these people told their stories, they got their call in the wilderness.  Drinking or drugs were often involved, often with the loss of a job and divorce from a spouse.  These people were not led into the wilderness gently.  They were driven, tossed, shoved, going into the wilderness against their will.

     Jesus was driven by this spirit, Godís Spirit, into the wilderness.  In the other gospels we hear about how he was tempted, and at least a bit of his experience.  Mark does not feel that much detail is necessary.  I have always thought this time might be strategic planning for Jesus.   If you think about it, it makes sense.  In some gospels we hear about Jesusí birth; we have that one little story about him in the temple as a youth; and then nothing.  He is in his late 20ís by the time he meets up with John to be baptized.  If Jesus was doing anything before that, he certainly didnít have anyone following him.  No disciples.  There are no stories of miracles, or healing or any of that before this time in the wilderness.  And when Jesus leaves the wilderness, that is when it all starts.  Miracles, healing, disciples, followers.  If we want to call it the Jesus movement, he got it right this time, people were noticing him.  But maybe even Jesus needed that time to plan what he needed to do.   Not a bad thing to remember when we need to plan in our lives. 

     I want to make sure I say something and that is that God does not always push us into our wildernesses.  Quite often we end up there because of bad choices, sometimes we donít know why we end up there.  But we donít go alone.  Even in our lowest lows, God is there with us.  Maybe the questions we should be asking are:

     ďEven though I did not wish for this, how might God be at work through this difficult period? What can I get out of this? How might God use me to help someone else?

      It is a way of turning it around.  No matter how we end up in that wilderness, we know that God is still with us and maybe is even using us to help someone else. 

     I mentioned last week during the time for children that the answer to any number question in the Bible is 40.  So how long was Jesus in this wilderness? 40 days.  For Biblical times, 40 is a lot.  Collin, I have told you a thousand times to put your dirty dishes in the sink.  Glenn, I have told you a thousand times not to leave your dirty clothes on the floor.  Although it seems like a thousand times to all of us, it has not been.  40 days in the Bible was a long, long time.  Could have been 35 days, could have been 60 days, so just know it was a long time. 

     Our 40 days in our wilderness is the same.  It can seem like a long time, and sometimes it is.  There is no guarantee of getting out of the wilderness quickly.  Some decisions are helpful, others just drive you deeper.  But knowing that no matter how deep, God is with you, can be helpful. 

     And just like that Mark brings Jesus out of the wilderness, lets us know that John the Baptist was in prison, and reports ďJesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,  and saying, ĎThe time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.íĒ

     That is the message of Lent.  For the next 40 days we will be in our Lenten season.  I say 40, but not really, as they donít count Sundays, and a few other special days.  So, 40 in the Biblical way.  It will end on Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter, when we will gather at the Community House and have a service remembering Jesusí last supper.  And what do we do during Lent?  That is really a personal thing.  Many use it as a preparation for Easter.  If you remember before Christmas, we had Advent, where we lit Advent candles, and counted down to Christmas.  Easter is the other really special day in the church year, so Lent is a time of preparing, like Advent was for Christmas.  But rather than the excitement that comes in approaching Christmas, Easter preparations are much less joyful.  Many use it as a time to reflect on the past year, repent for their sins, and get ready to accept the gift we receive in the risen Lord.  Some people fast, others give up certain things, many pray.  While you are certainly welcome to participate in any way you feel called, I would just invite you to follow Jesus words.  ďThe time is fulfilled.  The kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.Ē 

     We all will have times of wilderness in our lives, led to the wilderness, or driven into the wilderness.  By our own decisions or with Godís nudging.  Use those times to ask, not just how to get out, but when you are there, what good can you do for another.  Maybe wilderness can lead us toward a new way of being.   Remember that God is with you in that time, as in times of joy.  And when you come out of your wilderness, 40 biblical days, repent and believe in the Good News.