First Sunday in Lent | Mark 1:9-15
This entry is part of a ongoing three year project, a series of reflections written to match the Gospel readings of the Revised Common Lectionary. Beginning on Ash Wednesday, the Christian world recognizes the season of Lent, a walk lasting forty days and six Sundays and ending at Easter. It is a season of remembrance and of reflection.
When Mark says that the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness, he is really saying that the Spirit “threw” Jesus into the wilderness, just like we throw a ball. That is the actual word he uses.
Threw. Tossed. Punted. Drop kicked.
It has happened to all of us. (If it hasn’t happened to you, just wait for it. It won’t be long now.) We think we are minding our own business, doing pretty ok, and something drop kicks us into nowhere.
Welcome to the wilderness experience. This one is not about campfires and marshmallows. This one is about being alone in the dark, sand in all the cracks, wondering what is making that sound in the distance and whether it knows we are here—yet.
Maybe Jesus went off into the wilderness for a personal retreat before engaging in public teaching. Everyone starting a daunting task needs some preparation time. Anyone heading out on a journey that leads to rejection and crucifixion, well, all the more so. One can imagine Jesus being driven by the Spirit, his own Spirit, the deep quiet voice within him, out to a place where he could be alone.
That’s the trouble, though. We’re never alone. Jesus wasn’t, not in Mark’s account. Out there, in nowhere, were the beasts, the Satan, and the angels, to say nothing of whatever interior dialogue Jesus carried with him.
The wilderness experience is a metaphor, of course, just like the transfiguration on the mountaintop. In this case we can more easily imagine a real journey, but we get more out of the metaphor.
As I said, we all end up in the wilderness sometime. I don’t mean a spiritual retreat in some remote place. I mean that there are times when we are thrown into a hard place by forces we did not anticipate and that we cannot control. There we are, like Jesus, all alone, and like Jesus never alone. There are always the accusing voices, the wild things that run through our minds, things that will not quite be controlled. And thankfully, there are angels, even if we have to find them inside ourselves, among the voices in our heads.
We get thrown into the desert that we carry within us.
That is the whole point of a spiritual journey. There are places within us that are not planted, where nothing much is growing. Barren places. Untouched. All of this prayer, reflection, looking for God out there, within ourselves, in the eyes of strangers, all of it is about nurturing that inward plot of land. Making our wilderness into a garden.
There are times when we find ourselves in the desert. In those days, we needn’t look for the way out. We are oddly where we should be. Once we tend to the the place where we find ourselves, the wilderness is gone. All that is left is us, and the Spirit who threw us where we would never have gone on our own.
The kingdom of heaven is within us, Jesus says in Luke’s Gospel. If heaven is within us, we might take it that hell is also within us. Which one we experience on our inward journey depends on our us.