Driven Into the Wilderness -Mark 1:9-15
Updated: Dec 20, 2022
The red ink at the top of the exam stated simply: “You can do better than this. Come see me.” Now I was standing outside my professor’s door, ready to knock. I didn’t want to go in.
It was halfway through my sophomore year of college, and I was not doing well. My best friend had not returned to college after freshman year; my boyfriend had broken up with me; I was taking 20 credits instead of the usual 16. I liked my government class, and I thought I was doing the work required, but this red ink at the top of page indicated otherwise. It seemed like a reckoning.
Inside my professor’s office, he asked, “What happened?” It all came pouring out as I dissolved into tears: my over commitment, my stress, my efforts which were not good enough. “Here’s what we are going to do,” my professor said. “I am not going to count this grade. You are going to go regularly to one of the study groups and practice the kind of thinking I am looking for. Then you will take the final exam. And that will be your grade.”
Looking back on this time in my life, I see it as a common developmental theme of young adulthood -- testing your limits. From a spiritual perspective, I think this story could also be classified as a wilderness experience, a place of finding your spiritual mettle. That’s where we meet Jesus today in our Gospel lesson.
The wilderness is a potent symbol in scripture. It’s where the Israelites wandered after their escape from Egypt. It was a harsh land, without food or water, and they were out there for 40 years. The Israelites had to trust God on a daily basis to feed them, to provide water, and to guide them to the Promised land. Old Testament scriptures regularly interpret this wilderness time as a time of testing – the people testing God’s patience and providing, and God testing their ability to become a people faithful to the covenant God made with them.
When Jesus appears in the wilderness desert, we see the theme again. Mark tells us Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness with the wild beasts. It was a place of danger: the rocky Judean desert that surrounds the Dead Sea receives less than 2 inches of rainfall a year. Even today, no one lives there. It was a place of testing for Jesus; it is where Jesus went to battle Satan, the prince of demons. Like the Israelites in the desert before him, it is a place where Jesus had to rely fully on God, and find his inner strength.
Matthew Mark and Luke, all tell the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Matthew and Luke say Jesus was ‘led’ by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness; only Mark says that Jesus ‘was driven [there] by the Holy Spirit.’
To me this is a big difference. Being led indicates a willingness to go. Being driven suggests less than a choice. The word in Greek, ekballo, means ‘to cast out’ – Jesus was cast out into the wilderness just as he later would cast out demons from the possessed. Ekballo indicates a strong force is involved. That seems to be the case here—Spirit’s power is so strong, that Jesus is compelled to go into the wilderness, and in the power of that same Spirit, bests Satan. Matthew and Luke emphasize Jesus’ cooperation and obedience to the will of God, but Mark brings out a very human dimension of Jesus: he found himself in a harsh place where he might not have gone otherwise.
Can you identify with the experience? I can honestly say that there have been many times I have ended up in places I would not have chosen. Standing outside my professor’s office was just one of these times. Going in to see my professor meant I had to confront myself, my own sloppy preparation, and my choices. It held up a mirror to me, and I didn’t like what I saw.
But the experience also provided a way forward. Not around myself and what I needed to learn, but through it. I did go to the study group, faithfully, every week. I began to understand the type of thinking that professor was trying to instill. I began to ask better questions, and find my way to solutions in partnership with others. It was humbling, but it was good for me. I learned and I grew, and I found new possibilities.
One way spiritual writers have talked about wilderness times is the ‘dark night of the soul.’ Psychologist and author Gerald May asserts in his book, Dark Night of the Soul, that God is calling us to fuller versions of ourselves, to live true freedom, and to relax into a deeper relationship with God . But, May writes, “If we are honest, I think we have to admit that we will likely try to sabotage any movement toward true freedom. If we really knew what we were called to relinquish on this journey, our defenses would never allow us to take the first step. Sometimes the only way we can enter the deeper dimensions of the journey is by being unable to see where we’re going.”
The wilderness is a place where you can’t see where you are going. The Israelites wandered for 40 years out there. And when we relinquish our control over to the Spirit, we too find that much is in shadow, unable to be seen. The dark night of the soul forces us to rely on God and the Holy Spiritu within rather than our own sight.
This is where story becomes poignant to me, because the very same Spirit that drove Jesus into the wilderness like a gale force wind also descended upon him with feathery wings and sweet words of affirmation. “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” In his baptism, God’s loving intentions toward Jesus were made clear. The Holy Spirit descended not onto Jesus as our English text says, but into Jesus. The Spirit inhabited Jesus fully, and never left him. Jesus was baptized in the river that the Israelites crossed to enter the promised land. It is a symbol of the covenant promise fulfilled, a sign of God’s faithfulness. A sign that no matter how many twists and turns, no matter how dark the night or shadowy the day, that God is present, the Holy Spirit is guiding and strengthening, that God will fulfill God’s loving intent in and through Jesus.
It is an important point. The Holy Spirit was within Jesus when he was driven into the wilderness. It was part of God’s loving intent. God did not have to coerce or overwhelm Jesus because the very power of the Spirit that cast him into the wilderness was within him and a part of him.
God’s methodology is the same for us as with Jesus. We too have been baptized. We too have received the Holy Spirit. When we find ourselves stepping into places we don’t want to go, we enter into prayer: is this where you want me to go, Lord? God does not coerce or overwhelm us, but allows us to ask, to question, to plead: is there not another answer?
And if there is no other way, and we take that step into the unchartered, the unthinkable, into the wilderness, then God’s Holy Spirit is as near as our very breath. God sends angels to aid us. God leds us and feeds like the Israelites, teaching us to trust that even this is a part of God’s loving intent for us. God is trying to love us into the people God created us to be, and that our job is to be faithful to that calling.
I close with two things: first, in case you were wondering, I got an A in my government class. And secondly, a poem by Ruth Burgess’ from her book Bread for Tomorrow, which I hope touches you as it has touched me.
The desert waits,
Ready for those who come,
Who come obedient to the Spirit’s leading;
Or who are driven,
Because they will not come any other way.
The desert waits,
Ready to let us know who we are—
The place of discovery.
And we fear, and rightly
The loneliness and emptiness and harshness,
We forget the angels,
Whom we cannot see for our blindness,
But who come when God decides that we need their help;
When we are ready
For what they can give us.