A sermon for the first Sunday in Lent, Year B
1 Genesis 9:8-17, Psalm 25:1-9, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-13
[Singing] Like the murmur of the dove’s song, like the challenge of her flight . . . come, Holy Spiri–Crraaak! Like lightning splitting the sky, the heavens are torn apart and the Spirit descends - swoops down - on Jesus. Jesus experiences the ecstasy of hearing the Father call him his beloved Son with whom he is well pleased. But, while those words are still echoing in his heart, the Spirit-dove - immediately - drives Jesus into the wilderness. In Mark's gospel, the Holy Spirit appears as a dove, but it is a dove with an attitude – like something out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie.
The Holy Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness like a nail into wood. The wilderness represented the realm of chaos – of evil. The ancients did not have romantic notions of nature. The wilderness was inhospitable, untamed, dangerous, wild. It was the habitation of demons, the territory under the sway of Satan. It is into that realm of the demonic that the Spirit drives Jesus.
The Greek word used for the Spirit's driving Jesus out into the wilderness is the same as that used when Jesus drives out demons. Here, things are reversed. Instead of Jesus ejecting demons out of someone, we have the Holy Spirit injecting Jesus out into the wilderness – the devil’s turf. God is going on the offensive. Mark does not elaborate the confrontation as do Matthew and Luke, but it is clear that the confrontation happens and that Satan is defeated. This is the beginning of the end for the Evil One. It is probably in the wilderness that Jesus "watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning" (Luke 10:18). The rest of Jesus' ministry - the exorcisms, the healings, the miracles are part of the mop-up operation. Jesus is injected into the domain of Satan, symbolized by the wilderness, and his mission of reclamation and liberation has begun.
I am struck by the wildness in this passage - the heavens torn apart, the Spirit driving Jesus into the wilderness. There is a wideness in God’s mercy, but there is also a wildness in God’s mercy. We try so hard to tame that wildness. We have a tendency to try to domesticate God, to house-train him. When we do that, we end up with a God who is just an extension of our own biases – a God who lends spiritual support to our political and social prejudices. A God who will not step on our toes. A God who will not drive us into the wilderness. But we also end up with a fairly anemic God – a God who mostly wants us to be just a little more polite, a little more nice. Not a God who wants us to be wild.
We are all familiar with the domesticated images of God. There is God as the old man with a long beard, riding on a cloud. He is rather remote and old fashioned – out of touch with real life. There is Jesus "meek and mild," timid as a rabbit. In some of the old Hollywood films, we see this Jesus walking around like he is trying to dry his nails. He does not appear as one who would get his nails dirty, let alone risk breaking one. Then there is the Holy Spirit, a vague, benign, sort of spiritual gas; there to give me a little energy so I can get on with living my life the way I already know it should be lived. Such housebroken, tame images God neither threaten nor excite.
The picture we get in the Bible is much wilder. And more exciting. Certainly, it is much more interesting. The God of the Bible is a wild God, even dangerous. If we are not at least a little afraid of God, we probably have too domesticated an image of God and one that is not very biblical. The God of the Bible might very well step on our toes. The God of the Bible might very well swoop down on us like a dove with serious intent. The God of the Bible might very well drive us into the wilderness. But that is good news. Only a wild God can deal with the wilderness of our world. And with the wilderness of our own hearts. Only a wild and untamed God can save.
Remember the old westerns in which people gathered in a wagon train to head across prairie and desert to get to the promised land of Oregon? The folk, gathered on the outskirts of St. Louis, need a trail guide to lead them through the wilderness. It is clear that it is not going to be any of the characters introduced so far. It won't be the timid grocer. It won't be the English dandy just off the boat. It won't be the wealthy banker. He can throw his weight around the financial district in New York, but he won't be much use in the wilderness. Then, the one who is clearly the man for the job appears. He is barely civilized and undomesticated. He might be part Indian. He's got scars, both physical and emotional. You would not likely invite him to a tea party. But he is just the one you want to lead you through the wilderness.
Only a wild undomesticated God can save us. Only such a God can lead us through our wilderness. We need a God who is not afraid of the wilderness – the wilderness in our world and in our lives. We need a God who can enter into the wilderness of a world beset with sorrow and sin, tragedy and death. We need a wild God who is present in the midst of floods, in the midst of starvation, in the midst of torture.
Yes, Jesus is the relentless love of God. He came to gather us into the Father’s heart. He named us his friends. But, never forget; he is the same Jesus who did battle with Satan in the wilderness. Remember that the same Jesus who said, “Suffer the little children to come to me,” also tore through the Temple like a cyclone. He is the same Jesus who came calling us to repentance and then dared to suffer for us and, according to 1 Peter, went to hell and back for us.
Yes, the Holy Spirit is a dove, the comforter. But, the Holy Spirit is also a fire, come to burn away the dead brush of our lives like a wild, prairie fire making room for new life. The same Holy Spirit who tore open the heavens can tear open our hearts and inject Jesus into the wilderness of our lives to conquer whatever demons hold us captive.
The Holy Spirit wants to drive Jesus into the wilderness of our hearts and make us “little Christs.” It is the Spirit's intention then to inject us into the wilderness of the world around us. There we can dare to confront the demonic in our world. We can be peacemakers in a society captivated by violence. We can seek justice and righteousness. We can live lives of hospitality and generosity. We can take part in God’s mission of reclamation. We can be part of his healing and reconciliation.
Lent is about exposing whatever keeps us from allowing the Holy Spirit to have its way with us. That is scary because we don’t really like change. Change is often uncomfortable, even painful. We mostly prefer a tame dove who will not ruffle our feathers to one that might tear things apart and drive us into the wilderness. What might the Spirit of the wild God do with us? We are not sure we trust that the changes the Spirit might drive us to are really going to be for our truest joy. But the faith we are called to is exactly that kind of trust.
Ultimately, the Spirit, who descends like a dove and drives us into whatever wildernesses we must face, is indeed driving us toward our truest joy, which is participation in God's life. The Spirit who is a wildfire, burning away our dead wood, is also a refining fire come to remove the dross from our lives and recreate us into finest gold and silver. When we understand this, we can dare to say, "come, Holy Spirit, come."