Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who meets us in the wilderness. Amen
Mark begins in the desert.
In telling the story of Jesus
he announces the good news of Jesus Christ,
the Son of God
and then jumps right to the wilderness,
actually quoting in part
our first reading from Isaiah,
who is also in the wilderness with the Israelites.
He puts these words into the mouth of John the Baptist,
a man of the wilderness
whose preaching oddly enough draws people out to him,
out into the desert along the banks of the Jordan river
where at the urging of John
they confess their sins
and take a ritual bath
to signify their new found way of life.
Why does Mark begin in the wilderness?
Matthew starts off with a long Genealogy
tracing Jesus back to David and Abraham.
Luke starts off with the story of John the Baptist’s remarkable birth
before heading into the story of Jesus’ remarkable birth.
John starts with a poem mirroring the beginning of genesis
and establishing Jesus as the Word made flesh
through whom the world was created.
But Mark starts in the wilderness.
Throughout the Bible,
the wilderness shows up again and again,
Abraham wanders around for quite awhile
before God’s promise is fulfilled in the birth of Isaac.
Moses escapes to the wilderness
after killing the Egyptian overseer
and it is while tending sheep out on his own
that he encounters a strange bush
that burns but is not consumed
and when he steps aside to look meets God, I am who I am.
The people of Israel
wander in the desert for forty years
before they enter the promised land,
God uses that time to teach them to depend on God
and to live as a free community.
Mark starts in the wilderness
because the wilderness is where God shows up,
the wilderness is where God meets those for whom God has a job and a promise,
the wilderness is where God prepares the servants of God to fulfill the will of God.
Now before we romanticize the wilderness
as the place of preparation,
thinking of it like a training sequence in a sports movie
where all the hard work is condensed into a montage of clips
set to inspirational music
we need to recognize the difficulty of life in the wilderness
It is a lonely place,
where those who wander are stripped down to their essentials,
where they discover what is important
and just what it means to live relying on God.
We all have wilderness times,
times when it seems we’re wandering
without much direction or even sustenance
where it seems like we will always be in the wilderness
the wilderness is our place of greatest need,
and it is where God shows up most vividly
and it is those burning bush moments,
full of terror and wonder
that shape the rest of our lives.
Mark starts in the wilderness
because that is where stories of encountering God start,
in places of desolation where all hope seems lost,
and Mark has the biggest story of encountering God to tell,
one where the good news is so good that it’s hard to describe
so Mark starts by referencing another wilderness time of good news
he recalls the words of the prophet Isaiah,
speaking to the Israelites in the wilderness of exile,
overthrown by the Babylonians
and removed from their homes
the Israelites despaired of ever returning,
and into that despair Isaiah cries
‘Comfort O Comfort my people’
and continues with the message
that the time of exile is over,
they get to go home,
and the journey will be easy,
on a straight and level path,
no wandering for forty years this time,
just a walk across a level highway
while the people sinned
God stayed true to the covenant promise
and now is bringing them back home,
like a shepherd leading a flock to safety,
the picture Isaiah paints
is that of a mighty warrior turned shepherd,
who instead of waging war
uses his mighty arm to gather the lambs close,
cuddling them while leading their mothers.
And just as we have wilderness moments,
we also have comfort comfort moments,
the times when we are lambs
swept up out of the path of danger into strong safe arms,
into the presence of God.
For me the moment that is most vividly one of these moments
is connected to red wine and roasted chicken.
Most of you know that I was married right before going to seminary
and that following summer
my then husband left the marriage.
The first few days after he declared his intentions
were kind of a blur, definitely a wilderness time
but it was the middle of the week
and I had responsibilities to help me take my mind off things.
Then the weekend came
and as I was still sharing a living space with my ex
two of my friends who shared an apartment
invited me to stay with them for the weekend.
That first night a group of friends gathered around me,
the one who had gone to culinary school before seminary roasted a chicken,
I’m sure there were other good things to eat too but I don’t remember them,
and we ate chicken and drank red wine
and talked and cried and laughed,
and then full of food and sleepy from the wine
they tucked me into bed for the first good night of sleep I’d had in awhile.
I was a lamb held safely in the arms of my shepherd who knew the way.
There was still going to be a long journey ahead of me
But I knew that I would not be making it alone
And that there was hope for the future
‘It’s this kind of good news that I’m about to tell’
hints Mark at the beginning of his gospel,
coming home from exile good,
being protected in strong arms good,
even chicken and red wine good,
in fact even better than all those things good,
the best news,
but before we get there
we have to start in the wilderness with John,
proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,
saying ‘Prepare the way,
the one who is more powerful than I is coming after me’
and so we go out and join John in the desert
by the Jordan river
comforted by hope in the promised future. Amen