Now What?

a sermon for the 1st Sunday in Lent

There are times in our lives when, despite our best intentions, despite our planning and our prayer, things just don’t work out they way they should. It’s as if the Spirit is saying, “Welcome to the baptized life! Now what?”

Recently, Rindy and I saw the movie “Wild,” a story based on a real life experience of a woman named Charlotte Strayed. Charlotte lived a life full of love and hope until her marriage ended and the death of her mother. After years of reckless, destructive behavior, she makes a rash decision. With absolutely no experience, driven only by sheer determination, she decides to hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, alone. With no one to help her, no understanding of the tools of the trade, Charlotte planned for her journey. She went to the local store and bought everything she would need – food, cook stove, fuel, makeshift shower, extra personal toiletries, guidebooks, maps.

Then the morning came when she needed to don her backpack and begin the trek of the Pacific Crest Trail – a journey of 1100 miles through terrain of all sorts. Her pack was so heavy that she could hardly bear it. She couldn’t put it on and stand up. All sorts of machinations got her on her feet, fully equipped for any eventuality. This was a wilderness for her. Difficult. Daunting. Uncomfortable. Painful. A time of transition and shaping and transformation.

After the first leg of her journey, she came upon an oasis of sorts, a gathering spot of fellow-travelers. One who was very experienced in these things greeted her. “Why are you carrying all of this weight?  Do you need this shower device? What about this can opener? when did you last use this camp stove? How many books do you plan on reading along the way? Leave them here, I’ll pass them on.”

Charlotte was challenged to empty her pack so that she could travel this distance through a literal wilderness.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus goes out into the wilderness. This is the third time we’ve heard this story since Advent. When we heard this passage a few weeks ago, we focused on God’s voice from heaven. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” We talked about what it feels like to be blessed like that, to have God’s unfailing guarantee of love, no matter what. But today, I’d like for us to think about what happens just after those words.

One of the interesting things about Mark’s version of this story is that he omits the three temptations of the devil. The focus on this story isn’t Satan and sin. The focus is on the Holy Spirit. It’s the Spirit who drove Jesus into the desert; the Spirit who forced him into the wilderness.

Gagarin_KreschenieHristovoThere are times in our lives when, despite our best intentions, despite our planning and our prayer, things just don’t work out they way they should. It’s as if the Spirit is saying, “Welcome to the baptized life! Now what?”

If anyone thinks that because we have repented and returned to the Lord, or that we have prayed hard, and followed all the commandments, if anyone ever thought that our baptisms would protect us from any hardship or challenges, this story should wake us up. Here, even Christ himself, still dripping wet from his baptism, is confronted by the question, “Now what?”

“I just lost my job. Now what?”
“I just got the test results. Now what?”
“I just received a phone call. Now what?”

If Lent is about anything, it is about asking the question, “Now what?” As the waters of flood receded and Noah stepped out on dry land, the first question he had to wonder was, “Now what?” And, as Jesus rose out of the waters and saw that dove swooping down on him, the first question he had to wonder was, “Now what?” How do I do it, Lord? How do I survive through this wilderness?

This is where God’s promise comes in.  For only God can carry us through those desert places. As much as we’d like to believe that we can make it on our own, we are helpless by ourselves. As much as we’d like to believe that we will never again sin, we know that we are sinners. And as much as we’d like to believe that we have finally, finally figured out how to live a godly and sober life, we know that sooner or later, we will slip up.

As terrifying as the wilderness can be, we are driven there not by evil but by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit drives us out into the world and strengthens us so that we can face the inevitable challenges that life gives to us. The Spirit drives us to turn our lives around – to repent – and to trust in God’s promise to us, the promise that God has been and will be with us every step of the way, no matter what.

God made an unconditional promise to Noah as he washed up in that new wilderness. God promised to never, ever, ever, destroy life again, no matter how far we wander from God’s law.

And through Christ, God made an unconditional promise to us: You will not be left alone in the desert.

A seminary friend of mine once talked about “getting to the other side of through.” By that she meant that she had seen her share of very hard times; she knew what it was like to wander in the wilderness. But she also knew that God was with her every step of the way, sometimes driving her, sometimes leading her, but always walking with her, until she got to the other side of through.

Perhaps the Spirit doesn’t really drives us into the wilderness, but through it, so that we can get to the other side of through. Our baptisms are not guarantees of an easy life. In fact, they may be just the opposite. Because by our baptism we are called into a life that is full of relationships with other people – full of twists and turns, ups and downs. But we are also marked indelibly by that sign of God’s beloved-ness. We are marked forever as followers of Jesus Christ. By this mark, we are strengthened and empowered to face the evil that lives in this world, trusting that by God’s Spirit, we can get to the other side of through.

“Welcome to the baptized life! Now what?”

The kingdom of God is here!. Turn around, and trust in the Good News that you are a beloved child of God.

Thanks be to God.

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