Sunday, March 05, 2006

Serving in the Wilderness

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Church during worship celebrations on March 4 and 5, 2006.]

Mark 1:9-15

Today, I want to look at two verses in our Bible lesson, verses 12 and 13. The Gospel of Mark, from which our lesson is taken, leaves out alot of the things that two other Gospels, Mathew and Luke, tell us about Jesus being tempted by Satan in the wilderness. In spite of that, he also includes things in these two verses that aren’t in those two other books. Let’s just read those two verses together out loud:
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
As this verse begins, Jesus must have suffered from a kind of whiplash. One moment, He’s being baptized by John when the voice of the Father tells Him, “You are My Son, the Beloved; with You I am well pleased.” Then, immediately, He finds Himself in the wilderness being tempted by Satan and surrounded by wild beasts. Things went from wonderful to frightening in a matter of seconds. That’s sort of like life, isn’t it?

One Fourth of July weekend, we were entertaining my extended family at our place in northwestern Ohio. One afternoon during that weekend, most of the gang had gone off exploring as my dad and I stayed behind at the house to let the little ones take naps. We were having a great time. Then the phone rang. It was my wife’s step sister, sobbing, with shocking news: My wife's father had just been diagnosed with cancer; he probably wouldn’t live another six weeks. Whiplash.

From Mark’s account of Jesus’ temptation, we see that the same sort of thing happened in Jesus’ life. If it happened in the life of God-in-the-flesh, then you know we aren’t exempt from the whiplash of events either. When it happens, we must learn to rely on the same Father on Whom Jesus relied while He was in the wilderness.

It’s interesting to see the way Mark describes Jesus’ going into the wilderness. Matthew and Luke use two different words that mean “led.” Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, they say. But Mark says that Jesus was driven into the wilderness. In fact, the word translated as driven in our Bible renders the Greek word, ekballo. It's a compound word: Ballo, from which we get our word ball, means to throw and ek means out. Literally, Jesus was thrown out into the wilderness by the Spirit of God!

Have you ever felt as though you were thrown out into the wilderness?

Did you ever think that it was God Who did the throwing?

I got fired from a job once. It happened about a year before I started seminary. After that, I went to another job and things were going okay there, though I was far from happy.

It was at about this time that I fell in love with Jesus, was appointed to our congregation's Church Council, and I began to sense God calling me to become a pastor. But that concerned me. One night, after a council meeting, I spoke with our pastor. I told him that I thought that maybe I was being called to pastoral ministry. “Uh-huh,” he said. “But...” I muttered. “But, what?” he asked me. “But I got fired from my last job and I’m not really excited about this one,” I told him. “Yeah?” “I don’t want to be going to seminary if there’s even the slightest chance that I’d be doing it just to run away from jobs I don’t like.” My pastor fixed me with a stare and then asked me this: “Have you ever thought that your getting fired from one job and landing in another one you didn’t like was God’s way of saying, ‘Quit messing around and start doing what I want you to do?’”

I’m convinced that God drove me into the wilderness so that I could learn to rely on Him and learn to do His will. If you feel that you’re in the wilderness today, God may very well be the One Who drove you there for His purposes.

Mark says that Jesus was thrown out into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. Think about that for a second: The Spirit of God drove Jesus to a place where He would be tempted to sin by Satan. Did the Holy Spirit want Jesus to sin? No. Only the death of a human being completely unblemished by sin could pay the price for the debt we all owe for our sin. The Spirit had a different reason for driving Jesus to His confrontation with Satan.

Pastor Brian Stoffregen points out that “when teachers...give tests, [they’re] not trying to flunk [their students], but to help discover what they know.” If every student in a class flunks a test, a good teacher knows that it’s time to do more teaching.

Stoffregen goes on to say, “I believe that this is God’s purpose in times of testing [us].” So, even when Satan is tempting us to walk away from God, as He tempted Jesus in the wilderness, God is using that same event to teach us, strengthen our characters, and shore up our faith. Just like Jesus, you and I have missions. Just like Jesus, we’re called to be servants of God. And if we’re to fulfill our missions of servanthood, we will need to undergo and pass the tests that life sends our ways.

There’s one last thing I want to point out about our lesson. It ends by saying, “The angels waited on Him.” The word translated as waited literally means served. The angels served Jesus, the One Who said that He came not to be served but to serve all of us; the One Who washed the feet of His disciples on the night of His arrest; the One Who died on a cross for all of us.

Here’s the point: Whenever we go through the wilderness times of our lives, God sends servants to help us through. And He sends all of us who follow Christ to be those servants who help others in their wilderness times.

True story: Joe had just learned he had cancer. Joe’s wife called the pastor and after chatting for a time called the husband to the phone to talk. They spoke briefly, but the pastor knew his empathy only went so far. So, after putting down the phone, he called Bill, a cancer survivor in the congregation. The Pastor knew that Joe would need his listening ear and the prayers of the congregation to help him face whatever loomed ahead. But he was also wise enough to know the limits of his own competence. He asked Bill to reach out to Joe. Bill was the servant who helped Joe make it through the wilderness.

Another true story before, one I’ve told before: A man in my former parish died. While I visited his widow, several other people visited too. People from the church and the community were dropping off food to help the family during a period when nobody felt like preparing dinners. Between her tears, the widow dabbed her eyes, smiled at me, and said, “There’s a lot of love in that refrigerator.”

We respond to the amazing and undeserved love of Jesus Christ, a love that gives new life to all who dare to turn from sin and turn in trust to Him, by offering up lives of servanthood to God and others. Over the next forty days, this will be our emphasis, our call, and our passion. In just a few moments, I’m going to ask you to come forward now. Sign the pledge indicating your continuing commitment to the mission of Friendship, your intention to read the daily readings on servanthood twice a day for the next forty days, and to get involved in your own ministry of servanthood.

In the wilderness:
  • Our call is to rely on God.
  • When we do, we’ll also be called to resist the temptation to walk away from God and pass the tests of character God sets before us to shape us for our missions in life.
  • And, just as God serves us and cares for us as we make our ways through life, we’re called to be servants of God who bring His care and comfort to others.
Let’s be absolutely committed to pursuing the journey of servanthood these forty days and all our lives!

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