[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]
On Friday, I was scanning Twitter for the comments people were making on the recent school shooting in Florida. One woman’s tweet particularly struck me. She said, “I can’t believe in a God Who would let children be killed in school.”
She’s not alone in such feelings. People often feel and say things like this. “My husband/my wife has left me,” someone will say, “How could God let this happen?” “My friend was killed in a car accident, my wife has died from cancer. Where is God?” For many, life on this earth is a savage wilderness and God seems like a distant and powerless being.
As Christians, we can be brutally candid: This world is a wilderness.
As beautiful and breathtaking and wonderful as this life can sometimes be, it’s also a fallen place where bad things happen to unsuspecting and even faithful people.
It’s a place where evil and deranged people prey on others.
It’s a place where death can come to people at early age, where death, weeping, and sorrow exist.
As Christians, we realize that while we live on earth, we’re looking for what the New Testament calls “a city” God has prepared for us (Hebrews 11:16).
We believe God’s promises given in Christ of “a country of [our] own” (Hebrews 11:15).
But for now, we are “foreigners and strangers on earth” (Hebrews 11:13).
Every human being is an alien here, whether they know it or not. We weren’t meant for life in a brutal wilderness. Our very revulsion and questions in the face of tragedy demonstrate that fact.
But as hard as it can be to remember and cling to when the wilderness does its worst to us, we need never be alone!
God has not forgotten us.
And He never will.
Not when you’re at work or school.
Not when you’re at home.
Not when you rejoice in victories.
Not when you die.
God will never forget you!
Today’s gospel lesson finds God affirming this truth. Last week’s lesson from Mark narrated an event that happened near the end of Jesus’ ministry, the Transfiguration. This week’s lesson, Mark 1:9-15, takes us to the beginning of His ministry. The two events are connected in ways that remind us of God’s presence with us and His mission for us in this world, as well as God’s promise of life beyond the boundaries of this wilderness. So, please look at our our gospel lesson.
Verse 9: “At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: 'You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.'”
I love how graphic this verse is. After being baptized by John, Jesus looks up to see “heaven being torn open.” The phrase translated into the English as torn open from the Greek in which Mark wrote is σχιζομένους (schizomenous), the root of which is the verb σχίζω (schizo). (Yes, it’s where we get the word schizophrenia for a split personality.) This verb means to split, to cleave, to divide.
This is important!
When Jesus was baptized, God the Father was offering a preview of things to come. Through Jesus, God in the flesh, God was going to tear an opening in the wall that divided our perfect, loving, and holy God from His imperfect, sinful, and fallen human children.
This Jesus accomplished when He died on the cross. Mark 15:38 tells us that when Jesus died on the cross, “The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” The verb translated as torn there is ἐσχίσθη, a past tense form of the same verb in today’s lesson, σχίζω.
The curtain that was torn after Jesus’ crucifixion separated the area where pious Jews had worshiped from the place known as the holy of holies, where God was thought to dwell.
Listen: With the death of the sinless Jesus on behalf of sinful humanity, all that divides us from God was torn down.
Jesus tore an opening to eternity with God for all who repent and believe in Him.
It’s through Jesus that we are privileged to address God as “our Father.”
It’s because of Jesus that we can trust that nothing, not even the wilderness, can separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:31).
And it’s because of Jesus that we can affirm, as we often do after we’ve received Holy Communion, that in the sacrament in which Jesus comes to us, heaven touches earth. Eternity reaches us here in the wilderness, promising God’s forgiveness and presence here and an eternity with God forever!
All of this was foreshadowed when, after Jesus’ baptism, the heavens were torn open in celebration!
And the same thing happens when we are baptized in the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Heaven is opened to us as God claims us as His own, which is what happens next at Jesus’ baptism. “You are my Son, whom I love,” the Father says, “with you I am well pleased.”
But even after our baptisms, there is wilderness to go through. And Jesus could only tear open the heavens for us after He had gone through the wilderness too, only after He did successfully for us what God knows we can not do ourselves: Jesus lived in the wilderness without caving into sin or despair. Verse 12: “At once the Spirit sent [Jesus] out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.”
There’s no way to overestimate the importance of the fact that when God took on human flesh, as He did in Jesus, He faced the same challenges, dangers, everyday joys, and temptations you and I face.
Unless Jesus had been susceptible to the temptations of our wilderness, it would mean nothing to say Jesus is sinless.
If Jesus had been hotwired to resist temptation, it would have taken no dependence on God the Father for Him to say no when the devil and the world tried to lure Him into sin.
Because Jesus could be tempted, He was able to save those who believe in Him when He offered His sinless life on the cross.
It also means that when we face temptations and we cry out to Him, He understands.
And when we have given into temptations and sinned and cry out in His name for forgiveness, He understands and brings God’s forgiveness.
Hebrews 4:15 says: “[in Jesus] we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are--yet he did not sin.” Because Jesus was tempted in the wilderness of this world, He empathizes with us and gives us strength to face evil, whether that evil comes from the world around us or from the fallen hearts inside of us.
Many of you have heard me tell the story of the woman in my first parish who was dying of cancer. It had been a tough slog for her, with rallies and setbacks and finally the word from her doctors, “There’s nothing more we can do.” I asked her as she neared her death if she’d ever gotten angry with God. “At first, yes,” she told me. “But then I remembered, He’s right here with me.” And this same Jesus Who endured the worst this world can do to a human being, also is with all who trust in Him when they pass from this life to the next, leading us to those rooms He has prepared for all who trust in Him (John 14:2).
After Jesus had faced down Satan in the strength God provided to Him, the same strength God can send to us in our wilderness experiences, Jesus still had a mission to fulfill. He still needed to call people to follow Him and to believe in what He was doing for them...and us. Verse 14: “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’”
When Jesus arrived on this earth, the days of this wilderness were numbered. The jig was up for the power of sin, death, the devil, despair, and darkness. Jesus has eternally and definitively conquered their power for all who believe in Him. We don’t know when Jesus will return to this earth. But we do know that we can trust the promised return of a Savior Who guaranteed His promise with His shed blood and His resurrection from the dead.
In the meantime, He stands living and ready to comfort and encourage the grieving and the dying, to give new life and new purpose to the uncertain and the doubting, to fill with strength those who have been knocked down low by life.
The psalmist says of the God we know in Jesus: “You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand” (Psalm 16:11).
Through Isaiah, God promises those who follow Him: “...those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint” (Isaiah 40:31).
And Jesus tells us: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
If the wilderness seems to have been winning in your life lately, you’ve come to the right place, to worship God in this fellowship of believers. Jesus says that wherever two or three are gathered in His name, He is in the midst of them (Matthew 18:20).
The One Who conquered the wilderness is here today among us and He says, “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent [turn away from the wilderness, its blind alleys, and sin that leads to death] and believe the good news.”
The good news, the gospel, for us today is this: Every person lost in the wilderness who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Romans 10:13) and this Jesus can be with you always, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).
Count on Jesus to take you through your wilderness and beyond, to life with God that never ends. Amen
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]