After John was arrested, Jesus went to Galilee preaching the message of God: “Times up!  God’s kingdom is here.  Change your life and believe the Message.”

 -Mark 9:7

(Preached on Sunday, February 18, 2018)

A taxi driver and a minister arrive at the Pearly Gates.  St. Peter says to the taxi driver, “Take this silken robe and golden staff and enter the Kingdom.”  Then it’s the minister’s turn.  St. Peter says, “Take this cotton robe and wooden staff and enter the Kingdom.”  “Just a minute,” says the minister.  “How come he gets silk and gold and I get cotton and wood?”  “We work by results,” says Peter.  “While you preached, people slept; while he drove, people prayed.”

A little levity which seemed greatly needed in a week when there was precious little reason to laugh or even smile.  But I also shared this story because it contains an important grain of truth as well which I wanted to lift up in the Message this morning: results are important.  While we are not a works righteousness faith; while we do not believe that our salvation, our standing before God, God’s love for us, is in any way conditional upon the good works we perform or the results of our lives; we do believe that our faith should make a difference in our lives and in how we live our lives.  We do believe that our relationship with God and with Jesus will lead to actions that bear witness to the presence of God and the power of God’s Holy Spirit active in our lives.

The Holy Spirit can be a very powerful force in our lives.  It was the Holy Spirit which Jesus saw descend upon him in the form of a dove after his baptism by John in the Jordan River.  That same Holy Spirit then “pushed” him out into the wilderness.  Mark tells us that for forty days Jesus was in the wilderness, being tested by Satan, with wild animals as his companions and angels taking care of him.  That sounds like a pretty spiritual time.  Clearly the Holy Spirit drove Jesus into a literal wilderness, a physical place where few people go.  I’m not talking about camping and hiking, but rather real wilderness where we wrestle with ourselves, our spirit, and our relationship with God.

The first thing we learn about the Holy Spirit and wilderness is that it is often the Holy Spirit which pushes us into the wilderness.  Traditionally the Season of Lent has been viewed as a wilderness time: a time to deny oneself pleasures, a time to practice a little self-sacrifice, a time to engage in a little more prayer, some fasting, and some good deeds of charity.  Lent has always been a sort of spiritual boot camp.

But in recent years that approach to Lent has been practiced by fewer and fewer people.  After all, with today’s hectic schedules of work and school and social engagements and so much entertainment to consume, who has time for Lent?  Probably many of you, most people in South Florida, did not really approach the Season of Lent this year planning to spend some time in the wilderness with Jesus and the Spirit of God.  Then on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, all hell broke loose in Parkland, Florida at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and we all were pushed into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit.

Now, whether we wanted to go there with Jesus this year or not, we find ourselves in the wilderness.  Here in the wilderness Lent asks us to wrestle with the hard stuff: to pray, to fast, to do something new.  It is in the wilderness that we can face our own demons, grapple with our own shortcomings, our own failures as human beings, our own proclivities toward evil, and make an honest confession that leads us to choose all over again to follow Jesus.

That is not an easy choice to make.  Jesus does not present an easy path to follow.  Contrast Jesus with the urbane citizens of Western culture.  Our society is awash with the notion that the more mature a person is the more at home they are with the world around them.  The well adjusted person is at ease, confident in their opinions, assured among the pressures of life, not given to excesses.  That is not the way of Jesus.  Jesus was never at ease with the distortions, lies and corruptions of this world.  His teachings about living humbly, scorning power and money, forgiving your enemy, turning the other cheek, giving without expecting a reward, picking up a cross and following him along the path of love, are still at odds with most of the attitudes of people today.  But Jesus understood that all these were the ways to keep our focus on God; which is the most important thing to do: love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind.

But to get to that point; to fully embrace that life and fully give himself to God, Jesus had to go into the wilderness.  Jesus had to grapple with his own demons and face the difficulties of living a life devoted to loving God and loving neighbor.  That is why the Holy Spirit pushed him into the wilderness immediately after his baptism.

As you find yourself in the wilderness this Lent, don’t despair.  The wilderness offers you a powerful opportunity to grapple with the demons hounding you in your life.  It offers you an opportunity to wrestle with your own ego, to face your own blind spots, and to confront your own shortcomings and failures.  The good news is that you are not in that wilderness alone.  Jesus has already faced the wilderness and he will be with you as you face your own wilderness.  I am convinced that when we go through these wilderness times, God looks at us with nothing but compassion and love.  After all, God watched God’s own child go through such a time, too.

While the wilderness offers us an opportunity for spiritual growth and an opportunity for more prayer, it also offers us an opportunity to change and move forward with more intentionality and action.  While the Holy Spirit pushed Jesus into the wilderness, it did not leave him there.  After his 40 days in the wilderness; after his testing by Satan and his sojourn with the wild beasts and his communing with angels, Jesus finally left the wilderness and returned to Galilee where he began him ministry of preaching the Message of God.  It was a message calling people to change their lives and become more loving, more compassionate, more just.

Clearly when we find ourselves in the wilderness it is a time for prayer.  But not the “thoughts and prayers” that are offered far too often in our society as a means of postponing dealing with the hard issues of life.  These are not the thoughts and prayers used as a defense mechanism to avoid asking yourself the hard and difficult questions about life, about your own actions or lack of actions in your life.  The prayers of the wilderness, if they are sincere prayers, will always lead us to action.

So embrace your time in the wilderness this Lent.  Use your time in the wilderness as a time for honest and sincere prayer.  Let the prayer lead you to ask yourself the challenging questions of the wilderness that bring you face to face with your own demons of testing.  In your prayers ask yourself what more can you do to love God with your heart, soul, mind and strength?  Ask yourself what more can you do to love your neighbor?  Ask yourself what more can you do to stand up for justice?  Ask yourself what more can you do to welcome the stranger?  Ask yourself what more can you do to love your enemies?  Ask yourself what more can you do care for the creation?  Ask yourself what more can you do to protect the children?

But remember, the Holy Spirit has pushed you into the wilderness not just to ask the questions; not just to spend time in prayer.  The Holy Spirit has pushed you into the wilderness so that your prayers and the questions might lead you to take action.  So be sure to act upon what your prayer time in the wilderness shows you.  Be sure to act on the answers the Spirit gives you to the questions.  Whatever that action might be; to write letters, to make telephone calls, to sign-petitions, to march in protest, or whatever answers the Spirit brings to you.  Jesus didn’t stay in the wilderness.  He went into Galilee proclaiming: “Time’s up!  God’s kingdom is here.  Change your life and believe the Message.”  To follow Jesus, believe the Message of God’s love and change your life.  Your prayers must lead to action.