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Worship Service Message

February 18, 2024
1st Sunday in Lent

The Wilderness in a Fast-Moving World

Mark 1:9-15

Rev. Dr. Jaegil Lee

Today’s Gospel story moves quickly. Despite being only 7 verses, it encompasses many geographical changes and significant events. Geographically, Jesus comes from Nazareth of Galilee to Jordan, is thrown out into the wilderness by the Spirit; and then returns to Galilee. In terms of significant events, Jesus is baptized by John, tempted by Satan, and proclaims the good news of God after John’s arrest. 

In fact, the Gospel of Mark frequently uses the word, “immediately.” In today’s lesson, verse 12 states, “And the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness.” The word “immediately” appears 41 times in the Mark’s Gospel, emphasizing the swift movement of Jesus from one place or task to the next. 

Living in a hectic busy world, we often practice mindful slowing down. However, today’s Gospel lesson seems to suggest that slowing down is almost impossible. Events and surroundings change rapidly. Even if we would slow down, the world never appears to do so.

Nevertheless, what captures our attention in the Gospel of Mark is that the main scene of its beginning is the wilderness, including the Jordan River, until Jesus first proclaims the Good News of God in Galilee. John the baptist was in the wilderness, proclaiming the necessity of metanoia (changing the heart and mind); Jesus came to John in the Jordan River and was baptized there; and he spent 40 days in the wilderness.

While the Gospel of Mark has a nickname as the “Immediately” Gospel, the author keeps readers’ attention on the wilderness for quite a long time. Because almost all other episodes or scenes in the Gospel of Mark change very quickly, the time Jesus and John spend in the wilderness, including the Jordan River, feels and looks like an eternity. 

It is quite obvious that in the Gospel of Mark the “wilderness” bears a special weight. The significance of the wilderness is also apparent in Mark’s version of Jesus’ temptation story. Matthew and Luke both have versions of Jesus’ temptation story, but their versions are longer and more elaborate, even including three specific temptations. However, unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark has a simpler version. We don’t hear what he was tempted with. 

What is interesting is that Mark seems less interested in “temptation” itself, but in “wilderness.” This is alluded to by the fact that in the temptation story, Mark uses the word “temptation” only once while “wilderness” is used twice. For Mark, the emphasis seems less on Jesus’ having gone through temptation than on the significance of wilderness for Jesus. 

In the Gospel of Mark, the wilderness symbolizes a sacred place, opposing the Temple-based religious system of Jesus’ time. While the Jerusalem-centered religion claimed that believers should come to the temple to practice their religion correctly, for Jesus, the wilderness was the place where he had the most profound experiences of God.

In his two critical moments, as we saw last Sunday in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus heard the voice of God saying, “You are my beloved child.” In both cases, Jesus didn’t hear it in the Temple or in Jerusalem. As in today’s scripture, he heard one divine voice in the Jordan River during baptism and another voice on the mountaintop while praying with his core disciples. Both the Jordan River and the mountain top represent the wilderness—the place uncontaminated by human hands and systems.

That is why in the Gospels we often hear that Jesus went to a remote place or a mountain to pray alone or with his disciples. Even the night he was arrested, he was on the Mount of Olives to pray. While Jesus was always surrounded by the crowd whose needs he cared for and met, he also stayed connected with the wilderness where he could experience God freely and undisturbed.

During Lent, we are invited to ask ourselves, “Where is the wilderness for me?” When you suffer from human created problems, where do you go to experience an uncontaminated presence of God? Do you go to a beach, the ocean, a forest, or a trail? I truly believe that nature was the first and will be the last place where we humans experience the sacred presence of the Divine.

So, I strongly encourage you to often go out to nature to hear God’s voice, especially when you are confused about who you are due to all the lies of the world about you. However, always remember that wilderness, nature, itself is not God, but rather its purity and untaintedness help us meet with God more closely and openly.

However, the wilderness that Jesus invites us to does not merely refer to external places in nature. It also symbolizes places where we can hear the divine voice more clearly and without human interruptions. As pointed out earlier, the wilderness is represented as opposed to the institutionalized Temple-based religion.

What does it mean to us as a faith community? From my understanding, as a faith community, we need to ensure that our St. Paul’s church is a place where people can hear the voice of God without any institutionalized restrictions. We need to ensure that our St. Paul’s community always creates the wilderness within and among us so that the voice of God can be heard by whoever comes into our sacred space. It means that we must make a constant effort to maintain the spirit of the wilderness in the core of our community ethos.

What I have learned from Edgar Cayce’s book, A Search from God, is that it is important to have a practical weekly assignment. Although I cannot guarantee that I will come up with an assignment every week, I have an assignment for this week. But don’t worry about it too much because you don’t have to submit anything to me for a grade. If you do it, you will get A. If you don’t do it, then you will have another opportunity until you do it.

During this Lenten season and particularly this week, I invite you to go into nature more frequently. For this week, make a conscious effort to bring yourself into nature at least 2-3 times and immerse yourself in it for more than 15 minutes. I know I really need this practice because I haven’t done it for a while, meaning a few weeks. If you cannot go to a beach or a forest for some reason, then go to your garden or even to a big tree around your place and spend some time there to experience God and hear God’s voice.

More specifically, I encourage you to ask to God who you are to God and listen attentively to God’s answer. In other words, ask God, “Who am I to You, O God?” and wait in silence to hear God’s answer for a few minutes. Be reminded that your answer may be given immediately, a few hours later, or gradually. Also, keep in mind that your question may be answered directly or indirectly. In other words, you may hear an inner voice from the Spirit of God, or your friend or neighbor may deliver the answer to you in a completely unexpected manner. Therefore, stay open to receiving the answer.

The wilderness does not merely mean a time or place where we experience pain and suffering, but rather a place or time where we are able to experience God more intentionally. Welcome to the wilderness this time of Lent.

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