In the late 1800’s, the Union Pacific Railroad was being built. Rail tracks were being laid across the whole country to connect passengers and goods from coast to coast. It was a massive construction project. As a section of track in the western United States was being laid, the construction team came to a large canyon. It required the building of a very large trestle bridge across the gap.
After this enormous structure was completed, the construction engineer wanted to test the bridge. So, he loaded a train with extra cars and equipment. Altogether it was more than double the normal payload. He then drove the train to the middle of the bridge. He stopped it there, and he walked away. He let the incredible, oversized payload sit on top of the bridge for a full day. When he was satisfied that the bridge wasn’t going to collapse from the weight, he drove it back off of the new bridge.
One of the railroad workers said to the engineer, “We just spent two years building this bridge. Are you trying to destroy it?” “No,” the engineer replied, “I want to make sure it’s unbreakable.”
Here is a truth: sometimes, testing happens through trial.
Our scripture reading from Mark’s Gospel today is only seven verses long. While the reading is short, it is powerful. Mark doesn’t use a lot of flowery language or go into a lot of detail in his writing. In fact, in these seven verses, Mark tells three important stories of Jesus’ life. First his baptism, then these 40 days of temptation in the wilderness, and then it goes straight into Jesus’ mission. These three important scenes are quickly strung together like three firecrackers. Boom, boom, boom, right in a row.
But the centerpiece of these three stories is about the test. It is about a trial that Jesus had to endure in the wilderness. For 40 days, Jesus was in the desert, suffering without food, or water. For 40 days, he was being tempted to use his power to save himself. And for 40 days, Jesus resisted these temptations.
Mark writes that after the heavens opened and the Spirit descended like a dove, “…the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness.
What catches my attention here is what the Spirit does. The Holy Spirit descended from heaven in the form of a dove. Now when we think of a dove, we think of a pleasant, peaceful, quiet creature, right?
But that’s not what we get here. In Mark’s version of the story, the scriptures say that the Spirit descended in the form of a dove, and then immediately drove Jesus into the wilderness. The Spirit drives. That’s an interesting choice of words. It implies that Jesus is thrust, shoved, and pushed into the wilderness, by the Holy Spirit of God! Jesus is propelled into this desert realm so that he might be tested. It implies that this wasn’t Jesus’ idea.
So I’ve always wondered about this story. Why did God feel the need to test Jesus in this way? I mean after all, if God is God, and God is all knowing, then God would already know what Jesus was capable of; God would know what Jesus was going to do, right?
Maybe there was a greater purpose: Maybe Jesus didn’t endure this testing…so that God would know. Perhaps the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness to be tested so that Jesus would know.
Maybe Jesus’ surviving this test and resisting temptation, was intended to remind him of who he was, and of what was his purpose. Maybe it was to build within Jesus a sense a sense of confidence in his own identity: as Son of God and Savior of the world. Because while Jesus was God, there was also a human side to Jesus. He had to have some question…maybe even some doubt.
Maybe like that construction engineer who double loaded the train and placed it on the new bridge, God wanted Jesus to be confident and resolved in his identity and his mission before day 41 came, and he began his mission to the world. Maybe God wanted Jesus to be confident, that when stressed…when challenged…he wouldn’t break.
And Jesus resisted the temptation. Jesus resisted evil. Jesus didn’t break.
I’ve got to tell you; I’ve seen some pretty powerful images of resistance in the last 2 weeks. In the nation of Ukraine, we have seen citizens and soldiers both, standing up to an evil. We have seen images of citizens putting their bodies in front of columns of tanks, protecting the vulnerable, and resisting a totalitarian regime. They have done so why? Because they are confident in who they are.
- They know that they are free, not subservient.
- They know that their nation is independent, not the subject of another.
- They know that they are Ukrainians, not Russians.
And they want the rest of the world to know that too.
It is powerful to watch people who are confident in their identity.
So, Jesus goes into the wilderness, and what does he do? He resists temptation, and he prays. For 40 days. And then he emerges and begins his ministry. Confident in who he is. Unbroken. All the way to the cross.
40 days. This theme of 40 days in the wilderness, 40 days of struggle is not a new one in the scriptures. And it has deep meaning for those who lived during Jesus’ time:
- For 40 days and 40 nights, the storm raged while Noah and his family (and a whole lot of critters) hunkered down in a boat before they emerged where? Into a new world…into a “do-over.”
- For 40 years, Moses and the Israelites wandered in the wilderness after the exodus, before they emerged where? Into the promised land.
- For 40 days, the giant Goliath taunted and humiliated the Jewish armies, before this kid named David finally picked up a rock, and the Israelites emerged…victorious.
Again, and again, and again, and again, whenever the people of God have been forced into the wilderness, God has been present with them and has seen them through. And when they emerged from the wilderness, they emerged confident in who they were as God’s people, and stronger in their relationship with, and their trust of God.
The number 40 is both significant and symbolic. When Jesus’ followers heard about his 40 days in the wilderness, it would all make sense. Because it means that like Noah, and Moses, and the Israelites, Jesus entered into something terrible…into a wilderness…and emerged into something wonderful…beautiful… confident in who, and in whose, he was.
And so here we are, people of God. At the beginning of another season of Lent. 40 days. That Lent is 40 days is not a coincidence. For 40 days, we will accompany Jesus into the wilderness.
And like Jesus, we too are tested. We too face trials. Life can be challenging, difficult and complicated. And not just during these 40 days. In fact, the whole last couple of years have upped the ante on challenge for all of us, right?
But we can learn some things from Jesus how we can walk through our 40 days; and actually, about how we can make our way through any kind of wilderness.
- First, Jesus remembered who he was. He remembered that when in his baptism that dove descended, and as it says earlier in our Gospel, God’s voice spoke and said “You are my Son…with You I am well pleased.” Like Jesus, we can be confident in our identity, given to us in our baptism: children of God, loved beyond measure.
- Second, Jesus resisted evil and temptation. When Satan offered him food, or power, or a kingdom of his own, Jesus said “no.” Like Jesus, we can resist those things that tempt us. We can resist the urge to raise ourselves up at the expense of others; the urge to seek power for power’s sake; the urge to divide ourselves instead of uniting. We too can resist evil in the world, and we can be a light in times of shadow.
- Third, Jesus prayed. And like Jesus, we will pray. Lent is a season of prayer; a season of opening our minds and hearts to the presence of God, and to praying for those in need. This Lent, I encourage you to take one of these prayer ribbons that I mentioned during the announcements. Take one and a marker and during the offering, write your prayer request. It could be a sentence, or maybe just a name, or just an idea. Write it and today, after worship, go and put it on our “Again and Again” prayer screen in the narthex. Let your prayer be joined to the prayers of the community. Together, from those prayers we will witness God’s Holy Spirit create something beautiful.
- And finally, like Jesus, we will emerge from these 40 days. These days will end with the glory of Easter. And we will be reminded that these 40 days of Lent have been a gift; a time to be reminded of who…and whose you are.
Life can feel like a test…like a trial. But because of Jesus, you can have confidence that you will not break. Have faith that you are not alone. The scriptures say that the angels tended to Jesus during his 40 days. In the same way, God, through Jesus and the Holy Spirit, will be alongside you, and will tend to you. And you will not break.
You will see the empty cross. You will hear the words that proclaim resurrection. And you will experience the love and grace of the risen Savior. For these 40 days. And for every day that follows. Again and again.
Thanks be to God!