Sunday, May 17, 2009

a wilderness faith

Update: I think this sermon has roots in this reflection I wrote in 2005 – on the place of wilderness faith for the emerging church.

I don’t normally put up sermons here, both due to time constraints and the fact that sermons are a spoken, not a written encounter.

(Taken by Mike Bischoff here)

But there’s always a time to break a rule. Also because this is the sermon I would have liked to preach to frame a “wilderness spirituality2go” web-project I designed last year. Everyone was given a rock, and this was used at the end, by way of prayerful mediation. So with a few edits, here is a reflection on Mark 1:2-13 and the need for wilderness in spirituality.

I have some friends, who when I first met them, used to sign all of their cell phone texts with the byline- “head for the hills.”

They loved their cars and they loved their driving and so “head for the hills” meant a chance to get away from it all.

In 1997 Paul Hawker headed for the hills. Aged 43, at the height of his creative powers and his career, he felt “restless …. a lost soul, directionless and confused. And so Paul Hawker headed for the hills. He went bush in the North Island, alone for 40 days and 40 nights. “Time” he wrote in his book, Soul Survivor: A Spiritual Quest Through 40 Days and 40 Nights of Mountain Solitude“>Soul Survivor, “to discover what was and wasn’t real, and to risk all in the process”. One point toward the end of his 40 days Paul got caught in a mountain hut in a storm that lasted for three days. Paul lost it. He writes in his book of erupting with anger, swearing at God for all the bad things that’ve happened. In the silence which followed Paul Hawker sensed God speaking, “At last you’ve stopped pretending… now we’ve got some honesty, now we can really get stuck in.” For Paul Hawker “Head for the hills” meant a chance to get honest.

In the time of Jesus, heading for the hills was also a popular spiritual option. This is an image of the caves at Qumran. In the first century, a group of Jews decided to hide in the hills, in these caves. They believed that their Jewish culture had become corrupt and ungodly and materialistic.

And so they formed a monastery in the Judean wilderness. Which has become famous in the last 50 years with the discovery of 100s and 100s of scrolls. Here’s what one scroll says: “They shall separate from the habitation of ungodly men and shall go into the wilderness to prepare the way …. make straight in the desert a path for our God.” 1QS 8:13-14.

Head for the hills, to hide. For others in the time of Jesus, head for the hills was a place from to start a rebellion. And so Josephus, in his first century history of Jewish life, talked of ‘impostors and deceivers’ who ‘persuaded the crowd to follow them into the wilderness.”

Want some detail on this, check out Acts 21:38. It describes an Egyptian ‘prophet’ who lived in the wilderness. Who collected a band of followers. Who turned his followers into freedom fighters. Who led them to attack Jerusalem, to drive out Romans

So people head for the hills for a variety of reasons – to escape, to get real and honest with themselves and with God, to retreat from a corrupt society, to launch a military coup.

With this type background, I want to read from Mark 1:2-13.

Two key words that stand out, that highlight what head for the hills means for Mark and for Mark’s story of Jesus.

The first is the word, Spirit. It appears in Mark 1:8, 1:10; 1:12. That word Spirit appears six times in the whole of the book of Mark. So when it crops up three times in 1 single passage, Mark is telling us something.

Telling us that Spirit is essential to this Jesus.

Telling us that this Jesus is not a man alone. That because of Spirit, this Jesus is actually God-in-community. Jesus has a relationship with a Father: You are my son, whom I live, in Mark 1:11
Jesus is another relationship, empowered and directed by God’s Spirit.

So this Jesus is not man alone. This Jesus is God-in-community, in relationship with a Father, empowered and directed by God’s Spirit,

So that’s the first key word. Spirit. It’s all about the story of God-in-community.

Second key word is wilderness. The word “wilderness” appears in Mark 1:2-3. And again in Mark 1:4. And so we have the first Baptist preacher:

If we’re honest, it would probably be hard for us to take John seriously. If someone stepped into our pulpit wearing camels hair, bit of locust wing stuck between his teeth, hands sticky with honey.

Then in Mark 1:9, the wilderness is the place in which Jesus is baptised.

You can write whole theology books on the baptism of Jesus. Baptists argue for full immersion in a full river Jordan, Anglicans arguing for a sprinkle in a dry river Jordan.

The Press this week, reported that it would be just about impossible for Jesus to be baptised today in the River Jordan. If he did, he’d probably catch some wierd skin disease. Because the River Jordan is now a polluted trickle.

But that’s to miss Mark’s point. That Jesus comes to the wilderness. To make his public appearance in Mark, Jesus heads for the hills. This is a wilderness baptism

The wilderness baptism is followed by, 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.

And thus Mark brings together his two main themes. Spirit and wilderness.

That’s where the story in Mark begins. In the wilderness. Where the wild things are. So what? What does wilderness mean for us at Opawa?

We who live in a relatively strong church, with buildings, financial resources, lots of volunteers. We who mostly live comfortable, with a roof over heads, running water, among a Western culture which is probably the wealthiest, most comfortable generation ever to live. So what if the story begins in the wilderness?

Let me make four suggestions, as I do, keep relating them back to these verses in Mark.

First, we need to tell our wilderness stories. At the start of the year, I set our church Board some homework. Read a book called unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity… and Why It Matters“>UnChristian. It’s a book about what people outside the church think of Christians.

Number one perception is that Christians are hypocritical: that Christians say one thing but live something entirely different. Here’s what Victoria said: Everyone in my church gave me advice about how to raise a son. But a lot of time they seemed to be reminding me that I have no husband – and besides, most of them were not following their own advice … They were not practicing what they were preaching.

One response is to be transparent. To tell our wilderness stories. To stop pretending we’ve got it all sussed. Be real about our struggles. Which could lead to a new perception: Christians are transparent about their flaws. So that’s a first application. If the story of Jesus begins in wilderness, then Christians need to be tellers of our wilderness stories.

Second application is that we need to place our wilderness stories within God’s wilderness story. We need to remind each other that the nation of Israel began in the wilderness. It was in the wilderness that Israel learnt to trust in God. In the wilderness they experienced God’s protection. In the wilderness that their identity was formed, understandings of God, and of community, were formed.

Mark is very deliberate about this. That’s verse 2 and 3. Mark is quoting from the Old Testament. One verse is from Isaiah 40:3 and the other is from Malachi 3:1. Verse from Malachi is quoting from Exodus 23:20. “See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared.”

And so Jesus wilderness is placed within Israel’s wilderness. As God began something new in the Exodus, God is starting something new now. As God formed Israel then, so God is forming Jesus now. As God guarded and guided Israel then, so God is guarding and guiding Israel now.

That’s a second application. Why head for the hills? Because that’s where the new things in God begin. Place our wilderness stories within God’s wilderness story.

Third application, to look for angel moments. In Exodus, God sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared.

So in Mark 1:13: and angels attended him. So if it’s good enough for Jesus, as God-in-community, to be looked after by angels; then we should look for angels in our wilderness times.

And I love the way that in Mark wilderness and wild animals and forces of darkness are real. And so is God’s Spirit and the angels. No matter how dry. No matter how long. The wilderness is bracketed by Spirit and comes with angels to sustain. So in the wilderness, we look for angel moments.

Fourthly, we expect green shoots. As I read this passage in Mark, I began to wonder, what if all stories begin in wilderness? What if every person knew to Opawa comes from a place of wilderness. And so Opawa Baptist should be comfortable with John the Baptists. Wild man. Probably smelly. Bad diet.

Opawa should be an welcoming place for those finding life dry and hard, a starting place for those battling demons and feeling beat up. Because: It’s all about the story. Story of Jesus begins in the wilderness.

Posted by steve at 09:00 PM


  1. Fascinating, thought-provoking stuff. Hope you give us the opportunity to walk the journey through Mark with you. Would like to read the first (and the rest) in the series. Any chance?

    Comment by Ian — May 20, 2009 @ 1:08 pm

  2. Thank you so much for this – very useful and helpful.
    I have known for a long time that people in the church are seen as hypocritical
    and I love your idea of trying to tell our wilderness story as a way of breaking that down. I found it heartening and affirming because I realise it is something I do try to do – but it is hard to show one’s vulnerabilities in this way in all circumstances – perhaps more complex dynamics are involved in that for women as well – basically though I really agree with you and I love teh bit about teh angel moments

    Comment by jane — May 29, 2009 @ 9:59 am

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