Into the Wilderness

This would have been the sermon preached in worship on February 22, 2015 (had we not had to cancel). It’s based on 1 Peter 3:18-22.

Jesus entered the “wilderness.” I begin this meditation with that idea, even though the word itself appears nowhere in the passage on which it’s based. Why would I do that? Well, in one sense it’s because Jesus did enter the wilderness on our behalf when he was driven out there by the Spirit to be tested by the Devil for 40 days and 40 nights 1. In another sense, however, it’s because the entering of the wilderness defines Jesus’ entire life.

The wilderness is a complicated idea in the Bible. In many ways it’s a place of danger and temptation. It is where people are most directly confronted with Satan and his minions, who use the scarcity of the environment against our own normal human appetites. Yet it’s also a place of self-denial for the purposes of drawing near to God as the “things of Earth” grow, as the old hymn puts it, “strangely dim.” It’s even described as a place of refuge from the storms of life – sheltering prophet, priest, and king alike. The wilderness, is complex – and Jesus encounters every one of these realities within it’s spacious confines.

He spent time in the desert denying himself and being tempted by the Devil. He went to lonely places to pray and draw near to God. He taught in the wilderness, and even brought signs of abundance there through miraculous feedings. The question is, “Why would he come into this world where temptation was real, scarcity was common, and the need to seek the presence of his Father was normal?” He did it for sinners. He did it for us.

We are sinners, not “them,” not “those people,” who are really bad. We are all “the unrighteous”, and Christ dared to enter into our wilderness that we might be brought back to our Creator. As 1 Peter says, through his work, we have been saved.

Now, I really don’t know what to make of Peter’s statement about Jesus going to preach to “formerly disobedient” people from the time of Noah in verse 19. People have made all sorts of theologies from it. I think his larger point was the link between Noah’s story and our own. Being saved, in both stories, requires passing through water safely to the other side. In Noah’s tale, only eight people did so successfully. In our story the number is, praise God, much larger.

We have “passed through water,” we did it at our baptism. The waters covered over us (for Baptists this is typically literal as we immerse people), and we went to our deaths – only to find the Jesus had already been there. He booted us right back out again, so we emerged from the waters into a new life committed to Christ.

This is why Peter points out, through baptism we have an appeal to God through the resurrection. We have been changed at the most inward core of our being. In Christ we have been put to death, and in Christ we have been raised into new life. There is nothing separating us from the God of Creation any longer (we have a “good conscience”), the curtain which kept us from our Creator has been torn down. What we must ask ourselves is, “Are we willing to live in this new life?”

If the life we live after baptism is Jesus’, then his life should become our pattern. His will, his love, his grace, his mercy, and certainly his self-denial are what is meant to define us. Jesus came to live in the wilderness on behalf of others, and somehow, so would we.

We have been left as his presence in this world. Think about what that means. Jesus is the righteous one who suffered on behalf of the unrighteous and we who bear only Christ’s righteousness, have been given the charge to repeat that joyous self-denial over and over and over for the sake of others. We do this in love for all hoping that some might come to the waters and join the pilgrimage to which Jesus calls us.

This is the journey of Lent. May you walk in the wilderness with your Lord, so his joy, strength, power, and grace might be found in you. Amen.

  1. The Gospel reading was Mark 1:9-15, which references Jesus’ wilderness temptations. So it fit that way.