A sermon preached on February 26th, the first Sunday in Lent, based upon Mark 1:9 – 15, entitled, “The Absence of God.”
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
Mark wrote his Gospel first – before Matthew and Luke wrote theirs. It is believed that Mark wrote 30 or 35 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Matthew and Luke wrote 20 years or so later, and they used Mark’s story-telling as their outline, adding other materials about Jesus’ life that were passed on to them.
But Mark’s was first, and as in the case of the story of the time Jesus spent out in the wilderness being tempted by Satan, what we get is bare bones. It is Matthew and Luke who add layers to the story, specifically, the three separate, specific temptations offered by Satan (turning stones to bread, jumping off the pinnacle of the temple to be caught by angels, and being offered all the world’s power.)
Mark’s story is starker, and as such allows the story to speak for itself. The situation out of which Mark wrote was more dire than the one Matthew and Luke found themselves in. He was in Rome during the reign of Nero, during a time of intense persecution. When Rome burned, and Nero blamed the fire on Christians, and proceeded to feed local Christians to the lions.
Immediately before the wilderness story Mark tells us of how Jesus’ first appearance occurred at the River Jordan where he was baptized by John. It goes without saying that what Jesus experienced as he came up out of the waters was a powerful sense of the presence of God. We are told that heaven was torn open and the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove, and that he heard the very voice of God calling him “the beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus experiences God’s presence intensely in his body — in every pore and cell, employing most, if not all of his senses — sight and sound and the sensation of the water dripping off his body and the air rushing back into his lungs, thrilling him to the core, giving a clarity beyond anything he had experienced prior to that moment. At that precise moment there are no doubts for Jesus because God is holding him every bit as intimately as a parent holds a child.
You and I probably haven’t had anything nearly so vivid in terms of an experience of God’s presence, but we’ve had our moments. Times when the meaningfulness of our lives seemed undeniable, when we felt the protection and care of God, where we found it easy to sing hymns like “In the Garden”: “He walks with me and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own.”
Following this intense experience of the presence of God for Jesus, what comes next seems very strange. The same Spirit that descended on Jesus like a dove in a loving embrace now “drives” Jesus out into the barren wilderness. It sounds so harsh, and its not surprising that Matthew and Luke felt compelled to change the word we interpret as “drove” to a gentler word that is translated “led.” But for Mark, this is some kind of very tough love getting expressed here.
What is the significance of the “wilderness”? It is, of course, the place where we are compelled to give up our attempts to be “in control” of our lives.
Barbara Brown Taylor, describing her own experience of spending merely 24 hours, not 40 days, alone in the desert, puts it this way:
“There is something about a desert that can suck all the self-confidence right out of you. It is so big, so quiet, so empty that you cannot help noticing how small and perishable you are. You remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. You wish you had someone to distract you from that fact, or at least someone to talk to about it. Anyone but the devil, that is.”
Sometimes the wilderness is a setting where people experience the presence of God — many have found it as such. But the experience of wilderness that Mark is describing here is one in which striking thing is that God is missing – the absence of God is the thing that stands out. There is no sign from God. The sky stays shut. There are no doves. There is no voice from heaven speaking reassuring words.
It is, after all, Satan with whom Jesus must contend, not God.
We like to tell ourselves that God is always present, and there is truth to that. But I don’t think it is true that we can always experience that presence. There may be some people who feel the presence of God more or less constantly, but I am not one of them. Perhaps there is an innate aptitude for this sort of thing, a genetic predisposition that makes somebody’s brain more sensitive to tuning into God that some people have been gifted with, but such aptitude is not the norm. And though it makes sense to posit such a gift in Jesus, the Gospels nonetheless make it clear that he had certain times when even he could not experience God’s presence — the most obvious example being when he hangs on the cross and cries out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Utterly abandoned – that’s what Jesus is experiencing at that moment.
And the fact that at that moment Jesus drew upon the holy scriptures – it was psalm 22 that he was quoting – makes it clear that the experience of the absence of God is a well-known part of our faith tradition. There are plenty of psalms, as well as other parts of the Bible, where the experience is described in great detail.
If you think about it, any kind of temptation – if it is real – involves at its core the experience of the absence of God. When God’s presence is unmistakable to us, we are immune to temptation. We have, at that moment, what we most need and desire; how could we be tempted by anything else? It is only when God seems absent – when life is experienced as empty, dull, barren, meaningless, anxiety-ridden that temptation can hold some power.
If you want to believe that Jesus’ sense of the presence of God was unbroken — that he was incapable of experiencing the absence of God – then you are saying that Jesus couldn’t be tempted. Not really. His temptations were only a pretense. And if he was incapable of being truly tempted, then he was altogether a different kind of creature from the one we find ourselves being.
And as such, he would be, in a certain sense, irrelevant to us.
And sense we experience the absence of the invisible God, Jesus, our redeemer, must experience it as well. And so it was in order to contend with this experience and be tempted by Satan that God has brought Jesus to the wilderness.
There are spiritual muscles that are developed in the wilderness that will come into play later for Jesus; when the world turns against him, when he is betrayed, abandoned, tortured, and finally dying on the cross.
And Mark, living in a situation where his friends are getting fed to the lions, wants to drive home this point: Jesus knows what it feels like to be in the pit with the wild beasts, and it was precisely God who made sure he did.
There is a parallel to be found to the faith relationship in any long term human love relationship. At the outset, people walk around with intensely euphoric feelings, in a cloud, enchanted by the love of the other. These feelings of bliss serve a purpose – they bind the lovers to one another. At this stage it is as if the lovers carry the presence of the other around with continually, and consequently, there is no danger of someone who has just fallen in love with somebody being wooed away by another.
Gradually, and inevitably, the two lovers enter a second stage as they fall from the cloud and come down to earth. The euphoric feelings disappear. Does this mean that the two have “fallen out of love?” This is an interesting question, because it leads us to ask about the nature of love. Is the heart of love these euphoric feelings, or is it something else?
Sometimes the two lovers break off their relationship, concluding that the absence of the ever-present blissful feelings means love is no longer possible.
But, for those lovers who agree to persevere, they eventually find themselves moving into a third stage, which is in its own way more wonderful than the bliss of the first stage. Romance returns, this is a romance that is based more on reality – a deep knowing of the other in all their strengths and weakness – in contrast to the unreality of the first stage in which lovers are blind to the real flaws of the other. This final stage is characterized by a deep sense of commitment to one another, come what may, and a deep confidence that they’ve got each other’s backs no matter what.
Some people experience a similar euphoria when God first becomes real to them. They have fallen in love with God, so to speak. And maybe God intentionally plays the part of the ever-present lover to catch our their attention, romancing them, constantly holding their hand and opening every door and finding them parking spaces.
But this phase doesn’t last. In a sense, it isn’t God that the person is committed to; rather, the commitment is to the blissful sensation of God holding their hand. There is a sense that this stage of the faith relationship is rather self-absorbed, and needs to be moved beyond.
My love for God is based on the fact that God finds me parking spaces, and if God stops finding me parking spaces, well, I’ll drop God.
So if the relationship is going to mature, it has to endure absence – that is, those times when God’s presence isn’t tangible. In a sense God is asking, are you still committed to me – do you still trust me – even when I’m not there to hold your hand?
I don’t know whether it is true or not, but there is this oft repeated story about a rite of passage that Cherokee Indians used to subject their youth to in order to express what it meant to become an adult, that has some bearing on what we’re talking about.
The story always involve a dad and his son, but I don’t know that it had to be just a male thing. As the ritual is described, the father takes the boy out into the forest (the wilderness) where he is blindfolded and left to sit alone all night on a stump. He cannot take off the blindfold until the morning light appears. He is all by himself. He cannot cry out for help to anyone. Once he survives the night, he is a MAN. He cannot tell the other boys of this experience.
Each boy must come into his own manhood. The boy is surely terrified, hearing all kinds of noises and the sounds of unknown beasts in the darkness. He must sit there alone, never removing the blindfold, in order to become a man.
Finally, after the long, horrific night, the sun appears and he removes his blindfold. It is then that he discovers that his father has been sitting there beside him, watching over him all night through.
God may not be finding us parking spaces, but God is watching out for us on a far deeper level.
The story of Jesus’ time in the wilderness concludes with the words, “and the angels ministered to him.” I think that’s interesting. God isn’t present for Jesus, but there are angels. Angels are invisible; there presence isn’t generally something one “feels” or notice directly, but, if we pay attention, we may notice their subtle impact on our environment.
I heard this story about this guy sitting in a bar in Alaska, drinking his troubles away. He complains to the bartender that he’s through with God.
“I was out in the arctic on my snowmobile when suddenly it pops a gasket and won’t move. I start praying to God with every fiber of my being: ‘Please God, come and rescue me!’ But nothing. No answer at all. I felt so alone, utterly abandoned. So, I’m through with God.”
The bartender listens, then says, “But – you’re here. You survived.”
“Yeah,” says the man, “thanks to this old Eskimo who happened to come by on his sled. But God didn’t lift a finger.”
Jesus, recognizing that he is cared for by God even when he cannot perceive God’s presence, can come forth with a truly good news to share.
Our God is more reliable than our feelings. Feelings come and go. But love never ends.