Fr. Bill Carroll – The First Sunday in Lent, February 18, 2024

And right away, the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness. 

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

In the other Gospels, it says that the Spirit led Jesus out into the wilderness.  But in Mark, the language is much stronger.  The Greek uses the same word as when Jesus “casts out” demons.  The Latin text says that the Spirit “expelled” Jesus into the wilderness. And so, Mark is describing a powerful and forceful movement.  He is saying that the Spirit drives Jesus out, where no one would want to go.

Sometimes, it’s like that for us.  The Spirit drives us out into dry, desert places.  In the Bible, these are the places of temptation.  But they are also the places where we meet God.  In one desert place, God appears to Moses in a burning bush.  In another, Elijah goes to hide from the prophets of Baal.  The People of Israel wander for forty years in the wilderness on their journey out of bondage into freedom.  

Throughout his ministry, Jesus goes where the Father sends him.  In the power of the Spirit, he is faithful to his mission.  Throughout the Gospels, the Spirit drives Jesus out into places of shame, frustration, and despair.  And so, he comes to share in the lives of oppressed, grieving, and morally compromised people.  

For Jesus, this means widows, orphans, and poor people.  It means women, Samaritans, and foreigners. It means lepers, those possessed by evil spirits, and others considered unclean.  It means tax collectors, prostitutes, and those who do questionable work for a living.  It means sinful, hurting people like you and me.  Jesus is true to God’s covenant with Noah, where God makes a covenant with “every living thing”–with “all flesh.”  Jesus has come to show mercy to every last one of us.

On the first Sunday in Lent, we always hear the story of our Lord’s temptation in the wilderness.  Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark doesn’t give us any specifics.  All he says is that “Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan.”  And then, he adds that Jesus was with the wild beasts and that the angels waited on him.

The devil offers Jesus an easy way out–to try to stop him on his mission of love.  And so, he tempts Jesus to use his power to feed himself–or to save himself from harm.  In the end, he offers Jesus all the kingdoms of this world. (Apparently, they are his to offer.)  But that would mean becoming a different kind of king.  And so, Jesus says, “No.”

The desert is an experience we all share.  Sometimes, God seems so far away.  And too often, the enemy of our human nature tempts us to turn away from God–to harm other people (even harm ourselves).  This Lent, like every Lent, we go out into the desert with Jesus–to encounter his mercy and forgiveness and to be renewed in the gift of his love.

As some of you know, one of my favorite books is Thomas Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude.  I read it every year for Lent.  For Merton, the atomic age has transformed the whole world into a desert.  He is writing in the shadow of the bomb and our newfound power to destroy the world.  (Think about that when you read the news about nuclear weapons in space.)  Our time is filled with risks, but also possibilities.  On the one hand:

The [person] who wanders into the desert…must take care that they don’t go mad and become the servant of the one who dwells there in a sterile paradise of emptiness and rage.

But, on the other hand, the desert is not only a place of temptation.  It is also the place where we meet God.  The desert can be a place of self-conquest, where, by the grace of God, we find our true selves.  Often, this involves a painful process of letting go.  In the desert, we make room for God in our lives.

The desert (Merton writes) is the home of despair.  And despair now is everywhere.  Let us not think that interior solitude consists in the acceptance of defeat (he says).  We cannot escape anything by consenting tacitly to be defeated.  Despair is an abyss without bottom.  Do not think to close it by consenting to it and trying to forget you have consented.

This then (he goes on to say) is our desert:  To live facing despair but not to consent.  To trample it down under hope in the Cross.  To wage war against despair unceasingly.  That war is our wilderness.  If we wage it courageously, we will find [Jesus] at our side.” 

Dearly beloved, this is the battle to which God is calling us today.  To face the emptiness we feel with honesty.  To face the choices we have made and their consequences, trusting fully in the love of Jesus.  To shed the masks we wear and the lies we tell to hide the truth about ourselves.  

And so, we renew our commitment to prayer and other spiritual disciplines.  And we take up the works of mercy.  We feed the hungry.  We clothe the naked.  We house the homeless poor.  We take sides against cruelty and suffering, wherever they are found.  And we join Jesus in his solidarity with the least of these.

We show kindness to other people–even when they don’t deserve it.  We do justice and seek the common good–even when that’s unpopular or hard to do.  We walk humbly (we walk humbly with our God) through dry places and the valley of the shadow of death, following in the steps of Jesus and “trampling down despair under hope in [his] Cross.”  For “Christ has suffered once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us back to God.”   And if sought, he will help us, and turn us back to each other.