September 5, 2021 -“Spirit” (Isaiah 43:18-25; Mark 1:9-13)


Our gospel story this morning is the story of Jesus’ transition from private life to public ministry. The story is a reminder to us that all of our human transitions take us through a wilderness in one form or another. The best metaphor I’ve found for a church like yours, in transition between installed senior pastors, and for all of you going through your own individual, is being in the wilderness, and so it is my practice to begin every interim pastorate with a series of sermons based on Bible stories set in the wilderness.

Today I will preach on Jesus’ time in the wilderness, as well as my own. I will point to Jesus as the model for us to follow when we are in the wilderness, and I will tell my own story both as an example what not to do in the wilderness and as a reassurance to you that God is with you in the wilderness and caring for you even when you are not handling the wilderness very well, and will guide you safely through the wilderness.

Let me begin.

I find our story today from Mark jarring. It’s jarring to me that Jesus goes so quickly from the light of being declared “beloved” by the voice from heaven at his baptism by John in the Jordan to being driven immediately by God’s Spirit into a darker wilderness experience, being tested for 40 days by Satan, being threatened and scared by the wild beasts, while simultaneously being waited upon by God’s ministering angels. Jesus has no time at all to bask in his own divine belovedness, but is immediately driven into the wilderness for testing. And Jesus clearly does not volunteer for the testing. It is God who, as part of his love for Jesus, sees Jesus’ need for testing before Jesus starts his public ministry, and it is God, through the Spirit, who “drives” him into the wilderness, much as a cowboy drives a steer before him.

Well, I am not Jesus, and never will be, but it was just as jarring to me when something like it happened to me.

Back in 2008, at the low point of the Great Recession, I said goodbye to the church family in Tennessee I had pastored for 20 years so we could follow Molly’s call to be a hospital chaplain in Tampa. The church and I had had the usual ups and downs together, good times and hard ones, but, all in all, it was a good pastorate, a good church, and our ending together was full of mutual warmth, affection and affirmation, and we were able, each in our own ways, to pronounce one another Beloved.

Almost immediately my own time in the wilderness began.

Molly had already moved to Tampa to begin her work. My two sons were off to begin their first year of college and high school, respectively, and it was left to me alone to close out our life in Knoxville and get our stuff moved to Tampa. I still do not entirely understand what happened, but as I got closer and closer to moving, I began 30 days of fear like I have never known. It never happened before and it hasn’t happened since, but for a month I was scared to death. The move to Florida turned out to be my wilderness; a voice was trying to get me to settle for something less than my new calling; my worries and fears were my wild beasts within; a hitchhiker was my angel; and when it was all over I was turned down for a position I thought I wanted and had, and began my new journey as an interim pastor.

Being a human being is both a blessed and vexed thing. Both. We’re all such a mixed bag of stuff: light and dark, rational and irrational, faith and fear, faith and doubt, strength and weakness, virtue and sin. If you live long enough you will discover parts of yourself that will surprise you, things that don’t fit in with your own image of yourself or the image that others have of you, things that you never knew were there and never expected to be there.

My fear did not just play out in my head. It had real and severe physical consequences for me. My pulse and blood pressure skyrocketed and would not come down. I went to my doctor twice during this time, and he first doubled and then quadrupled my blood pressure medication. It was like my adrenal gland was stuck in the wide-open position. I wasn't sleeping at night. At night I had weird prickly sensations running up and down my arms and legs that made me wonder if I was getting ready to have a heart attack. I wasn't eating. I dropped 20 pounds in a month without even trying, getting down below my weight in high school. I remember having trouble thinking and speaking during this time. My brain seemed like it was in slow-setting concrete. The words just weren’t coming to me like they used to. I thought I might have had a stroke. I remember talking to Molly in Florida several times during this period, but I couldn’t seem to talk about my distress, couldn’t put my any of it into words. Physically and emotionally I was a wreck. Spiritually I just felt empty.

I remembered during that time being worried about everything all the time-- money and work and health and parents and children and housing. My mind would attach to a worry and hold onto that worry like a bulldog, passing entire nights not sleeping but imagining the worst in that area. I was in such bad shape that, unknown to Molly, I was just on the verge of calling the movers and telling them to forget the whole thing. In the end I didn’t do that, thank God, and the movers came and got our stuff.

Then it was time for me to drive our remaining car to Tampa. I had to get the car to Tampa and then catch a plane out of Tampa to Seattle to care for my mother during her knee surgery and then help her with her recovery over the next two weeks. I remember feeling so anxious and tired as I began my 700 mile trip, and really in no shape to be driving. But, as you know, certain things have to be done at certain times of life, and sometimes whether you want to do something or no