There is a story about a “young seminarian at the Divinity School at Cambridge University in England. It was the custom there that each theological candidate had to preach a sermon on a Sunday morning before the entire faculty and student body. The challenge of the assignment came from the fact that the students had no clue ahead of time what the text was that they were to preach on. There was no time for preparation.
“You see, up on the pulpit was a black box containing pieces of paper. Each piece of paper had a biblical text or word written on it. The student preacher for the day had to reach in – draw out a piece of paper – read the text on the piece of paper – and start preaching.” Folks – remind me never to apply for admission to the Divinity School at Cambridge University.
“One Sunday morning, a student climbed the spiral staircase to the pulpit, and drew a piece of paper out of the box. On the slip of paper was one word. The word was ‘Zacchaeus.’”
“Well, I’m sure this young preacher wannabe knew the story. But his mind drew a blank. He remembered what he had been told, though. ‘Repeat the text, and have three points.’
“Here is exactly what he said that Sunday morning:
“‘Zacchaeus. First, Zacchaeus was a small man...and so am I.’
“‘Second, Zacchaeus was up a tree...and so am I.’
“‘Third, Zacchaeus came down..and so do I.’”
“And with that, he left the pulpit, gave the benediction, and exited out the side door. One of the professors later told him that it wasn’t a bad sermon. After all, it was short, and to the point.”
Folks, today is the first weekend in the season of Lent. And every year, we begin Lent with a reading about the temptation of Jesus. This year’s reading comes from Mark’s Gospel, and as we have seen, when it comes to telling us the temptation story of Jesus, Mark is short and to the point.
If we had Mark’s Gospel only, we would never know about Satan tempting Jesus to turn stones into bread, or jumping down from the pinnacle of the temple to see if angels would catch him, or tempting Jesus with all the kingdoms of the world if Jesus would just bow down and worship Satan. To learn those details of how Satan tempted Jesus, and how Jesus successfully resisted everything that Satan threw at him, we would have to turn to the longer versions as told by Matthew and Luke.
No, Mark is short and to the point. And I know most churches would love it if their preachers were short and to the point. Sometimes I get a little long winded myself, and when I do, the confirmands who take sermon notes remind me of it. In fact, I usually get at least one remark to that effect from them every week!
I’m grateful that Matthew and Luke decided to share with us the details. I am also grateful that Mark’s version is short and to the point. I am grateful for Mark’s brevity because it gives us a chance to see the temptation of Jesus sandwiched in between two other important events in Jesus’ life – the baptism of Jesus and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
First, Jesus is baptized. And at his baptism, God the Father speaks from heaven, and lays his stamp of approval on Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Just before he entered the wilderness to be tempted by Satan, I would like to think that those words from the Father were a source of encouragement and strength. He was pumped! Because afterwards – after the forty days of temptations were completed – when he’s tired – when he’s exhausted – when he’s famished – Jesus needs to be pumped up again. And that’s when – the Bible says – that’s when the angels came and ministered to him. And after he was ministered to be these angels Jesus was indeed pumped – he was ready to begin his earthly ministry even stronger than before.
Now stay with me for a minute, because there’s something of a pattern here – a three-part pattern. So let me use an analogy from my late father-in-law. When he ordered coffee at a restaurant, he would always tell the server, “I’ll have coffee, before during, and after.”
When we go through difficult times – let’s call them wilderness experiences – they’re probably not that much different from what Jesus experienced when you look at them as having a before – a during. – and thank God – an after.
First, there’s the “Before” part – the before part comes at our baptism where we are affirmed as loved children of God.
Then there is the “During” – this is the actual wilderness experience – the difficult time – some grief – some heartache – a financial setback or an illness – yours or someone that you love – some period of testing when life has lost its joy.
But then – then there is the “After” – that moment – that time – of healing – when life gets back on track – when the joy for living comes back.
But we do begin our walk with Christ at our baptisms. Most of us don’t have even the vaguest recollection of that moment – though some of us do. But regardless, we’ve been hearing all along that God loves us. If you’ve been here for any length of time you know that God loves you – that you are blessed – and that you are affirmed as someone special in God’s eyes. So that’s the before part.
But then there are those wilderness experiences. Man! Let me tell you – some are worse than others. And some I could do without. And let’s be honest. Some of them come about due to some choice we might have made – the result of having made unwise choices – or because we’ve developed unhealthy lifestyles.
But sometimes – and I think most of the time – we enter a wilderness that is not of our own choosing. Not of our own making. By conditions – situations – sometimes even by other people – that are beyond our control. We all have them. But let me tell you! We do not have to go through those wilderness times alone.
As I listen to the stories that people have shared with me over the years of what it has felt like to go through a personal wilderness at some time in their life – I am encouraged that – even though they sometimes speak through tears – that they found a place of comfort and healing – of getting their joy back again – when it was over.
Many talked about this place – this congregation – the people of this congregation – as a refuge both during and after their time in the wilderness. This was a place where they found healing.
And let me tell you something else. You know sometimes how you look at other people – or other families – and everything seems to be hunky dory with them, and you think, “Man, I wish my life were more like theirs.” I have had people tell me this! But let me tell you something! I’ve been around here long enough to know that the folks who look like they’ve got it all together – you know what? They’re no different than you. They’re like ducks. You know, above the water they look placid and calm, but just below the surface, they’re paddling like crazy. They’ve had or they’re going through their wilderness times just like you and me. Jesus had them. I’ve had them. I know many of your stories so I know you’ve had them. We all have them. And the wonderful thing is that we can learn from these experiences. Think about it. Think about those moments when you have grown and matured the most. It almost always happens after going through some wilderness-like experience.
So when it feels like your life is placing you smack dab in some wilderness – or if you feel that’s where you are right now – let me tell you – you don’t have to go through it alone. You have friends – brothers and sisters in Christ – who may just know what you’re going through. Come and talk to me. And if necessary, maybe I can pair you up with someone who’s been where you are at right now.
I guess what I want to say is that just as Jesus was ministered to by angels. There just might be an angel here at Zion Lutheran Church who can minister to you as well. Sometimes it helps just to talk, and to know that you’re NOT on your journey alone. That we’re all in this together.
You do not have to go through wilderness experiences alone. Unless you want to. You have friends here. But above all you have a friend in Jesus. Remember what Jesus says. He says, “I am with you always. Always. I am with you at your baptism – calling you by name – to encourage and to strengthen you for the journey ahead. I am with you in the wilderness. I know what you’ve going through ‘cause I’ve been there. I am with you at the end. I am – with you before – during – and after. I am – with you always.”