Called To The Wilderness (Part One): How Do We Get There? Mark 1:1-8

February 4, 2008

Sermon Manuscript – 3 February 2008

INTRODUCTION

During my Army days, I was on this infantry training course learning to do what are called “section attacks.” That’s taking a group of eight soldiers and attacking trenches and machine-gun posts, essentially. Now this course took place over the summer, and this one day we were doing these attacks – one after the other – as the thermometer climbed. The temperature got up around 35 degrees Celsius by around lunchtime, and suddenly I began to stumble as we marched. I knew that I was in trouble, and finally, my instructor ordered me to sit down in the shade, and they called a truck to drive me to the clinic, because they were worried about heatstroke.

It was a long drive. The Gagetown training area is huge, and it took about twenty-five minutes of hard driving to get to the camp. Once there, the medics were worried. They stripped me right down to my boxers (yes, this is a rather humiliating story), shoved a mug of water in my hands, poured more water all over me, and hooked me to an IV bag full of saline solution. And over the next three hours, I watched no less than thirty other soldiers dragged into that clinic suffering the same symptoms. It got so bad that 60% of our company were heat stress casualties that day, and they had to call off the exercise. As for me, after no less than five 1-liter bags of IV solution were put in me, they trucked me back to the barracks and told me to rest for a full day before returning to duty.

That was a close call. I didn’t get heatstroke, but it was a really bad case of heat exhaustion. And I thought about that as I read this passage. See, I was twenty-two years old, in the prime of my life, the best physical condition I’d ever been in. I wasn’t irresponsible – I had drunk several canteens full of water that morning, had kept my head covering on. I had all the right equipment. I did everything right. I was surrounded by a group of tough, well-trained, experienced instructors and a group of good fellow students. Yet there, in the middle of the sticks, the middle of the wilderness, far from civilization, I suddenly developed a life-threatening condition. Despite everything I did. Despite everything I could do. I was helpless, and my life at that point depended not on anything I did but on help from outside.

The wilderness is a dangerous place. Even when we’ve done everything humanly possible to keep it under control, it can still kill you.

AN ODD START

God really doesn’t do things in ways we would expect, does he? Look at where the good news of Jesus Christ begins. It doesn’t start in a fancy temple, covered in gold and silver. It doesn’t start in a soaring cathedral with stained glass windows and carved statues and million-dollar paintings. It doesn’t start on a national TV network with blinding lights and a huge stage in a 50,000-seat football stadium.

The good news of Jesus Christ begins in the wilderness. It begins in a desert. The good news of Jesus begins in a hot, dusty, barren, empty, seemingly endless wasteland. Doesn’t that seem strange? The God of the universe takes on human flesh, and the good news of His coming begins not in a dazzling display of His wealth and glory but in a place of utter abandonment and emptiness.

Mark starts his Gospel with the words, “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” What is the beginning here? Mark starts his Gospel with the story of John the Baptist. That’s unusual. Matthew begins with Jesus’ genealogy, for instance. John begins with the Word being with God in eternity past. Why does Mark start with John the Baptist?

Because Mark’s point is this: God is calling his people back to the wilderness. Mark uses the word “wilderness” four times in the first thirteen verses, twice in our passage. This part of Mark, these first eight verses, explain how we get there. That’s what we’re going to look at today.

WHY THE WILDERNESS?

But first, we have to see why the wilderness is so important, and what it means to us.

What is this wilderness? In our story, it is the desert on the far side of the Jordan River. Across the Jordan, on its eastern side, the opposite side from Judea and Jerusalem and Jericho and the whole promised land – this is where the Good News begins. The Gospel, the story of Jesus Christ, begins in a place so inhospitable that it is famous today for only one thing: the Dead Sea. A rocky, barren hell of a place.

But to a Jew, this wilderness meant a great deal. This wasteland is where God led His people in wandering for forty years. This wilderness is where God fed them, watered them, guided them, gave them His Law. This desert is where God appeared in a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day to be with His people. This desert is really where the people of God were formed. Where they were given their identity. Where God made a covenant with them, binding Himself to them, making them His own, declaring them His people and Himself their God. The wilderness is, to a Jew, a place of beginnings. And in the Old Testament, we see prophets like Elijah retreating into this wilderness to commune with God. The wilderness is a place where God meets with His people.

Why does God like the wilderness? Because there, His people understand that they need Him. When you’re in a desert, you’re in trouble. In a wasteland, there isn’t much food and water. The day can kill you by heatstroke. The night can kill you by hypothermia. In the wilderness, you’re helpless. Without help, you’ll die. To survive, you need supplies. You need help. Israel found this out the hard way. The only reason Israel survived in the wilderness was because God gave them food, because God gave them water, because God organized them, because God led them day and night, because God protected them from raiders and marauders. God provided. God gave. In the wilderness, the people of Israel had nothing to give back. They couldn’t put God in their debt. They couldn’t buy Him off or earn anything with Him or do Him any favours. All they could do was look to Him and trust Him and receive the gifts of His hand.

So John appeared in the wilderness and called the people to the wilderness – to a place of emptiness and need. He called them to a place where they didn’t have it all under control. He called them to a place where they couldn’t do it on their own, where their smarts and their strength were not enough to let them survive, where they needed God to live. The wilderness is where God is! That is the beginning of the Gospel! That is the start of the good news, coming to the wilderness. Salvation begins in the wasteland, recognizing that we can’t do it, that we’re not good enough, that we need everything given to us from God’s hand. The Christian life is life in the wilderness, a constant dependence on God for everything. The Christian life is not a life of comfort and plenty, but one of sacrifice and struggle and dependence on God to guide and provide. There’s an old saying: Jesus came to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable. It’s true.

God’s calling each and every one of us into the wasteland. He’s calling His people to a place where they know they need Him. He’s calling us to recognize and live in light of the truth that every breath we take, every beat of our hearts, is a gift from His hand. He’s calling us to acknowledge that we absolutely, desperately, need Him to survive. If you’re grieving, or scared, or ashamed, and you don’t know how you can go on by yourself, this is where God is calling you. He’s calling you into that scary and harsh place because there is where we learn to lean on Him. If you’re in a wasteland or wilderness right now, don’t waste your opportunity. God is a provider and a protector.

That’s the wilderness. That’s our first lesson: God’s calling us to live in the wasteland. And now we see how to get there.

PASSING THROUGH THE WATER

When Israel left Egypt, they headed for the wilderness. Anyone remember how they got there? They had to pass through water. They went through the Red Sea, right? The way to the wilderness is through water. That was true for the physical wilderness. And you know what? The way to the spiritual wilderness is the same. It goes through water.

Here is John, crying out in the wilderness, and all the people are flocking to him. From Jerusalem. From Judea. All those places were separated from the wilderness by water. What lay between the Promised Land, the land of comfort and plenty, and the wilderness where John preached? The river Jordan. To get to John, just to get near him to hear him, they had to get wet. They had to cross the Jordan.

But that wasn’t all. John had this curious habit. He wasn’t just content with getting them over the river. He called them to respond to his message by being dunked in that river. He was baptizing them as they came in the Jordan River.

What did that mean? What was the significance of this baptism? As he baptized, what were the people doing? Confessing their sins. They laid out the things in their lives that fell short of God. They admitted their failings, their shortcomings, their rebellion, their wickedness. As they confessed, they shed themselves of the burden of sin, bringing it all out of the darkness of their souls into the light, giving it up to God. They confessed – they acknowledged that they were unworthy. They freely admitted that they were not good enough – that they were actually evil. This is our second lesson: To get to the wilderness, we must confess our sins to God.

John would have had no time at all for a “self-esteem” gospel or a “positive confession” message. Real confession is negative – it lays out our faults and expresses our grief for our sins. Real confession does not enhance our self-esteem – it tears down our pride, humiliates us, makes us lowly and needy in the presence of God. This is the message John preached. This is how he prepared the way of the Lord.

Have you done this? Have you ever laid out your life before God, dredged up the bad stuff from the depths of your soul? Have you ever admitted your sins and wrongdoing to God and grieved for them? See, no one comes to Christ unless they come needy. We don’t do Jesus a favour when we come to Him – He has mercy on us, gives grace to us. We’re the needy ones. We’re the ones who need help. And until we recognize that, until we accept that, we’re basically saying to God that He’s unnecessary, that He’s optional. Until we come to that point, we haven’t gone to the wilderness yet. God wants us in that wasteland, but to get there, we have to leave an awful lot of stuff behind. We have to face some pretty ugly stuff before we get there.

REPENT!

Not just confession, either. John was preaching a baptism of repentance. What is repentance? To repent – that’s a word that people love to make fun of. There’s a popular video series out there that makes fun of a guy with a bullhorn crying for people to repent. Even Christians make fun of this. So what would they say about John the Baptist? I wonder, if we lived back then, some cool and up-to-date pastor would be making plays ridiculing the guy in the camel hair crying for repentance.

The word “repent” literally means “change of mind.” That’s not just a change of opinion. It means a whole new way of thinking, a whole new perspective on life and the world. It means a whole new way of living. To Jews and Christians in the ancient world, and to us today, it meant a 180-degree turn away from your old life and the start of another. See, it’s not enough just to confess your sin. Confession without repentance is just a pity-party. Confessing sin without doing anything about it, without turning away from it, says that you really don’t think it’s actually a bad thing. No, true confession – real, grieving, penitent, self-denying, humiliating confession of need and failure – leads to repentance. It leads to a determination to put the sin behind you and draw nearer to God, a commitment to get as far away from that old life as possible.

When we say, “Believe in Jesus and you will be saved,” we don’t mean simply accepting that the facts about him are true. The book of James tells us that even the demons do that. Saving faith is not just a head thing. It’s not just facts. Real faith is a desperate thing, a recognition that without Jesus we are lost and going to hell, and a trust that Jesus is enough and is all we need to be saved. Real faith is treasuring Jesus, loving Him and valuing Him, and no one can love God and sin at the same time. Faith without repentance, without a commitment to live for Him and stay away from sin, is no faith at all. That’s our third lesson: The way to the wilderness is through not just confession, but repentance for sin.

Do you believe in Jesus? If you do, ask yourself: Does my life show it? Have I had a change of mind, a change of heart? Am I really heading in a new direction, on a different road, drawing nearer to God?

OUR REAL NEED

Confess your sins. Turn your life around. But – why? Why bother with all those unpleasant things? Why put yourself through all that pain and anguish? Because confession and repentance – faith, in other words! – these things lead to what we really need. John’s baptism was of repentance into the forgiveness of sins.

Look at the people who came to John. They come in droves, and what do they see? They see what they truly need. And what was their need? It wasn’t money. John had none. They had plenty, living in the Promised Land. Their need wasn’t comfort, for they had houses and apartments and palaces and halls and lush pastures and swimming pools. John had a few bare rocks, and the Dead Sea – what comfort could he offer them? Their need wasn’t food and water – they all had pastures and flocks and fishing nets and shops and springs and wells. John had locusts and a bunch of very angry bees guarding his dessert. Their need wasn’t self-esteem – Jesus’ ministry later shows us that the Jews were quite proud of their lineasge, quite happy with who and what they were, so happy, in fact, that they would rather crucify Him than change.

No, John’s message was simple: confess. Repent. Be baptized. In other words, “You people suck!” Why such a harsh message? Why so confrontational, so judgmental? What so many people today think is old-fashioned or traditional or confrontational or “fire-and-brimstone” or offensive is, in fact, what Mark calls “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” Think about that! The harshness and judgment in John’s words paled in comparison to the judgment that would come when the Mighty One he talked about arrived. John’s assignment was to prepare the way of the Lord, to ready the people to meet Him. They weren’t ready yet. They weren’t acceptable. That’s why he came. John’s message was one about their real need – forgiveness. The journey into the wilderness leads to forgiveness of sins. That’s our fourth lesson.

See, John was a forerunner. He was clearing the way for Jesus Christ. God became a man, lived a perfect life, died as a substitute for sinners who deserved to go to hell, and rose again to show that he had conquered death and bought salvation for anyone who believes in Him. John called for confession and repentance, so that people would understand that God cannot tolerate our sin. John then baptized them, to show that God’s grace washes away sin and makes us clean. John pointed to Christ. He called the people into the wilderness, into a place of desperate need, and there showed them the One who would meet that need.

WHERE ARE YOU NOW?

This is the message today. God is calling you into the wilderness, calling us to the place of forgiveness of sins. We get there by faith, which means confession of sins and repentance. So – where are you now? Are you in Judea and Jerusalem, deep in a busy and comfortable life, leaning on your job and possessions and your own effort and works to get you through life? Are you self-sufficient, safe, sorted out? Then you’ve got a journey ahead of you. God’s calling you into the wilderness. That doesn’t mean literally leaving this world and retreating out into a desert, like a monk. That would be missing the point. A wilderness is a place of need. You’re not there until you face that need, realize that you need God. Examine your life. Use God’s Word as your standard. Confess your sins to Him. Repent – turn away from your old ways and lean on Jesus.

And if you’re a Christian, and think you have most of this stuff already under control, this applies to you, too. Confession, repentance, faith – they aren’t one-time acts. They are a lifestyle. If you aren’t regularly faced by your need, regularly reminded that you depend absolutely on God, regularly convicted of sin and the beauty of forgiveness, then chances are you’ve left the wilderness and settled comfortably on the other side of the Jordan again. God calls us to live a life of faith. That’s a wilderness life.

Some of you may be struggling with assurance. That is, some of you may believe, and yet you are overwhelmed by how bad you’ve been, or how many times you’ve failed. If that’s you, listen to me: You’re already in that wilderness! You’re already there! This is a good thing. God does not bring His people into the wilderness to destroy them. He brings them into the wasteland so that He can feed them, and clothe them, and make a mighty and healthy nation out of them, and teach them to honour and praise Him. That takes some unpleasant discipline at times. Yes, we all fall short. God wants us to recognize that. But we recognize that so that we can see just how good God is. So that we can appreciate just how generous and loving He is. If you struggle with assurance, and don’t know how God can accept you, remember that it doesn’t depend on you! Jesus did the work! Jesus was the acceptable one! Lean on Him. Cling fast to Him. Trust in Jesus to keep you safe and wipe those tears from your eyes. Remind yourself, “I was bought at a price.” Remind yourself: “He who began a good work in you will surely complete it.” Remind yourself: “It is the Father’s will that none of those He gave to Christ will perish.” Keep believing. Keep going. Don’t try to escape the wilderness. Accept your neediness and count on God – He will pull you through.

– Jeff Jones

Advertisements

One Response to “Called To The Wilderness (Part One): How Do We Get There? Mark 1:1-8”

  1. I found this site from a link my friend sent me and just wanted to drop by and take some time to submit a comment to say thanks for these great strobe lights. Thanks once again!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: