>The following was preached at Veedersburg and Hillsboro UMC on Sunday, March 1, 2009.  The text for this week’s message is Mark 1:9-15.

Okay, so I left you with a bit of a teaser last week.  But, hey, you’re back, aren’t you?  At the end of last week’s message, I said that we would be looking at what Jesus did for us and how we can take it into the world.  And, for the next several weeks, we are going to look at “it”.  Each week, the “it” will be a little different.  And each week, we’ll take one step closer to the cross.  By the time we get there, hopefully, “it” will all make sense.  This week, “it” is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
I don’t know about you, but when I am watching a movie or reading a book, I tend to think that the first 10-15 minutes, or the first couple of chapters, are the most important part.  If it doesn’t grab my attention in those first several minutes, then I have a difficult time watching the whole movie.  This is the time when major characters are introduced, plot points are laid out, and the action starts.  Some movies take a little more time to get the story rolling, but there is a crescendo of events that begin with the opening credits.  Every story has a beginning – some are spectacular, some are dull, but every story has a beginning.  Thankfully for us, our story has an incredible beginning, and I’d like to invite you to begin this seven week journey with Mark’s version of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
Mark is the gospel that really doesn’t have much of an introduction.  He gets right to the action.  In the first few verses, Mark sets the scene by introducing John the Baptist, and letting us know that the time had finally come.  For hundreds of years, the Jewish people had been awaiting their Messiah.  They believed that the prophet Elijah would return, and his return would signal the coming of the Messiah.  In a less than subtle way, Mark yells out to his readers that John the Baptist is Elijah.  You may be looking at the text and wondering how it is that Mark is relaying this information.  Trust me, it’s there, but that’s not the focus of today’s message so I don’t want to go too far down that road right now.  But, anyway, Mark introduces John the Baptist as Elijah, and immediately, Jesus enters the scene in verse 9, which brings us to this morning’s reading.
Jesus comes into the story and is baptized by John.  In his baptism, Jesus enters into our story.  It is the first step that is taken to bridge the gap between the human and the divine.  You see, there is so much more to Jesus’ redemption of humanity than the cross.  It begins with his birth.  In the Christian season of Advent, we remember his birth.  In the season of Lent, we remember his death.  But let’s not forget everything in between.  If all that mattered was the cross, then the gospels wouldn’t contain so much information about Jesus’ life and ministry.  Beginning with his baptism, Jesus’ ministry takes off and is hurling towards the ultimate conclusion of his death and resurrection.  And while this end is always in mind, let’s not forget about how the story gets there and what we learn along the way.  And that journey begins here in Mark’s gospel with Jesus’ baptism.
It says that when Jesus came up out of the water, immediately he saw heaven torn open and the Spirit descended upon him like a dove.  It is here, as Jesus’ ministry is about to begin, that we get the picture of all three members of the Trinity in one shot.  Jesus is baptized, the Spirit descends upon him, and the Father speaks.  Jesus identifies himself with humanity, is commissioned by the Father and empowered by the Holy Spirit.  And the march to Good Friday begins.
Last week, we touched on the idea of “mountaintop moments”.  These are the moments in our lives when God is so close to us.  We experience God in a new way that takes us to another level in our relationship with Him.  Too often, we want to stay on the top of the mountain.  Like Peter, we say, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here.  Let’s stay for a while.”  Okay, that’s my paraphrase, but you get the point.  We want to stay in those moments.  We don’t want to face the fact that we do have to go back to our lives, back to the daily grind.  But here, in today’s passage, we see that not even Jesus was allowed to stay in those moments.
Mark again uses one of his favorite words – “immediately.”  He uses this word 41 times throughout the gospel.  To put that in perspective, there are only 16 chapters in Mark’s gospel.  He is constantly driving the story forward.  In this instance, it is Jesus who is being driven.  It says, “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”  Jesus didn’t get to stay in that moment for very long either.  In fact, he faced what we usually face.  After being in the presence of God, typically, the ruler of this world tries to bring us down so that the vision of a new life with God is overwhelmed, erased and forgotten.
Jesus is taken out to the wilderness and is tempted by Satan for 40 days.  We can read in Matthew and Luke about some of the details of the temptations that Jesus faced, but Mark doesn’t really focus on them.  However, something we do pick up on in Mark is that these were not the only three temptations that Jesus faced while he was in the wilderness.  The Greek form of the verb suggests that this was a repeated pattern.  In other words, Jesus was continually being tempted while he was in the wilderness.  In those times when we have been closest to God, it sometimes seems like the temptations and trials don’t stop.  It seems like there is one thing after another that comes against us, almost like waves crashing onto the shore. 
 
I find some comfort in knowing that it is possible to resist the temptations that this world throws at us.  But there are two things that are very important to notice, and we can’t forget about it when it comes to facing temptations.  The first is that while Jesus is being tempted, he is not alone.  Remember, at his baptism, the Spirit descended upon him.  Jesus is not facing these temptations solely with his own strength, but he is relying on the Spirit to guide him through these trials.
The second thing to notice is that this happens right before Jesus begins his ministry.  We often come against difficulties of all sorts when we are trying to be obedient to God’s call in our lives.  This is true for individuals, and this is true for congregations.  When we are true to the vision that God has given us and we begin to make disciples by reaching out and teaching the truth, we will come across all sorts of difficulties.  It may be something as subtle a scheduling conflicts, or it could be something more.  So, how do we face the temptations in our lives when they are bearing down upon us?  How can we move beyond those temptations and towards fulfilling the call that God has placed before us?  I came across two stories this week that will help to illustrate the point.
The first one comes from the continent of Africa.  People who trap animals for zoos in America have reported that the ringtail monkey is one of the hardest animals to trap.  However, the Zulus, an ethnic group in Africa, have had no problems catching this agile little animal.  What they do is design a trap based on their knowledge of the animal.  There is a melon that grows on the vine whose seeds are a favorite of the monkey.  So, what do they do?  They cut a small hole in the melon.  The hole is big enough for the monkey to put its hand in, but when it grasps the seeds, its hands are too big to get back out.  The monkey will pull, tug, screech, howl and fight with the melon for hours but will not get free from the trap.  All it has to do is let go of the seeds, but by hanging onto them, it becomes an easy catch for the trapper.
Temptation works that way with us as well.  We see something that we want, so we reach for it and become trapped.  We screech and howl, but we can’t get out of the trap.  The irony of it all is that all we have to do is let go of whatever it is that is trapping us and we would be free.  We are not being forced to hold on to it, but we can’t seem to let it go either.
The second illustration also comes from the animal kingdom.  This time, it is a story out of Montana, that was supposedly reported in the Denver Post.  There was a sheep rancher who was losing a lot of sheep to coyotes.  In spite of trying everything she could to ward off the predators, she lost 50 sheep in a single year.  Finally, she decided to buy a llama.  Llamas are not afraid of hardly anything.  When they see something, they put their heads up and go straight towards it.  From the coyote’s perspective, this is a very large, funny looking lamb that is walking in its direction; a move that is far more aggressive than the coyotes would prefer.
Sometimes, this is how we need to approach temptation as well.  We need to see it for what it is and face it, knowing that the power of the Spirit is at work within us.  James tells us to resist the devil and he will flee from us.  It’s the idea of standing your ground because when you stand on the rock of Jesus Christ, you are on solid ground and nothing can shake you from it.  The point in both of these stories is that by relying on the Spirit, we can overcome these difficulties and be obedient to the call that Jesus has laid upon each one of us to make disciples.  Sometimes, we will need to simply let go of whatever it is that has us trapped.  Sometimes, we need to look it in the face and recognize that we are standing on solid ground.
Jesus’ approach to temptation in the accounts found in Matthew and Luke show that he relied on the Spirit and on the Word of God.  Jesus was very familiar with Scripture.  When he is faced with the lies and half-truths of the tempter, he faces it, standing on solid ground and refusing to bend even a little.  If we decide that we want to face temptation, then we need to be prepared.  We cannot face the tempter without appropriate training in the Word and apart from the power of the Spirit.  Have you ever tried to do something really difficult on your own?  It’s frustrating and too often, we give up rather than press on.  However, knowing God’s Word and relying on the Spirit means that we don’t have to face our temptations alone.
It is at this point, when Jesus had overcome the snares of the devil, that his ministry begins.  As Mark tells it, it is when John passes out of the story that Jesus really takes center stage.  John is arrested and eventually killed, and Jesus’ ministry begins.  Mark begins the story of Jesus’ ministry with a few very simple words, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel.”
It’s not unusual for the prophets of the Old Testament to tell the people to repent.  However, typically, it is in a cause-effect, or an if-then, format.  In other words, IF you do this, THEN God will do this.  Or because you repent, God will not bring judgment upon you.  But Jesus doesn’t follow this format.  Jesus doesn’t say, repent and God will bring the kingdom.  He says that the kingdom is already here, and the emphasis is on repentance and belief out of response to the kingdom’s presence.  Certainly, for those who heard this message, it would be a bit of a shock to the system.  The waiting that the Jewish people had grown so accustomed to over the centuries was finally over.  With this simple declaration, everything they had every known was turned on its head, and Jesus’ ministry begins.
What follows in the Gospel of Mark is a journey that ultimately ends with a risen savior and an empty tomb.  In three simple paragraphs, Mark shows us the spectacular beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  He keeps the action going forward; the readers of his gospel are anxious to know who this Jesus is and what it is that he is doing.  And as the gospel continues at its rapid pace, we begin to see that there is something special about Jesus, which comes to a head in Mark 8, which we’ll look at next week as we continue our journey through Scripture and towards the cross as well.
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