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15-43 149th Street
Whitestone, NY 11357


The First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone has been at work in northeast Queens since 1871, seeking to proclaim God’s Word and live out God’s justice and peace in our lives and our community. We welcome all to join us for worship, fellowship, learning, and service in our small but vibrant community of faith.


A Strange Celebration

Andy James

a sermon on Mark 1:9-15

What do you do after a marquee moment in life? How do you celebrate a major accomplishment before moving on to what is next? Athletes and others used to proclaim that they would be going to Disney World, but what do you do?

Our reading from Mark today tells us about one of Jesus’ most incredible moments, after all, so I wonder a bit about what we think he might best do next to celebrate. When he went out to the Jordan to be baptized by John, he knew that he would submit to John’s baptism for the repentance of sins, but he didn’t necessarily know that he would hear the voice of God speaking to him so loudly and boldly, declaring from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

So after this marquee moment, what did Jesus do? As Mark tells it, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness… for forty days.” That was quite a strange celebration! Mark doesn’t tell us all that much more about these forty days for Jesus. Matthew and Luke, the two gospels who built their own accounts of Jesus’ life, ministry, and death on Mark’s telling of the story, both go into great detail about these forty days, explaining very carefully the particular temptations that Jesus faced and sharing his responses to them with us. But Mark simply tells us that after his baptism and the words of affirmation from heaven, Jesus was “tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him” before he emerged from the wilderness to begin his ministry and proclaim his message in Galilee.

For Mark, this time in the wilderness matters less for the specific temptations that Jesus faced and more for the ways in which these forty days enabled him to explore and understand his call to ministry. This is the beginning of everything we know about Jesus from Mark, after all—there’s no virgin birth, angel visitations, or boyhood antics described here—and everything that follows from this for Jesus in Mark builds on this time of temptation and exploration in the wilderness.

When he emerges from the wilderness, Jesus is definitely not the same as he was when he went in. Mark tells us that after his forty days in the wilderness, Jesus set out to Galilee to proclaim the good news of God:

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.

Jesus is a changed man after his sojourn in the wilderness with Satan, the wild beasts, and the angels. This man who approached John without reservation to receive a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins now has a message of repentance of his own to share that cleanses the heart, not just the body. This man who entered the waters of the Jordan as something of a blank slate emerges from his time in the wilderness insisting that there is something more to his life than what there was before. This beloved son came to understand his status and his calling in a new way after these forty days and so set out to proclaim and live a new message that called all people to trust that God’s kingdom was coming into being in the world and that all things would be made new once and for all.

For centuries, Christians have used this story of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness as the basis for a time of penitence and preparation for Easter. The emphasis for this season of Lent has traditionally been on giving something up—on building up spiritual strength to overcome the temptations of everyday life, on fasting from food or other earthly things as a way of embodying in our physical bodies the sort of spiritual change that we desire in these days, on setting aside things that we can control that impede our spiritual growth. But when I look carefully at Mark’s version of this story, the tradition of giving something up for Lent doesn’t seem all that connected to Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. We hear so little here about the temptations that he faces that we can’t build a season of practice around them. And the wilderness mentioned in Mark doesn’t look very much like our world.

This wilderness is a strange place. It can bring the danger of encounters with Satan and wild beasts or the safe comfort of angels ready to serve and care. In the first thirteen verses of Mark’s gospel, we hear about the wilderness four different times. It is the place where John the Baptist comes from and the place where Jesus is driven by the Spirit after his encounter with John. On the whole, it is a place of hostility and conflict that emerge not from the pains of giving up coffee, chocolate, or alcohol for six weeks but from the ongoing conflict between the forces of good and evil that stand at the center of Mark’s understanding of the world.

So when Jesus was driven out into this wilderness, amidst all the real challenges that he faced, I think he took up far more than he gave up. In his time in the wilderness, Jesus came to truly understand what the voice had said to him in his baptism. In the midst of his temptation by Satan, he sorted out what true repentance meant. As he journeyed through the wilderness of conflict between good and evil, Jesus discovered what it meant to live faithfully in the day and age when the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near so that he could share that message with others. And as he emerged from the wilderness, the time was right and ripe for his proclamation of the new thing that God was doing in the world in him, through him, and because of him.

In these forty days of Lent, we too are faced with the challenges of discovering a way through the wilderness of life in our increasingly complex and challenging world. We hear how God has claimed us and promises to make us and all things new, and we have to sort out what that might look like. We encounter the challenges of temptation and uncertainty in the wilderness of these days and must decide how we will respond. And as we seek a way through this wilderness, we must still be ready to share what we have encountered and learned along the way with others when we emerge into the new life on the other side.

This year, in our life together as the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone, we’ll be taking this approach of taking up something new during these Lenten days as we explore a few of the possibilities for mission and ministry in our midst. We have discovered quite well that we are active and engaged with our community and our world in ways that speak to our varied interests and passions, and the session is hopeful that we can continue to deepen and broaden our commitments to mission in our life together. Beginning today and continuing for the next four weeks, each Sunday you will hear about some of the mission work that we are already doing—and some possibilities for you to get more involved. As we make our way through this Lenten season, it is my hope and prayer that you will find some new place to participate in our work of reaching out beyond these walls and being a part of the kingdom of God coming near in our world.

Even if you’ve already given up something for this Lent, I hope that you will take up something new for this season that will continue well beyond it, for the journey of penitence and renewal that we share in these days is not so much about the things that we give up for forty days but about the ways that we continue to grow in faith, hope, and love each and every day so that we too might proclaim that message that Jesus offered to those who would hear:

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.

So as we journey these forty days together, wandering the wilderness of our world, may we discover the pathway to live in the time that is fulfilled and the kingdom of God that has come near so that our Easter celebration may be filled with faith, hope, and love enough to enjoy and share. Thanks be to God! Amen.