Presence in the Wilderness

First Sunday in Lent, Year B

Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Mark 1:9-15

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”


And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.


Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”


Faith from the Margins Bible Study Authors:  Willie and Davis


A note about the authors:  Both of these remarkable men have been a part of Faith from the Margins for a while but they hadn’t met together before.  Today, it took a half hour of the three of us crossing paths with each other to get into the same place, but it was worth every minute.  I was grateful to introduce Davis, a parishioner at a downtown Episcopal parish and Willie, who attends daily lunches hosted by churches in the city after his several-times-per-week dialysis sessions.  Willie blesses the staff and volunteers with his years of wisdom lived through deep faith and complex human experiences.  Davis gives of his heart and soul with every interview and interaction.  I’m grateful to know both of today’s bible study authors, and each has richly blessed my journey.  I hope their conversation will sustain each of you as we set forth together into the wilderness of the holy season of Lent as well.


Willie and Davis each took a turn at reading the Gospel lesson and listening to each other. Davis wondered what stood out for Willie:

“One of the things that stood out for me is that the more closer Jesus was coming to God, the more the devil was trying to now confront him, to say ‘who is this Jesus and what is he about?’”  Willie chuckled.  “It makes me laugh, you know, it’s the deliberateness of it all…just as soon as Jesus was baptized, as soon as the world started to know who He was, the devil started messing with him for those 40 days.  That’s what really gets me!”

Davis agreed, “yeah, it’s interesting, isn’t it, because Jesus was baptized and you think that’s the high point of the story but then it says the spirit drove him into the wilderness.  It made me think: was that the good Spirit, or a bad spirit?”

On that point, Willie was certain: “Oh, I’m sure it was the good Spirit.”

“Maybe to test him?” wondered Davis

“Yes, Yes!” said Willie, “and well, that’s the thing.  It’s just that obviously, the devil really knew there was something special about this guy.  He found him out there all alone, by himself.  I can just imagine the wilderness…here it is what it is…wild animals and all…and then the devil shows up to test him in the midst of it all.”

Something else stood out to Davis, too: “That last part, after the 40 days, where John the Baptist shows up.  Jesus came to Galilee, and John has been arrested.  It sounds like then Jesus says and does exactly what John was saying, ‘repent, the kingdom of God has come near.’  It’s like Jesus picks right up for him in the work he was doing.  Remember, John says, “I will baptize you with water, he will baptize you with the holy spirit.”

Willie reflected on the whole passage, “I think, in a way, God is tell me the same thing is happening with me in my own life at this time.  The temptations are out here, testing my faith and trying to see what is inside my heart.  Do I love him enough to follow and obey, with all that is out here in society and stuff.  It’s only fitting that this would be the passage for today (chuckles).  It’s like that whenever I come here and do these bible studies!  It’s like whatever we read just speaks to me, it’s like God is saying, ‘here’s a little lesson I want you to take in right now!”

“Do you think he’s testing you, Willie?”

“Well, yes!  I mean,  I’m a human being, I can waver.  But through it all, I’ve been trained up since I was a little kid to know how not to just lean on my own understanding, but to always come right back home to Dad, so to speak!  I play music and stuff, religious music for my church, and I know my folks would be proud of me doing that.  But, to walk every day and to hear and see all that is out here in society, well, that’s like a wilderness sometimes.  And my disease, you know, that’s my biggest test.”

Davis was thinking, “Maybe…the Gospel talks about being tested…but in some of those parables, Jesus heals and then says ‘go away, and sin no more!’  He always reminds them, their sins are forgiven.  It’s like something happens through the adversity.”

“I’ve been on dialysis ten years now.” explained Willie, “But the people, places and things that I’ve been running in to from the beginning, it’s been an extraordinary walk!  Now, I’ve come into the veil of service…that’s been the last thing that I believe the Lord has been emphasizing on me through the Holy Spirit.  I put all these things down here, in my journal.  So, it ends up that when I’m there, I end up talking to God through my journals, through pouring out my heart and my thoughts.  I feel God near me when I do that.  Plus, I sometimes feel prompted to play the piano at church but to say something before.  Last time, it was a verse…Galatians 6:10…that spoke to me about service, “be generous and do good.”  Even the kids…at church, it just made me cry because these young kids had a chance to serve others and they did it with such joy!  There is always a way to serve and I felt like I wanted to stand up and let them know, to read what I’d been writing in my journal!  I didn’t, but sometimes when I feel like my faith is low and I’m one of those wayward sheep, that’s always when something I’ve written or someone I encounter comes back to me, and works through me, and reminds me ‘you been wandering out there…come on back to the fold!”

Davis was moved.  ‘I definitely get the feeling, talking here with you, that God is here with us, allowing us and opening us up to talk about things. You have a faith that goes way, way back.  I can feel that!”

Willie was thoughtful: ‘Well, right now, I’m trying to get a clearer idea, a better idea of just what it is that I am supposed to be doing. When I go to Church, I sometimes think I hear, keep doing what you’re doing.  But, the temptation starts when that service ends. We get ready to walk out and we realize we’re on our own.  That’s when it gets tough, or it could if we were tempted to go it alone. But, the Holy Spirit has gotten me really wrapped around this idea of service, service to God and service to others.  When I see people serve, it just….

Willie’s tears began to flow.

“You feel that Spirit, even now” reassured Davis.

Willie said, “Yes!  You know I sometimes feel it, or I see it…like with those children who were learning to help serve others…and I think ‘yes, that is right!  That is where God is! Recently, you know, there was this other guy, another patient at dialysis.  You know, I’m not a racial person and I’ve gotten to be friends with this guy, he’s like from the back woods of America.  And there we are at dialysis and I’m probably the least like him of anyone there and yet, here we are and we’ve become friends.  That isn’t because of me, it’s because of God.  I keep thinking of that hymn, that song “The Ties that Bind Us” and I start to know that even there in dialysis, God is moving.”

“Very moving” said Davis, ” Your story is very moving.”

Willie continued, “I see what is happening, what God is doing.  He’s allowing me to see just a little bit about people, seeing that we are not that different from one another.  Once we started talking, we found out about birthdays we had in common and everything since then, it’s gotten easier.  We could have not trusted each other, but we hit it right off.  I met his Mom, too, and we found out we all have May birthdays.  It stopped feeling like strangers and started feeling like family.”

“Me, too!” said Davis, “Another May birthday to add to the family!”  

They both laughed with joy.

Willie paused and thought about the lesson in the story, “Instead of it being silent and distant, we realized we have to help each other.  Instead of just reading it or thinking about it, it’s just time to do what it says in the Good Book, to see Christ in each other!  I know that he has it even harder than I do.  I can do some things that he isn’t able to do.  So, I try to help when I can.”

Davis was grateful for this new friend in Christ, “You have a good heart, Willie”

Willie said, “We should all be in good pursuit of God.  The closer we come to God, the closer God comes to us.  I think that is what this desert is all about.”

Davis added, “Jesus in the wilderness for 40 days must have felt alone as it was, but maybe it was about being closer to God, too?”

“Yes!  that’s it” said Willie.  “I think Jesus knew who his Father was, but it is still about having the presence of mind to communicate with him.”

Davis was thinking about the deserts in our own lives, “I think adversity draws us closer to God.  Like in your story, this illness and adversity might have made you and your friend more receptive to the Spirit.  You could write about that.”

Willie held up his well-used notebook. “You know, this notebook has gotten full!  It’s one that I have used so much, through all those treatments.  Sometimes I can’t find space to write, so I just read it and learn from what I have written, to see where God has spoken to me. I love that silence.”

Davis wondered, “Maybe in that wilderness…in that silence…you’re feeling God’s presence?”

“Yes!  I do think that’s the case.” said Willie. “I can think.  I can be still.”

Davis was hearing a clear lesson from the week’s Gospel: “Maybe God is closer in those moments when we are quiet and still.”

Willie held up his notebook again, “Yes!  I wrote that very thing several times in my notebook, here, that I felt God near me in the silence, in the quiet, when I opened myself up to listening.”

Davis, his heart full, suggested that they close their time together with a prayer of gratitude and thanksgiving. “Honestly, Willie, I feel God talking through you to me right now.  I will leave this day feeling closer to God in my spirit, just through you.”


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