Christmas Wilderness – Mark 1:9-13

by Roger McCay
20 December 2020
Sermon Passage: Mark 1:9-13
Link to Audio Version

A troubling aspect in recent years of elections, particularly presidential elections, has been the sense that many people throw all their hopes in the future upon a political candidate, so that they are essentially voting for a savior. Yet, this is to set up oneself for inevitable disillusionment and frustration. No politician has ever lived up to the hype of savior, and no politician ever will. Politicians are only men and women—finite and fallible. They cannot bear such a burden. Who could?

There is only one who can bear the burden of the savior of mankind, the ultimate Savior—Jesus Christ: King of Kings, Lord of Lords. The one who is Lord and Savior by right, as the holy, all-powerful, creator God and in his victory on the cross. Wondrously, as awesome and powerful as the Lord Jesus is, he is not a savior who is at such a distance from us that he cannot relate with us.

The eternal Son of God, the Word, was made flesh, and dwelt among us (John 1). He humbled himself to be born of the virgin, Mary, in a stable in Bethlehem. Jesus was then raised, after a time in Egypt, in Nazareth of Galilee, as the oldest son in a carpenter’s family. He lived and worked among, later ministering among, regular folk, knowing the needs and struggles common to all men. And, like all men, he was tempted, yet uniquely, he never succumbed to temptation (Heb. 2:17-18).

As resurrected Lord, Jesus reigns over all. As Savior, Jesus comes to us personally in our wilderness, knowing us better than we know ourselves. He fully understands who we are and our life situation, and he loves us with a perfect love. Jesus Christ, the God-man, knows our wilderness struggles and hopes. And we all find ourselves in the wilderness at some point in our life, in need of a Savior.

Christmas itself can be quite a wilderness: people looking for joy (according to the culture’s message grounded in materialism) but not finding it; lots of talk about how Christmas is a magical time, with no real message, grounded in reality, as to what that even means. “Everybody get excited! It’s Christmas!” Why? “Don’t be a Scrooge.” Why? It’s a wilderness out there. Christmas is a time of despair for many, even on a normal year. I’ve had to go to the emergency room twice on Christmas for suicides, one successful, the other lived. And who from our congregation could forget what happened last Christmas with Jamaya’s murder? This year, across the nation even more people are struggling, especially due to all that’s happened in 2020. Wilderness.

Just prior to our passage today in Mark 1:1-8, Mark begins “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” not by relating the birth narrative, but by telling of John the Baptist’s coming and work, as the messenger in the wilderness, fulling prophecy by preparing the way for the Lord.

And oh, what an appropriate place (the wilderness) for the beginning of the good news, the gospel of Jesus. For it is in the wilderness that Jesus, the Savior, comes to us, bringing victory over sin and its fallout, bringing victory even over death! He is our foundation for true joy.

As Jesus comes to us in our wilderness, the question is raised, “How does he meet us there? To answer, we need to look at how Jesus first went to the wilderness, and what transpired there.

Verse 9:

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.

Why do you think Jesus, who was perfect, needed to be baptized for the repentance of sins? Well, do you think it was for himself? No, he had no sins needing repentance. Jesus accepted John’s baptism because Jesus, in his redemptive work, identified himself with sinners, therefore he took upon himself “the sign of repentance on behalf of the people of God.”[1] He identified with us in our sin, hearkening to Paul’s statement in 2 Cor. 5:21: For our sake he made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. Just as he was our representative when he took upon himself the sins of believers on the cross, so also he was our representative in his baptism. He became, as one man put it “The one great Sinner who repents.”[2]

Because Jesus was the one man who could perfectly repent and do so on behalf of all God’s people, his repentance was accepted by God. How do we know this? Verses 10-11:

10 And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

The proof that Jesus’ repentance on behalf of sinners was accepted is found in the heavens being ripped open, the Holy Spirit descending on him, and the Father announcing his pleasure in his Son. With the Spirit upon him Jesus was specially endowed to be the one John said would baptize with the Spirit. It confirmed he was the vessel through whom God would pour out His Spirit, as prophesied in Isaiah and alluded to by Mark. Hence, Jesus was confirmed by the Father as being the one to fulfill the messianic task he had set out upon: to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8), and to save His people.

It is, as such, that Jesus comes to us in our wilderness—our wilderness of sin. When we were hopelessly lost in our sin, he came to us; he took the burden of our sin upon himself. In him we receive the full benefit of complete forgiveness by God. In our faith and trust in him we are saved. In this way Jesus leads us out of our wilderness of sin and into the blessings of eternal life in him.

Now, perhaps you are in a wilderness of sin today. Maybe you are realizing that your sin is a trap (a trap that keeps you separated from God with no possible end but misery and despair). The only way out of this wilderness is found in Jesus Christ—he is your only hope.

Jesus has come to your wilderness. He is there before you now. Follow him. Repent your sins and trust in him. As your savior, he will lead you from that wilderness of death to eternal life, an eternal relationship with God as his son or daughter, all the blessings of his Kingdom, and true and lasting joy. Because the Savior meets us in the wilderness, we must look to Jesus.

Now, as all Christians know, even though Christ has come to us in our wilderness and saved us from the wrath of God we deserve, due to our sin, we still struggle with sin. As we follow Jesus on the path of righteousness, sin remains all around us. We struggle with temptation often. Sometimes, we succumb to the temptation and sin. Having sinned, we are further tempted to struggle with guilt and frustration, which drains our joy. We even find ourselves continuing to sin, even though we want to live the righteous life Christs calls us to live. At such times, even though Jesus has ultimately saved us, we find ourselves in what seems another kind of wilderness, facing defeat.

Yet, we are not alone in our battle. Jesus comes to us in this wilderness, and he brings victory. Verses 12-13:

12 The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.

Over the years, I’ve had innumerable conversations with veterans of many a war. As a veteran of several deployments, including two wars, what I’ve found in these conversations is that there is a kind of an opening up that occurs, veteran to veteran. Because we have been there, because we get it, we find a comradery and comfort with one another where we can share things that we can tell no-one else. We share our stories within a common bond of similar mutual experiences of war. Within this common bond the listener is given a certain credibility. They can understand. They can relate; so, trust is given.

I’ve heard it is like this for others who have had certain difficult life experiences: cancer survivors, the loss of a spouse, victims of abuse, and so on and so forth. Truly, even growing up in the same town can provide such a bond.

Considering this human phenomenon—the importance of being able to relate in order to earn credibility and trust—perhaps it helps us with the question, “What does it mean to us that Jesus was driven deep into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to be tempted?”

This action of the Spirit seems kind of contrary to the popular understanding of the Spirit, which, for some, seems to be equated with a good feeling and a kind of euphoria that comes from singing praise songs, as being what it means to be filled with Him. But the person of the Spirit of God drove (implying a forceful push) … drove Jesus into the wilderness for a good reason: not just for solitude and prayer, but because it was “especially associated with demons.”[3] The wild beasts were there and it was a dangerous place.

Jesus was on earth to engage in a war with Satan and defeat him. Hence, the wilderness to which the Spirit drove Jesus was the chosen location for a major battle in this war. Satan, as we are told, took the opportunity to attack Jesus, after he had been fasting for 40 days. When Jesus was at the point of starvation, and physically weak, Satan attacked. If Satan could divert Jesus from his task Satan would win a decisive victory over him.

In the wilderness, battle took place on a cosmic scale, but Christ was victorious there. In his victory, the Angels ministered to Him, providing for His needs. He had been fasting for 40 days, you know. You can read further on this battle in Matthew 4 and Luke 4.

Yet, the war didn’t end there. All four Gospels record the unremitting temptations, struggles, and battles of Jesus, ultimately telling of the decisive victory won by Him on the cross.

Further, consider Hebrews 4:14-16:

14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Our victorious Savior comes to us in our wilderness. He comes as one who knows what it means to be tempted, to struggle, to live in a fallen world. He comes as one who can really relate with our plight. In Jesus, we have a Savior who knows our troubles, who has walked our path, yet without sin.

Have you turned to Jesus to save you in your wilderness? Although you may be a Christian, perhaps you feel as if you are in a wilderness now. It could be any sort of things: struggles with sin, depression, loneliness, a sense of powerlessness, troubles at home, your job, health problems, grief, fear of the coronavirus, fear of the next four years. You know if you are in a wilderness. But in Jesus you can have victory in the wilderness; you can overcome. In him, our hope is sure.

Brothers and Sisters, like John the Baptist prophesied, you have been baptized by Christ in the Spirit, and you are in Christ as His people. So it is that you are able, through Him, to have victory in your wilderness. Just as Christ was not abandoned in the wilderness, when he was in battle with Satan, we will also never be abandoned in our wilderness. We are not in it alone. Jesus is Immanuel, God with us, regardless our difficulties. We can take great comfort in this! Our Savior knows our struggles. He knows where we are in our wilderness. And he has overcome the wilderness. Due to his mercy and grace, in our time of need, we can draw strength from him, through the Holy Spirit. It is not in our strength that we find victory. It is in the power of God that we overcome. Call upon him! Because the Savior is victorious in the wilderness, we must look to Jesus.

Many times over the years, I’ve had folks come to my office for spiritual care. Inevitably I ask them, “Have you prayed about this? Have you called upon Jesus for help?” So often the answer is “no.”

My friends, calling upon the Lord for help is your first step, not the pastor, not a counselor, or whoever. When, in life, we find ourselves in a metaphorical wilderness, perhaps even a “Christmas wilderness,” desperately in need of a Savior, Jesus meets us there. He knows our need, and in him we find victory! Because of our need for a Savior in the wilderness, we must look to Jesus.


[1] William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 54.

[2] C.E.B. Cranfield, The Gospel According to St. Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (New York, NY: The Cambridge University Press, 2000), 52, quoting Barth.

[3] Ibid., 57.