Johnny Cash, the Man in Black, would have been 80 years old today if he was still alive. He was born today in 1932, to a farmer’s family in Kingsland, Arkansas. He grew up working in the fields and going to church. His mother was a devout Christian and use to bang out folk songs and church hymns on her guitar. As he grew up he had many different musical influences beyond his mother, including those who sang while working in the fields or on the near by railroad. After graduating he went to Detroit for a short while but then joined the Air Force. He moved to Germany and started his first band. While he was there he wrote his famous song, Folsom Prison Blues.” When he returned to the states he married his first wife, Vivian. They moved to Memphis and he worked as an appliance salesman while attempting to get into the music world. That same year he got his chance and the following year his single I Walk the Line hit number one on the billboard charts and stayed there for 43 weeks, ultimately selling over 2 million copies.
His success continued and in the 1960s life as a rock star started to catch up with him. He got into drugs and alcohol. Vivian divorced him because of his absence due to the long tour schedules and he bouts with drug and alcohol abuse. The year after that he went into a long drug binge. At one point he was discovered in a near-death state by authorizes in a small town in Georgia. There were other arrests and incidents too. From attempting to smuggle drugs into the US from Mexico or accidently setting a forest fire in Tennessee. Cash lived a hard life. During which there were many dark, dark places.
Jesus was accustomed to dark places. One of the joys we can have, as followers of him, is knowing that he knows our pains when darkness seems to squish in around us. It is in the scripture I read today that we receive one of these dark stories of Jesus. Things happen very quickly in the gospel of Mark and this story is no different. In three verses we get Jesus’ baptism. In the following two verses we get the story of his temptation and the two verses following that we get his first sermon. Bam, bam, BAM. Things happen so fast in Mark’s gospel that you have to take a deep breath and take it all in. That is what we are faced with today, the task of soaking in these three momentous steps in Jesus ministry.
This is the first Sunday of Lent and every first Sunday we start where Jesus started, in the wilderness being tempted. In other gospels we get more in this story. We get a conversation with Satan, an interesting little narrative in Luke and Matthew. But here in Mark we only get the dry and bare facts. After Jesus is baptized he is lead by the Spirit into the wilderness where he is tempted by Satan and lives among the wild animals while being tended by angels. Mark uses so many lofty, heavenly or super-natural language that it is hard for us to take it all in. How do we deal with the heavens being torn open, the Spirit of God, the Voice of God, Satan, angels, wild animals and in the middle of all of it Jesus, God’s Son. It almost doesn’t seem real, but on the other hand it is almost too real.
I am reading one of the books that is on the UMW reading list entitled Half the Sky. It is about the plight of the women in the world, especially in 3rd world countries. So far it has shared some horrific stories of rape, slavery, and dangers associated with child labor in the 3rd world. But what has stuck with the most is the what the authors say they would like people to do. They would not like people just to write checks. They say that it is wonderful to have money but that doesn’t solve everything. The best thing a person could do is go over there. Experiencing something first hand doesn’t just bring the problem into a better light but transforms the person and they are never the same.
I could stand up here and tell you about an Ethiopian woman who was dealing with an obstructed labor. Because her pelvis was too small, and the fact she was only 14, her baby could not pass through the birth canal. She spent a week in labor until her family could afford to send her to a hospital, a bus ride away, to have a C-section to remove the baby that died after day two of her labor. The tissue the baby’s head had pressed up against her pelvis had died and the result was nerve damage that made it almost impossible for her to walk and left fistulas in her bladder. Now urine and feces simple fall out of body. The smell, pain, and inability to move causes her family to move her to a hut at the end of the village. There she lays on the floor in the fetal position for two years. Eventually he is taken to a hospital by her family who had to sell everything they had to receive the correct treatment and she did survive.
I could go on with other stories but those are only stories. Now if you went to Ethiopia and spent a week or a month or two working in a hospital that specializes in helping woman with these types of issues how would that change you. The truth is it does feel good to write a check and help out with money, but real change to both the receivers and you happen when you come face to face. In this book there is another story about a church that decided to get involved with the rape victims in the Republic of the Congo. There rape is used as a tool of war and many women are left to die after many men and objected as forced upon them. The church sent over a person to work with a hospital over there and to make a better connection with the ministry they were starting. The woman there soon started a school for the kids in the hospital and job and skills training for women with fistulas who were waiting for surgery. Her life was transformed as she looked upon these people and felt compassion for them.
We are lucky that God did not just send a check or money to pay for our sins. Instead Jesus was sent down to do a hands on mission trip to provide the care we so desperately needed. He left the comfort of his family after his baptism and went into the wilderness to experience temptation. He stepped out of the river, onto the other side of the Jordan and into the wilderness his people had been for 40 years. There he learned firsthand what we face when sin calls our name so loud that it is the only noise we hear. He met our temptations face to face in order for us to be able to face our own.
We have moments when we are in the wilderness. Sure we may take a camping trip and go to the middle of nowhere but that is not what I am talking about. The wilderness I am referring to is the one where temptation starts to be the center of attention. We would like to keep our ideas of temptation in the wilderness. Some there way over there, in the middle of nowhere, where we might visit occasionally but would never confess to living there. It makes us feel better to think about it far away but the reality is the land of temptation is simply right next to us all of the time.
If you talk to any recovering alcoholic they will tell you they are always in recovery. There is no time in that person’s life that they will completely recover from that disease. The temptation to pick up a drink when life get bad will always be there and they are always working to fight against those feelings. My father quit smoking about ten years ago and still to this day there are moments when he is tempted by the taste and feeling of lighting up again. I am sure you might have similar stories. We live right next door to the wilderness and some of us are living in it. We live in a world when temptation is right there all the time. Sometimes too close for comfort or too close to even admit to ourselves.
But the good news is that we are not alone. Jesus at his baptism hears the words “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.” Those words echo in his head as he enters this time of trial. As Satan tempts him he has to believe in his heart that he is loved by God and because of that he can say no. Jesus went through the same things we go through with our own wild animals that tempt us in our own lives. He went through them in order understand what we go through and show us the way through the wilderness.
It is in the midst of Mark’s super-natural language that we find the root of humanity. We are all sinners and the journey of Lent reminds us of that. As we placed ashes on our foreheads on Wednesday and were reminded of our mortality we admit to ourselves that we need a savior. The root of humanity is that we all have fallen short of God’s glory and there is nothing we can do on our own to rid sin from our lives. If it were not for Christ every time we would face our own wildernesses we would be overtaken by the wild animals of temptation. Yet by living through it himself, Jesus gives us a way through.
That way through is found in his first sermon he preached. In it he says, for us to “Change our hearts and lives and trust this good news.” Another church word that is used to describe this message is printed on my Lenten stole, repent. Repentance is the admission that we are sinners and need a savior. It is through that act that we understand who we truly are and ask for the help that we so desperately need. Repentance is the admission of what we have done wrong and the promise to change. That is only possible because of Jesus Christ who has already walked through the wilderness and still does with us.
Johnny Cash remembered this in his life. He married his second wife, June Carter, in 1968. His addictions to narcotics were taking a toll on his life and June got him clean. She also got him back into his faith. Many times Cash went back to his old gospel roots and found a path out of his wilderness.
In 2002 he released a song called Hurt. It was actually a remake of a Nine Inch Nails song that the lead singer of the band, Trent Reznor, wrote in his bedroom during a very dark time in his life in 1994. Nine Inch Nails and Johnny Cash would be on two different ends of the music spectrum but when asked if Cash could remake the song, Reznor agreed. That song was then made into a music video and it seemed to capture Cash’s life, struggle, and redemption in a short few minutes. The song, I think, depicts well what we have to do during this season of Lent. We have to acknowledge to ourselves where we struggle and where our wilderness moments lie. But then realize that we cannot do a thing, we simply need the help of someone else, Jesus Christ, who knows his way through the wilderness and can guide us through it as well.
Watch the video now as the end of this sermon. Feel the pain Johnny Cash had in his life and the redemption he has in the end. After Trent Reznor saw this video he said that this wasn’t his song anymore, it was now owned by the Man in Black. But what we can take away from it is that no matter what we face in this world, there is light, there is hope, there is redemption, there is peace, there is a way out of the wilderness.
And all God’s people said…Amen.