1 Lent B
February 22, 2015
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I am in awe of Mark the Evangelist. This guy didn’t waste any words. He just got down to the business of relating the gospel, and he did it very economically. We’re given 7 verses from Mark’s first chapter today –and within them there are no less than 3 major episodes in Jesus’ public life.
First, Jesus’ public ministry begins at his baptism.
When he came up out of the river, he saw the heavens torn apart—I imagine that the sky zipped open and Jesus looked deep into the cosmos, and heard the voice of God speaking to him: “you are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Holy Spirit fluttered down upon him like a dove might flutter down from the sky. It’s quite a beautiful picture, isn’t it?
But then the very next sentence brings some startling drama. That selfsame Spirit, so dove-like, so beautiful, now turns pushy and insistent, and drives Jesus out into the wilderness. Why would the Spirit, the loving, lovely Spirit, do such a thing? We can only speculate: perhaps it was God’s will that he be out there in the middle of nowhere, doing the hard work it took to understand fully what God wanted of him. Perhaps. We really don’t know, do we?
The wilderness was that area on either side of the Jordan River. It’s very dry, with only some small scrubby plants here and there. In Jesus’ time there were some animals like little hyraxes (they look a little like groundhogs) and scorpions and foxes and deer and cheetahs and maybe even some lions passing through. Today the most interesting animals are the small groups of semi-tame camels that wander through that vast area together. But back then there was nothing that was semi-tame. They were all wild, and some, like the big cats, were very threatening.
Our text tells us that Jesus was in that dry, scrubby wilderness for 40 days—and we can’t help but think of how he was reliving a part of the experience of the Israelites under Moses who wandered around in the wilderness for 40 years.
And what did Jesus do there? How would you spend 40 days in the middle of nowhere, without even a cell phone to help pass the time?
Again, our text gives us a few clues: he was tempted by Satan; he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Let’s look at these things: tempted by Satan—what were the temptations? Mark doesn’t tell us a thing about what they were. Matthew and Luke talk about 3 temptations to power, privilege, and prestige. But Mark doesn’t. We might speculate on all kinds of temptations Jesus faced out there, and we’d probably be right. I’d imagine that as the Savior of humankind, he knew and experienced every temptation that humans face over their lifetimes. So you name it, he almost certainly felt the allure of everything that is unholy and unhealthy. Of course.
And then we have a very interesting detail, only in Mark: he was with the wild beasts. Now, people throughout the ages have had lots of fun with this one. I mentioned earlier about the literal wild beasts that might be out there with Jesus. But how about the metaphorical wild beasts? How about things like a tendency to pride, or anger, or envy? How about a deep fear of the unknown? A fear of the task God put before him? How about the anxiety he may naturally have carried over leaving his livelihood in Nazareth and going forth into an unknown future, with uncertain support? We can go on and on…and we can be sure that Jesus certainly did have his own wild beasts with him.
And now the last clause: and the angels waited on him. This completes the wilderness suite so beautifully, and it is a reminder that even in times of testing, Jesus was consoled by messengers from God. I wonder, too, if like Elijah in the wilderness, perhaps Jesus was brought food and drink by angels … It’s not at all clear, but I wouldn’t doubt / that could have been the case. Mark doesn’t say he was fasting. That’s in Matthew and Luke—not in this gospel.
And then we move on to the third little story in these 7 verses.
After John the Baptist was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, that region in the northern part of Palestine, and he began his ministry to the people. He told them, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
So—let’s review the structure of the gospel. We have an inaugural event in the beginning—his baptism. We have an event at the end—his ministry breaks open to the people. And in the middle we have this 40-day time of formation and rest in the desert. I think this time was absolutely crucial for Jesus. It was a time when his old identity was dissolved and a new one was forged. [paraphrase of Marilyn McCord Adams, p. 44] It was a time of struggle and testing – a time when a new self was being formed, like the reorganization of a pupa within a cocoon so that a fully formed butterfly might emerge when the time is right.
And note that the gospel makes it clear: “the time was fulfilled” only after he had this prolonged period of quiet and testing and reorganization.
Now, it’s not just Jesus who had to pass through this kind of process. All humans do it all the time. As we move from one identity or station to another in our lives, we must go through this kind of period of testing and disorganization, of meeting our own wild beasts and of accepting the comfort that comes through angels.
For instance, suppose a high school student senses he wants to be a teacher. He must pass through the formation period in college, he must student teach, he must go through the anxiety-raising time of applying for jobs. Only after these steps are completed can he emerge and formally begin the work he’s chosen.
The same applies to anyone who’s passing from one place in life to another. Maybe it’s someone growing up. Maybe it’s someone healing from an addiction. Or perhaps it’s someone moving from one city to another—or job hunting—or retiring—or even moving fast toward the end of life here on this planet. The time in between the old and the new is uncomfortable, often chaotic, and maybe even threatening. But it’s absolutely necessary.
Now think of our parish. Anytime a priest retires or moves on, the parish goes through a time of soul-searching before they can begin the priest-searching they’ll need to do. Many of you can remember the discomfort of transition. It’s stressful. It’s hard work. But the hope is that the process prepares the people to move on more fully with the new leader.
Our current time of discerning any new directions we may wish to follow as we seek to engage God’s mission is a time of being in the unformed, in the possibilities, in the not-yet. It’s uncomfortable and messy. But we trust it will lead us to a better and more meaningful ministry in time as we continue to be formed and driven by the Spirit.
So think about your own life right now. Are you in the middle of making some kind of transition? Or is someone in your family moving from one thing to another? What are the temptations and the wild beasts you find?
And where are the angels? For the good news in this process is that we’re never alone. God gives us comfort either directly or through others, and God’s always present in the chaos.
In the next weeks and months we’ll walk with Jesus into chaos and not-knowing, and then past it to resurrection life. We’ll be in his chaos with him and especially with God his Father.
And like the Spirit tended to Jesus, may God give us the grace we need to know that we’re never totally alone in our times of testing, either.