First Sunday in Lent, March 5, 2006
Mark 1:9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 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. 11 And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." 12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. 14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."
Pithy, Terse, and Succinct
My high school English teacher would use three words to describe how he wanted us to write: pithy, terse and succinct. By that we took it to mean that he didn’t want us to waste words and space on the paper. He wanted us to pack as much meaning into a few words as possible. Of course it made sense to us from a mechanical standpoint: we used typewriters and white-out. The less we had to type, the better. We imagined his motivation was less to read and less time to grade. We didn’t imagine, at age 16, that perhaps it meant that we would be better writers. Today, after the advent of the personal computer and the reality of the endless blog on the internet, word conservation is a lost art.
Mark, on the other hand, does not have a problem with word conservation. I suspect the state of his prose was less important than the scarcity of paper. Or perhaps he just doesn’t want to waste time on details that do not serve his proclamation. Whatever the reason, his story of the temptation of Jesus is much shorter than that of Matthew and Luke. Mark does not record the challenges that come in a confrontation with the devil, only that Satan tempted him. In fact, most of the lesson that we read today we’ve had in the last two months, the first three verses at Jesus Baptism and the last two several weeks later. The only verses unique to this Sunday’s Gospel are verses 12 and 13. But these two verses are packed with meaning and significance. Mark has written a lot into a very few words. If we are not careful, we may miss something. Lets take a look.
Back to the Wilderness
The first thing that we notice is that Jesus is driven, by the Spirit, into the Wilderness. In my imagination I always associated this with a harsh environment that would test Jesus, physically and emotionally. But my thinking changed on this topic after hearing lectures by friend and former professor Fred Niedner of Valparaiso University last summer at Holden Village. Niedner traced the origins of the “wilderness” concept as it is used especially in the Old Testament, but also in the New Testament. He suggested many things, not the least of which is that the wilderness is the place where God calls Moses, and where God shaped the people of Israel for forty years. Far from being a bad place, the wilderness is a holy place in the biblical witness.
It didn’t take me long to experience what Fred was talking about. Holden Village sits on the edge of wilderness in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State. In less that an easy one mile walk, a person is standing in a place where motorized vehicles are not allowed, and human beings are a rarity. It is a place of great beauty and solitude. It is also a place of great danger, if one is not aware and alert. To walk in that wilderness, to be alone with my thoughts and with God is one of the things that feeds my soul. But it is not safe. It is never safe. For each encounter with myself and with God changes me forever. Just as it changed Moses when he encountered God in the burning bush, so each encounter changes us. For in the wilderness I cannot escape from who I am, nor can I escape from the one who calls me to be so much more than just who I am. In the wilderness I am laid bare and open to all the things that God calls me to be.
So I do not think it is coincidental that Jesus goes into the wilderness, nor that it is the spirit who leads him there. Though he need not be confronted with his sin, as I always am, he still is lead to discover who he is, and is tempted by the things he might be that are not part of God’s call for him. In the wilderness we become ever more aware of our dependence on God. In the wilderness we learn to trust God’s way of being. In the wilderness we are connected to what God is doing in the world. In the wilderness, when all else is taken away, we learn the value of things, and the ultimate value of love. Author and poet, Madeline L’Engle puts it this way:
“To learn to love
This difficult road of finding the love of God in its absence is in fact the way of the cross that Mark will take us through, that our Lenten Journey will lead us through these forty days before Easter. To grasp this paradox is to grasp the depth of the Christian way at its most profound. (For more about this journey, you might read “Soul Making: The Desert Way of Spirituality” by Alan Jones.) I think it is for this very thing that the Spirit leads Jesus, leads all of us, really, into the wilderness. But there is more!
Wild Animals and Angels
The second of our two unique verses for today offers us a puzzle of a different sort. Here Jesus is dwelling with the wild beasts, and angels are waiting on him. Given Mark’s stingy use of words, we cannot just gloss over these things. They must be here for a purpose. What do we make of them?
The wild animals are easy enough, at first glance. They reinforce the idea that the wilderness is not a safe place. Not to read too much into Mark at this point, but I think the idea that Jesus is there running from wild animals is not what Mark is after. Instead, I think we are taken back to the Old Testament idea of the “peaceable kingdom” (see for example Isaiah 65). Here the wild beasts live in harmony with one another, and with humanity, just as when Adam tended and cared for the beasts that he named. It is this return to Eden that is proclaimed in the passage, something that is echoed in the words that Jesus begins to preach. The Kingdom of God is not in some far off future but breaks into the present world with Jesus own presence in our midst.
That angels waiting on Jesus are a little harder to fathom. Two thousand years of stories of angels and misunderstanding what angels are about have led us far afield from Mark and his words. But two images immediately come to my mind, images from our holy history, images from the wilderness. The first image is the image of Jacob, sleeping at a place he called Beth’el, the house of God, where he saw what seemed to him a ladder with the angels of God ascending and descending. The place was a point of contact with the heavenly. It was where Jacob first dwelt in the presence of God. One wonders if Jesus, the ultimate point of contact between God and humanity would not evoke just such an image from Mark. The second image is that of the angel standing watch over the gates of Eden, preventing Adam and Eve from returning. Here, with the establishment of the conditions of Eden, the angels no longer stand guard, but stand to serve Jesus, the divine/human one.
The angels and the wild beasts together tell us something about what Mark is trying to communicate. God’s forgiveness has come, through Jesus’ very presence, to all of humanity. When Jesus’ time of testing is over, his ministry begins. When Jesus’ temptation is concluded a new era dawns for all of creation. God is bringing all of history to its climax.
Sustenance for our Lenten Journey
In the end, then, in these two short verses, Mark is giving us a vision of what is to come in his Gospel. He is giving us hope, food and drink, courage for our journey of faith. For Jesus leads the way, and we are called to follow. Surely we too will be tempted, though we fall more surely than we stand. Surely we too will be lead to the wilderness and confronted with our true selves. Surely we too will stand naked and alone before God, though we would rather hide than be seen. But when we arrive we find Jesus has already been there, transforming our dessert into the oasis of God’s love and the vision of God’s future.
It is this oasis, this vision that sustains us on our journey. It is knowing the outcome, when the battle still rages around us and within us that gives us hope to carry on. It is seeing the world at peace that helps us to know that being peacemakers is part and parcel of our call. My father once said it this way, “We don’t confess as a condition of God’s forgiveness. Instead it is God’s forgiveness freely given that allows us to confess.” In Jesus we have God’s forgiveness, humanity’s restoration in person. He calls us to the wilderness, to meet with God face to face and to come to know the depth of God’s love. We are opened both to the guilt and shame we leave behind, and also to the new life that lies ahead. Thus cleansed and ready for ministry, we are sent into the world, and to the crosses that await us.
Rev. Dr. Luke Bouman