TEXTS: Genesis 9:8-17; Mark 1:9-15
If today’s text from the Gospel of Mark sounds vaguely familiar, that is because about two-thirds of it has been read in the past several weeks. We read verses 9-11 on January 7th on the first Sunday in Epiphany (also known as the Baptism of our Lord) in the story of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus. We then read verses 14-15 on January 21st on the third Sunday of Epiphany as the introduction to the calling of Jesus’ first disciples. Why the repeat? It is probably because the first Sunday in Lent is usually when we read and talk about the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, and the author of the gospel of Mark dispatches this bit of the biography of Jesus in a grand total of two verses! In comparison, Matthew takes 12 verses to relate the temptation story, Luke takes 14 verses to cover the same ground. I’m guessing (and this is only a guess) that the Lectionary committee had a hard time offering a gospel lesson for the day of only 2 verses, and so they decided to put the temptation in context by starting bit early with the baptism of Jesus and ending a bit late with his “mission statement”.
When it comes down to it, I don’t really feel that this contextual offering is a bad thing, even if we have already heard two thirds of it. Jesus was baptized, and as a part of that baptism God proclaimed him to be the beloved Son; expressing God’s good pleasure in this identity. AND before Jesus could begin his ministry, his important proclamation of the nearness of God’s eternal kingdom, his humanity, his new-found human condition, needed to be tested.
Now we are told that Jesus was driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. Our Monday morning pericope group, of course, had to offer up a bit of hilarity around whether the Spirit drove Jesus in style in something like a 1957 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost or just a beat up 1972 Ford pickup. We soon got down to business though, discussing the implications of that simple statement. The Spirit of God that drove Jesus into wilderness was and is the Spirit that is part of Jesus’ own Trinitarian make-up. It was then the Spirit that as much a part of Jesus himself, as well as being a part of God the Father that was responsible for Jesus’ presence in the wilderness, so that, in some way either small of great, Jesus was driven into wilderness by his own impetus, his own need to know the limits of his human condition, even as he was in the process of fully grasping the implications of his divine condition.
The word that we translate as wilderness, in ancient terms did not necessarily mean a desert. Wilderness in both the ancient Hebrew and ancient Greek languages simply meant a place that was inhospitable to human life; a place where life was much more challenged and challenging. In the same manner, the wild beasts mentioned in verse 13 were not at all like wild things in Maurice Sendak’s children’s book, a bit scary to look at but soft and cuddly on the inside, actually showing themselves to be great friends when things got tough. No, the wild things in our tale were truly dangerous creatures, creatures capable of inflicting injury and even death upon humans. Jesus then was in an inhospitable place surrounded by inhospitable creatures as he was tested by Satan (that’s Satan with a capital “S” – Satan the deceiver, Satan the destroyer, Satan the obscurer, Satan the mis-director as Satan was known to be throughout the Bible).
It would be easy at this point to simply reduce the story Jesus’ temptation to a sweet adage, “Jesus was able to withstand temptation and you can too!” But I don’t really think that is why we find the temptation story in our Gospels. What I believe the temptation of Christ is really all about is the test of the resolve of this strange human/divine mixture of realities and how the two might be able to co-exist. Jesus needed to experience his full humanity in a way in which he was pushed, in his humanity, to its limits, in a hostile place and among hostile entities, in the wilderness among the wild beasts. In the midst of this extreme environment, in a setting of extreme conditions, a dangerous, threatening situation, Satan offered just the opposite. Satan offered the temptation (if we are to hearken to Matthew and Luke) of extreme ease, of power over one’s environment; the temptation of life where the world would be served up for you on a silver platter. And all of it if only; if only Jesus would use his divinity for his own gratification, for his own empowerment, for his own aggrandizement; if only Jesus would use the divine aspects of his existence to lift his human aspects from the challenges of the wildernesses of his life.
Think about it though for just a bit. How could Jesus proclaim the at-handness of God’s house to a people whose lives, by and large, existed in the midst of their own wildernesses. How could Jesus use his divine nature to demonstrate the greatness of God’s kingdom if he himself did not know the struggle of the human wilderness? How could Jesus, in time, give up his humanity to suffering and death, if his ministry had begun with him subjecting himself to the temptation of Satan and giving himself over to that temptation for the sake of his own creature comforts, his own empowerment, his own glory?
No, to be true to his position as the Son God, the loving and gracious son of a God who is loving and gracious, to be the truly human son of a truly divine God who chose and still chooses, to dwell with humanity, to be the sacrificing Son of God who became incarnate to sacrifice himself for our sake Jesus had to know extremes of the human condition. Jesus had to be pushed to the limits of human endurance and all of this while being offered comfort and ease, power and pleasure, a royal path in the midst of deprivation.
And the result of all this? The result of all this wilderness and beasts and temptation and even the ministration of angels? O believe that all of it was for the purpose of offering a glimpse of the divine to the core of one’s humanity. All of it for the sake of making the good news truly good, for you and for me, for those people who Jesus actually met and spoke to and interacted with nearly 2000 years ago, and for the people of this wilderness planet yet unborn. All of it to be able to say with true passion and credibility that the Kingdom of God is truly at hand, that the divine reality of God is available to us and to everyone, available without price, without exclusion, without a need for status or position.
My friends, all of this took place so that this good news of the Gospel can be truthfully and effectively proclaimed, by Christ and by all who follow him, that God loves and will receive me “just as I am”; that God loves and will receive you just as you are; that God loves and will receive every person born upon this earth just as they are, if you and I and all of us individually and together will simply embrace this good news for what is.
We are told by the authors of the book of Genesis that in the days of Noah God covenanted with Noah and through him with all of humanity and all the earth and that God placed into the heavens the mark, the sign of that covenant. In Christ Jesus our Savior God covenanted once again with those few who were closest to Jesus, and through them with all humanity. As we share bread and wine together today, we see once more the marks, the signs of God’s new covenant, the physical manifestations of God’s Spiritual promises. And the promise is that in Christ we have the opportunity to participate in God’s eternal kingdom which was and is and will always be at hand. God covenants with us that through Christ we are given not a temptation but a promise that we can participate in a new life, a new reality of life that is so far beyond this present life that we can’t even begin to fantasize its scope.
The season of Lent is for the church and its members a time of deep introspection and examination, a time when we are called to look deeply within ourselves and within the structure of this congregation and even of the church universal to know and to admit both the human and the divine, the wildernesses of this reality and the glory of God’s reality. Let us then walk the path of Lent together. Let us explore and study and worship and pray. Let us examine ourselves and examine our collective faith as it is made known in the church. Let us strive to be one with Christ, proclaimed as God’s beloved, God’s pleasure, humbled in the wilderness, and dedicated to proclaiming the good news; that we might share also in the resurrection to new life in God’s house, God’s realm, God’s kingdom which is forever. Amen.