A Sermon preached on February 22nd, Lent I, at St. Augustine’s, WiesbadenGenesis 9:8-17, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-15
Did you have the feeling that you have heard this morning's Gospel reading before? And I don't just mean three years ago when we last used Mark’s Gospel on Sundays as part of our lectionary cycle, but much more recently? Well you did, you heard most of it in January. The first paragraph, about Jesus’ Baptism, was part of our Gospel reading on the first Sunday after the Epiphany, January 11, and the last paragraph was part of our Gospel reading only two weeks later, on January 25th. I think the reason the lectionary compilers gave us these two paragraphs, despite the repetition, is because in Mark’s Gospel the descriptions of the events of Jesus’ life and ministry are always very short and so they must have thought that just reading the one paragraph – of only two sentences - about Jesus temptation would be too short – hardly worth me processing down for!
You see on this first Sunday in Lent we always have one of the three versions of the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness either from Matthew, Mark or Luke. It is after all the main story behind the 40 days of Lent, this period of prayer, reflection and often fasting – in the West mostly symbolically – until Easter. Yet there is so much contained in these two lines; so much to reflect on that we really don’t need the two extra paragraphs. Mark is so economical with words – unlike Paul – that we must assume that the few details he provides are important. Why was Jesus driven by the Spirit into the wilderness? Why was he there for 40 days? How was he tempted? And what’s with the wild beasts and the angels?
“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” (Mark 1:12) Mark’s Jesus is always in a hurry. In Matthew and Luke Jesus is led by the spirit, which sounds much more sedate than being driven. Yet in all three cases Jesus needs this time after his public commissioning at his Baptism and before his ministry begins. It would be a mistake to leave out this time of testing and preparation and so the same Spirit that has just descended on him at his Baptism like a dove drives him out. The road Jesus will have to follow in his ministry will be difficult. He will be misunderstood, he will suffer and there will be failures, at least they will look like failures, when his own people condemn him, his disciples desert him, and his mission seems to end with his death on the Cross. So this time in the dry and dusty wilderness is a time of testing – not a pass/fail test, more like a test drive: a way for Jesus to get used to and ready for what is ahead of him.
And we need times like this too. The Episcopal Monastic Society of St. John the Evangelist (SSJE) provides a series of Lenten reflections each year. This season they focus on time. “Time is a gift from God,” they write, “but very often we experience it as something that brings stress and an anxiety into our life.” And so in the first week they focus just on stopping. “There are certain times when we’re called to stop what we’re doing, to rest or to reflect.” Sometimes God wants us to wait – and we don’t – and so there will be times when God forces that waiting period on us just as the Spirit forced Jesus into the wilderness. This applies both to us as individuals and as a community. If something seems to stop us and make us wait before we can move on to what we think is important and urgent, then perhaps that is God’s Spirit driving us in to some sort of wilderness time too. “Above all, trust in the slow work of God” is the first line of a poetic prayer by the Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin that I quoted from at the AGM. It ends with the lines: “Accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.”
After all the 40 days in the wilderness are not the first time that someone has had to wait for a long time in the Bible. Noah and his family had a long wait – either 40 days and nights or even 150 days – we actually have two slightly different flood stories in the Bible – before the flood was over, the waters had receded, they could leave the ark to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” again. (Genesis 9:1) With all those animals to feed – nor forgetting the noise and the smells – I bet he would have preferred a shorter period. But Noah had to be prepared for his role in God’s plan and covenant. Likewise the Israelites had to spend 40 years in the wilderness before they were ready for the Promised Land and the prophet Elijah also needed 40 days in the wilderness before he was allowed to encounter the Lord and was sent back to complete his mission. These are all examples we are supposed to think of when we hear that Jesus “was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan.” (Mark 1:13a)
How was he tempted? Mark doesn’t tell us, just that he was tempted. The other gospel authors provide us with more detail. We hear how he wrestles with the forces that work against the will of God. We see Satan tempting him to become more than human, to use his divine powers for himself; for his own gain or advantage. But Jesus resists this. Whenever Jesus uses his divine powers it is always for others, to save people, to heal them, out of compassion and the loving-kindness he embodies. And especially in Mark’s Gospel it is almost always associated with a command not to tell anyone, to keep it a secret. Jesus does not want to draw attention to himself. It is his message and one who sent him that are important. Jesus’ experience in the desert deepens his humanity and strengthens his humility. Our wilderness experiences, and our time of reflection in Lent should serve the same purpose: to become better humans, to practice humility, to focus on Jesus, the one we follow and to get ready to implement Christ’s agenda for us and the world, rather than our own agenda for others.
“He was with the wild beasts.” (1:13b) Are the wild beasts supposed to be threatening? I don’t think so. Jesus was with them because as God they are also part of his Creation and part of what he came to renew and redeem. Look at the Genesis reading we heard from this morning: “Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you.” (Genesis 9:8-10) God is not just interested in humans! But I think the wild beasts have another message for us. The American poet and farmer Wendell Berry, who I know of because he received an award from my seminary, wrote a poem called the “Peace of Wild Things:”
“When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
Rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.”
Like Jesus’ birds of the air and lilies of the field (Matthew 6:26, 28) they are a reminder to us that at times we must just trust God and be as unconcerned and as without worry as the wild things. The angels who waited on Jesus did not keep Jesus from being tested, but they are an assurance that the Father was watching over him, was with him, was loving him just as God watches over and loves us too.
As is only to be expected from Mark’s Jesus, at the end of the 40 days Jesus comes out running and ready to proclaim the good news of God and God’s kingdom. He is tested and prepared, more fully human, and completely focused on his mission. I pray that we too will come out of Lent more ready than ever to proclaim the good news of God – the good news from God and the good news about God that we experience in Jesus Christ. Amen.