The first Sunday in Lent is always the Temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. But all of the details that we have in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels, the dialogue between Jesus and Satan, the specifics of Jesus’ temptations, are all absent in Mark’s Gospel. Mark’s Gospel spends two brief sentences on the temptation before moving on. Why doesn’t Mark spend more time on this epic showdown between Jesus, the Son of God, and Satan, the adversary?
I think there are two reasons. First, Mark is more interested in the fact that Jesus has the power to resist Satan’s temptations and to conquer the ruler of this world, then spending time dwelling on details. Second, Mark’s Gospel is constantly on the move, driving us toward the cross. Part of Mark’s frenetic, no frills telling of the story is inviting the hearer into the action, asking the question, “how would you respond to this situation?” Mark wants each of us to become part of the story. Will we respond with our minds on the things of this world, or on the things of God?
The text begins as Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan. As he comes up out of the water, the Spirit of God descends like a dove into him. The Spirit fills Jesus and then immediately drives him out into the wilderness. We heard that Jesus drove out an unclean spirit a few weeks ago and, here, the Holy Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. It’s Mark’s way of saying Jesus is prepared for his mission in baptism and thrown out into the field.
The wilderness is the place where the Israelites wandered for 40 years. It’s the place of danger where wild beasts and bandits roam, but it’s also a place for meeting God. It’s a place of terror and testing, as well as a place of learning, growth and insight. Throughout Mark’s Gospel, Jesus goes to the wilderness to find solitude, rest, and to spend time in prayer. And now, Jesus finds himself in the wilderness, being tested by Satan. He’s surrounded by wild beasts, which could be life threatening, but he is unharmed. The coming of the Son of God, now filled with the Holy Spirit, brings order to the wild places and the beasts that inhabit them. Angels wait upon Jesus, and at the end of 40 days, Jesus rejoins society to proclaim that God’s rule is breaking into the world. That people should continue turning toward God and having faith and trust in the news that God has won a victory for their sake – and for ours.
As I mentioned before, Mark wants us as the hearers of this story to become a part of the action. God’s reign is bursting onto the scene and we’re invited to be a part of it. Jesus’ defeat of Satan in the wilderness will keep playing out in the ways he casts out unclean spirits, heals the sick and suffering, confronts leaders whose hearts are in the wrong place, and finally, defeats sin, death and the devil through the cross and the resurrection. Mark wants us to know that Jesus not only subdues the wild beasts in the wilderness, but that he’s capable of taming the beasts that dwell in us as well.
We are filled up with the Holy Spirit at baptism and sent out into the world. And we often feel tossed and blown about by the winds and storms, like Noah with the animals in the ark facing 40 days and nights of torrential rain. But no matter how bruised and battered we feel, the Spirit is always sustaining us, just as it did Jesus as he battled Satan’s temptations. And as we face our own trials and temptations in life, we too, have angels, messengers of God, who serve us in the middle of our wildernesses and deserts. If you take a moment and look at the faces around you, you’ll see exactly what the angels of God look like.
The Holy Spirit fills us up and takes us where we need to go, much as it drove Jesus to the place where he could say “no” to the temptations of this world in order to say “yes” to God. However, I’ve found that when the Spirit of God takes us where we need to go, sometimes it’s the place we’d least like to go. Now, please listen carefully. I’m in no way saying that God causes us to suffer so that we can learn. God does not wish us ill, but longs for the wholeness and the restoration of the world. God loves us and wants us to thrive.
Even so, we know all too well that trials, temptations, and difficulties will touch each of our lives. Jesus’ temptation shows us that the Spirit abides with and sustains us in our wildernesses. The question is then, “how is the Holy Spirit at work in this? How might God use this situation to bring about good or transformation in my life?”
Even in the good times, the Spirit of God urges us to confront the wilderness and wild beasts in ourselves. Whether that’s examining the ways we focus too much on ourselves and our egos, meditating on our penchant for looking out for ourselves first and foremost, or admitting our unwillingness to take a hard and honest look at our flaws. We are called to examine ourselves throughout our lives, but especially in this contemplative season of Lent, as we prepare to walk with Jesus to the cross. As we, too, prepare to say “no” to the priorities of the world in order to say “yes” to God’s priorities. It is at the cross that we are able to let go and crucify our sins, flaws, errors, mistakes, and hurts, in order to be resurrected with Christ into new life in which we can freely serve and give of ourselves. Even so, that journey to the cross can be scary.
As we slow down enough to begin the hard work of prayer and reflecting honestly, we hear those voices in our minds – the whispers that tempt us to despair and to doubt. “If people really knew who I was, they wouldn’t want anything to do with me.” “I’m not good enough.” “I don’t know what I’m doing – I feel like an imposter.” “I have to put on a brave face – I have to hold it together, but I’m falling apart.” “Does God really forgive me? Does God really love and welcome me as I am?”
We find ourselves surrounded by those wild beasts, threatening our fragile, man-made security. We hear the snarling and we’re afraid because we think we’re alone in the wilderness. But Jesus has already defeated the temptations of this world and tamed the beasts. In him and through him, he’s doing the same in our lives. In Jesus’ temptation we are reminded that the Holy Spirit is always with and within us, and that God’s messengers, our sisters and brothers in Christ, are present to help us in our difficulties. We are reminded that God’s rule is breaking in, even in the middle of the awful things we experience. And we are reminded to turn toward God and to believe – to lean on and trust – that the good news is really for us. For each and every one of us, no matter what we’ve done, haven’t done, or the ways in which we feel inadequate.
We may think about this text in terms of our own individual struggles and temptations, but it also has a lot to say about our life in community. The church is drawn together by the Holy Spirit. We are people from all different backgrounds, journeys, and experiences brought together to worship God. And we may disagree on some things – that’s only natural -, but at the heart of who we are and what we do, we are united through our belief in Christ.
Where might the Spirit be driving this church? Is it to places we’ve never been? Places we feel uncomfortable going to because “we’ve never done it that way before?” Or might the Holy Spirit be nudging us to stop doing the things we’ve always done because we need to spend our energy on new things to which God is calling us? Today is our Annual Year-in-Review Congregational Meeting. Rather than being tempted by individual agendas or the worries of the world, it is a time to be filled with the Holy Spirit, sustained in our work together, and driven forward into the future by the breath of God. It’s a time for us to celebrate the ways we’ve served, learned and grown in the past year, as well as to dream about how God may be calling us to serve, learn and grow in the year ahead. It’s a time for us to come together as the body of Christ and to spend time in prayer and discernment as to how the Holy Spirit is kindling a fire in our hearts.
Whatever your temptations and difficulties, whatever wilderness you find yourself wandering through, you are not alone. God is with you and will never leave you, and the community is walking with you. When I was in the wilderness of discerning where the Holy Spirit was leading me to serve my first call, there was a Phillip Phillips song that spoke to me. Although it’s a pop song, it reminded me of God’s faithfulness:
Hold on to me as we go
As we roll down this unfamiliar road
And although this wave is stringing us along
Just know you’re not alone
‘Cause I’m gonna make this place your home
Settle down, it’ll all be clear
Don’t pay no mind to the demons
They fill you with fear
The trouble—it might drag you down
If you get lost, you can always be found
Just know you’re not alone
‘Cause I’m gonna make this place your home
May the Holy Spirit fill and sustain us as we contemplate where God is leading and calling us to serve this Lent. Amen.
© 2015. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.