The brevity with which Mark’s gospel tells of Jesus baptism, trek into the wilderness and reemergence to begin ministry sparks mystery and raises questions. However, the message of God’s steadfast presence through the highs of baptism and lows of temptation rings clear. As we begin Lent and are reminded that we are dust, and to dust we shall return, we are also reminded that, in Jesus, we find a savior that has experienced the full breadth of human existence.
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.”
The lectionary passage which begins the season of Lent comes from Mark and recounts how Jesus was officially initiated into the family of God, went through a period of discernment, threat and uncertainty, and moved forward with more clarity about his mission in the world. And in typical Markan fashion, Mark moves Jesus through his baptism, his wilderness experience and the beginning of his ministry in just seven verses. There are no details—only movement and process. But the process is common to us all. At some point, each of us (hopefully) becomes aware that we are God’s children. We discover that the boundary between heaven and earth is ripped open and we are changed. But then we must discern how that new reality contrasts with the secular world and how it will apply to our lives. And, because we realize the kingdom of God has come near, we must find a way to live differently in the world.
This is the preacher’s version of the passage but I think it is easier to access these verses through some of their secular analogs. We have many rituals and celebrations, which usher us into new phases of our lives. We have graduations, marriages, births, new jobs, retirements etc. Each of these carries excitement and promise. When we are filled with the excitement of love—be it God’s or human, we imagine that this euphoria is how love should be. But in real life, as well as faith, we never quite know what we are getting into. We are hurled into the wilderness.
The work of love is often difficult, frustrating and unpleasant. It is tempting to believe it should be otherwise. It turns out that no matter how much we love someone, living with anyone will sometimes be difficult and inconvenient. No one knows what it is like to be married to someone until you have done so. (Premarital counseling is usually posting signposts that are not really useful until a year or so into the marriage.) Deeply loved children still require sleep deprivation, constant mindfulness and major readjustments. The work of love is a whole lot different than the celebration of love.
At least initially, vs 12–”And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”—the reaction in FIRL was that this was almost a hostile act. And since we know where the Spirit will ultimately lead Jesus, questions like ‘Why would God do such a thing?’ bubbled up. But Jesus also had to learn that love and devotion to God included a lot more than the dramatic moment of his baptism. Periods of hardship, deprivation and loneliness belong to love. But those realities do not spring to mind when we are at a wedding.
Sometimes the only way we can discern what is really important is to be stripped of the things we had imagined necessary to our lives. In the wilderness we cannot deny our vulnerability. But vulnerability is a fact of our lives and is necessary for loving relationships. When shelter, food, heat and light are at our fingertips, it is hard to remember that we are dust and to dust we will return. But in the wilderness it is hard not to know how dependent we are and how transient and futile are our efforts to secure our own safety.
I know I should ‘let go and let God’. But in real life, I am forever trying to think ahead, make contingency plans, and manage outcomes. I can spend an incredible amount of emotional energy anxious and worrying about what I can not control. Knowing has not been sufficient. If I knew how to let go—how to relax—I wouldn’t be worrying and anxious in the first place. So far, the only way I have actually learned about letting go and relying on God is when ‘control’ has been ripped from my grasping fingers. And while I am grateful for the lesson, it has been painful every time. I continue to viscerally avoid the knowledge that I am overwhelmed, helpless and vulnerable—even though I ‘know’ that God is with me. I don’t want to wait for him in that place.
Mark’s brevity drives us into mystery. The other gospels are much more descriptive of Jesus’ wilderness experience. All we have in Mark is that Jesus was tempted, was with the wild beasts and angels waited upon him. The epiphany and the mystery is that all three exist at the same time. Wholeness includes all three. It is tempting to divide these aspects of the wholeness of our lives—to believe that because Jesus withstood the temptations and the beasts, the angels waited upon him.
Jesus did not get a free pass on temptation or wild beasts but somehow, in the midst of both, the angels waited upon him. As much as we would like to cherry pick the ‘good parts’ of life, an important lesson of the wilderness is that God is present in the wholeness of life. That wholeness includes a lot of things no one likes. Wholeness includes suffering, deprivation, unfairness, manipulation and knowledge of our inadequacy and failing. Yet God is in the midst of all of it. He did not separate himself to be Holy. He joined us to make us Holy. It was an expensive gift. When wholeness includes the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’, there is no part of our lives that Jesus does not know. Jesus trusted God’s presence in all of the temptations and wild beasts of life and he calls us to do likewise.
It is also terribly tempting to believe God’s presence or the angel’s waiting upon us is connected to what we do. We want to believe that when we resist temptation, when we face the fears and fight the wild beasts, then the angels will wait upon us. But that is not what Mark says. That thinking is our tenacious desire to control and predict. All three run parallel and overlap in our lives. It is a very hard lesson to learn ——especially when we are severely threatened by temptations and by the wild beasts. It is almost impossible to believe that God is with us in the midst of such threats.
In FIRL, people described harsh wilderness experience that lasted for years. They would have been grateful if they had only lasted forty days. One woman described a time when she could not read scripture, another found it difficult to worship. A man took years to return to the church after losing his wife and home in a divorce. The horrible gap between what we want and work for in life—the things we think are necessary for our lives as well as the people that are necessary for our lives—-and what actually happens is sometimes unbearable. Sometimes the presence of angels can only be seen in retrospect.
There is a tradition in Lent in which we ‘give something’ up. It is not to make ‘sacrifice’ an idol. It is to remind us that the things we seek for comfort or which we think we can’t live without are not necessary for our souls. It is hard see clearly what we need to rely upon when we have so many ready substitutes. The spiritual discipline is to voluntarily enter a mini- wilderness. Used in that way, it is a valuable tool.
Jesus came out of the wilderness announcing: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” He came out of wilderness with the conviction that God was with him —even in the wilderness. That knowledge sustained him in the wildernesses that were to come. That is the good news and that is the promise to each of us.
Repent, turn toward God. Rely upon him in the midst of temptation and wild beasts. Trust in his steadfast love. Let it be so.