Monday, February 16, 2015

Mark's Version of the Wilderness

Am I the only preacher who read the appointed lessons for thisSunday and mumbled an expletive under my breath?

It’s the first Sunday in Lent, so I’m not surprised that it’s the story of Jesus in the wilderness. And I know we’re in Year B, so I’m not surprised that we have Mark’s rather scant account of Jesus’ time in the desert. But the confirmation of what I already expected—a one-verse description with no dialogue or drama set between two texts we’ve already heard in recent weeks (see Jan. 11 and Jan. for overlapping gospel lessons)—made me wonder whether anyone will notice if they hear essentially the same sermon for the third time in a month and a half.

But don’t panic, dear preacher, and don’t fret, poor congregant. This is different. It will be different. It must be different. This is the first Sunday in Lent, and that changes everything.

As I begin this week of sermon-prep, I want to focus on Mark’s version of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. It’s beautifully understated: “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

How did he get there? The Spirit led him there—the same Spirit that he saw descending upon him like a dove as he came up from the waters of baptism. This is baptism and response. This is more than being led by the Spirit. This is being driven by the Spirit—driven the way one might drive a team of oxen. Jesus was pushed, spurred, forced. He wasn’t invited or coaxed. He wasn’t led or encouraged. He was driven. Sometimes God drives us where he wants us to go. And sometimes it’s the preacher’s job to drive the congregation out into dangerous places where they do not want to go. So often I invite, cajole, and plead. Rarely do I flash the whip. But when are we pushed by God or by one who speaks for God? When is it right to push? Into what is God driving us?

What was the wilderness like? Mark’s account leaves so much to the imagination. I picture Jesus, the Boy Scout, making his way through the wilderness. After forty days of self-preservation and self-reliance, he will earn his merit badge. It’s not easy. There are wild beasts that roam those rough places. But Jesus is prepared—not in a supernatural, you-could-never-do-this kind of way. Notice that Mark makes no mention of fasting. Mark doesn’t need to recreate Moses’ time on the Mt. Sinai—forty days without food or water as told in Exodus 34:28. Instead, Mark’s version of this story leaves open the kind of spiritual journey any of us might take. Yes, it would be difficult. No, not many of us are called to it. But this wilderness experience isn’t just a demonstration of Jesus’ unattainable-in-this-life strangeness. It’s a model we might consider following. Is God calling us out into the desert places?

What did the angels do? I have no idea. Mark tells us that the angels waited on him, which suggests to me that, even though he was out in the wilderness, Jesus was in close communication with his heavenly father. Did they set up camp for him, build his fire, or carry his pack the way some froufrou luxury travel companies offer to take the wild out of wilderness for rich pilgrims? Probably not. Maybe they tended to his physical and spiritual needs from time to time. Maybe they are our way of articulating how anyone could manage to live in the desert for forty days. Regardless, I think it means that, even though his trip was solitary, he wasn’t alone. Can we see that even in the wilderness moments of life we are not alone?

What sort of temptation did Satan present? Matthew and Luke both give us the back and forth between Jesus and the tempter: “command these stones to become loaves of bread” and “throw yourself down.” They capture the drama that the early Christians provided to fill out the otherwise nondescript tale of Jesus’ time in the desert places. But Mark doesn’t need them. Again, he leaves it to our imagination. Jesus is God in the flesh, and we are comforted by the fact that he experienced the challenges that we experience. By leaving room for our imagination, Mark invites us to place our own experience of temptation onto the one who was tempted yet lived without sin. His victory over Satan in the wilderness—a foreshadowing of his victory over Satan in the cross and empty tomb—is one that is won just for us. In your forty days of wilderness experience, what would your temptations be? When you are in those vulnerable places, how does Satan try to woo you? Will Jesus’ stand be your strength?

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