In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, "Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased." The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel."
A lawyer was sitting in her office late one night, when Satan appeared. The Devil told the lawyer: "I have a proposition for you. You can win every case you try for the rest of your life. Your clients will adore you, your colleagues will stand in awe of you, and you will make embarrassing sums of money. All I want in exchange is your soul, your husband's soul, your children's souls, the souls of your parents, grandparents, and parents-in-law, and the souls of all your friends and law partners." The lawyer thought for a moment, then asked: "So, what's the catch?"
And it’s with that question in mind that I want to approach our gospel text this morning. “What’s the catch?”
There are many engaging images and characters in these few short verses. But what’s really interesting about these few scriptures from Mark’s gospel is not necessarily what’s in them, but what’s missing from them. Let me explain, when you read these scriptures in the other two synoptic gospels, Matthew and Luke (BTW…synoptic simply means a broad summary of an event or a synopsis), there are substantial differences in the telling of this wilderness story. Luke and Matthew actually expand the story to include an additional 10 verses. Within these verses we have a complex dialogue between Jesus and Satan (the more authentic pronunciation of this word is the Satan) where the temptations have very specific form and function. In the original Greek, the word Satan actually just means accuser. You might remember these versions of the story. First the Satan challenges Jesus to turn stones into bread to satisfy his hunger from fasting for 40 days and 40 nights. Next the Satan tries to trick Jesus into showing off his special relationship with God by challenging him to throw himself off of the top of the temple so that the angels might save him. And the third temptation occurs after the Satan takes Jesus up a high mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the world. If Jesus would just agree to worship the Satan, then all of these kingdoms would be given to Jesus. Of course, Jesus passes each test and the Satan or Accuser finally leaves him alone.
But in Mark’s gospel, the account which most scholars agree is much older than the other two gospels; there are just these two simple verses. After John baptized Jesus, “The Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him.” Short, but not so sweet. We have just five characters in Mark’s version of the story; Jesus, the Spirit, the Satan, wild beasts, and the angels—all of which are in the wilderness together for a period of forty days.
The first character in the story is the Spirit of God—or as we’ve come to refer it; the Holy Spirit. I know this might sound a little weird and sacrilegious, but the Holy Spirit in this story seems a little schizophrenic to me. If you remember the baptism story of Jesus, God speaks words of incredible love and acceptance to Jesus when he says; “You are my beloved Son, in you I am well-pleased.” With that statement, the Holy Spirit suddenly appears to Jesus in the form that looked like a dove. It’s a beautiful image. But then, in the very next verse the Spirit 'pushes' Jesus into the desert wild. In the original Greek language the word used here “ekballo” actually refers to an action a bit more vigorous than just a slight push. It means throwing something or someone out of your presence. It’s the same verb that Mark uses when Jesus cast out demons. It’s the same verb that Jesus uses when chasing the merchants out of the temple, violently turning over their trading tables. Now can you see the context? The Holy Spirit adamantly, violently, shoves Jesus out into the desert! I just have to ask; why on earth would the Holy Spirit be so brutal?
An interesting statistic is surfacing again out of most of the news media that an unprecedented number of American adults are still living with their parents, or moving back in with them after living on their own for several years. Most obvious is the increasingly common phenomenon of men and women returning home after graduating college. Now there’s a variety of explanations, all of which were accurate: So many accomplishments – both academic and professional – are needed today in order to become self-sufficient. Therefore, it makes a lot of sense to stay home and save money while preparing for a future profession. But there’s also another explanation. Many psychologists say that far more adult children stay home today because it is often quite pleasant to live with one's parents. Now think about that! This is certainly a far different situation that what we know of the WWII generation and their baby boomer children. Very few people in the past would have liked living with their parents beyond childhood. In fact, many people did not even like living with their parents during their childhood. But today’s generation of Americans was raised with more freedom, more autonomy and much more respect than probably any past generation in history. And you have to admit that there have been enormous improvements in some of the ways children are being raised.
Do you remember the saying "Children should be seen and not heard"? That saying reflected past society's view of children. Children were not, to put it simply, taken seriously. They were rarely regarded as persons in their own right or as individuals who should be able to express themselves. Children were regarded more like clones whose primary reason for being was to give parents pleasure and reflect honor on them. This all changed with the baby boomer generation, who made their homes far more livable, even enjoyable, for their children than parents in the past did. As a result, more and more adult children do not regard being in their parents' company nearly as unpleasant or even embarrassing as children used to. Now let me remind you, I’m quoting from a newspaper article! (www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/698044/posts)
But stay with me for a second. After the baptism event, can’t we possibly imagine that Jesus could have felt this way as well? Basking in the warm cloud of God’s love and embrace, why would he ever want to leave? And you may have experienced this too in the past—experienced what God was feeling as well, with your children or grandchildren. Have you ever felt like you had to give a little push to someone you loved? Perhaps you knew they could accomplish the near-impossible; but they were unsure. They had the ability for greatness but lacked the initial confidence to take that first step; they had not yet been tried (which is the root word of temptation) to go out on their own. I think the Spirit so aggressively pushing Jesus out of that cozy cloud of God’s love because Jesus needed to be tried and tempted in order for his ministry to be thoroughly clarified. Yet, it was hard – even for the Son of God – to willingly walk into the wilderness where he would be tested by Satan.
Today is the fifth day of our Lenten journey. But some of you might be wondering, what exactly is Lent? And why should this be important to my spiritual journey. The Bible provides many examples of a 40 day period of reflection. Noah spent 40 days and nights in the ark. Moses spent 40 days on Mt. Sinai with God before he came down with the 10 commandments. The people of Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness, to prepare them to enter the Promised Land. Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness to prepare him for his ministry. Many of you may have made a commitment to remember these 40 days by giving up something through fasting or changing behaviors.
But I encourage you also to take something on. Take on a spiritual discipline like meditation, a daily devotional, or a physical prayer activity like walking a labyrinth. Take on a commitment to renew an estranged relationship. Some of you might be in a very real wilderness right now, not sure where you are or where you are going. Take on the task of finding direction for your life. You might be experiencing a lot of fear and wild beasts in your life—or even confronting your own Satan or accuser right now. Take on one of those wild beast and free yourself from fear. But no matter how you choose to live out these 40 days, remember this most of all. Even Jesus had to be pushed into those lonely places. He did not willingly walk into the wilderness, God’s spirit pushed him. And when Jesus came out of the wilderness, he spoke from his spiritual center; he called people to become aware of the presence of the Kingdom of God, as he was. His time in the wilderness–a time of testing, reflecting and wrestling–prepared him to walk fearlessly through the trials that were to come. And sometimes the Holy Spirit pushes you. You’ll know what it is when you feel it. It’s that little tug on your heart or the huge crisis that emerges pushing you out of your comfort zone, or into a new experience. Our task this Lenten season is not adherence to a list of rules and regulations, or maintaining a level of piety for 40 days that cannot be sustained all year long. It encourages us to be faithful to the journey that God has called each one of us to take.
I’d like you to take a few moments to “take on” an exercise. In your bulletin you will find this activity to prepare you for a Lenten journey.
Taking the Test - During silent reflection or communion today make a list of times in the past week in which you have been tested. Are you in a place of personal wilderness? Perhaps some “wild beasts” have filled you with anxiety and terror? Have you been challenged by an accuser? Finally, list the times in the past week in which you have experienced signs of God’s grace.
And throughout your prayer time this week I invite you to ask God to be present in your wilderness experience, creating a space around it so that you can experience God’s peace. For where when you are at peace, no one or no thing can tempt you or distract you on your journey to Easter. And that my friends, is where we are all headed together. Amen!