Straightway’ into the wilderness

One of my sources for this sermon is a rather unusual introduction to the Gospel According to Mark, written by the iconoclastic rock musician Nick Cave and published in The Grove Press series, “The Pocket Canon Bible.” Though hardly a conventional biblical scholar, Cave manages to say some pretty remarkable and insightful things about Mark’s particular approach. You can read the text of the introduction by clicking here.

Sermon for the first Sunday in Lent
1 Peter 3:18-22 and Mark 1:4-11

Each year on the first Sunday of Lent, the lectionary has us read of Jesus’ forty-day sojourn in the wilderness. In the years that the lectionary has us reading from Matthew or Luke, there’s a good bit of detail offered; thirteen verses in Luke, eleven in Matthew. In these years in which we read from Mark, however, there are but two verses.

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.

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That’s it. No mention of the nature of those temptations, or of the back and forth dialogue between Jesus and the tempter, the satan. But this is the way it is with the Gospel according to Mark. As described by alternative rock music icon Nick Cave in his introduction to this gospel,

[Mark wrote] with such breathless insistence, such compulsive narrative intensity, that one is reminded of a child recounting some amazing tale, piling fact upon fact, as if the whole world depended upon it—which, of course, to Mark it did. ‘Straightway’ and ‘immediately’ link one event to another, everyone ‘runs’, ‘shouts’, is ‘amazed’, inflaming Christ’s mission with a dazzling urgency.

Forty days in the wilderness… tempted by Satan… with the wild beasts… and the angels waited on him. And just like that, it is over. He returns to Galilee to find that John the Baptist has been thrown in prison, and then launches into his ministry.

And yet, writes Cave, “Christ’s forty days and forty nights in the wilderness also say something about His aloneness, for when Christ takes on His ministry around Galilee and in Jerusalem, He enters a wilderness of the soul, where all the outpourings of His brilliant, jewel-like imagination are in turns misunderstood, rebuffed, ignored, mocked and vilified and would eventually be the death of Him.” There is a leanness to the figure of Jesus as portrayed by Mark; no one quite “gets” him, or at least not until the moment of his death when a Roman centurion will finally proclaim, “Truly this man was God’s Son.” Up until then, it is all missed cues and misplaced hopes.

But that is to get well ahead of ourselves. For now I want you to notice that in Mark’s telling, after Jesus’ baptism, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” In Matthew and Luke, Jesus is “led by the Spirit,” but here he is driven out. Coming up out of the waters of baptism, he now must enter into the dry and arid space of wilderness and face down the reality of his calling. In a way that echoes the experience of the liberated Hebrew slaves coming through the waters of the Red Sea and into the Sinai wilderness, a very particular piece of work needs to be done; work that can only be done in the desert.

At the moment of his baptism, the gospel tells us, Jesus heard a voice from heaven speak to him words of profound assurance: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” But it was through the experience of the desert that Jesus wrestled with what that might really mean. Out beyond the edge of his society—beyond all safety and security—in a place inhabited by the wild beasts and in which the hot sun and lack of water can kill a careless traveler in a day, Jesus is called to wrestle with what it means for this God—his Father—to call him “Beloved.”

Which is where that single phrase—“tempted by Satan”—really comes to the fore. Set aside any image of the horned and tailed character we’ve inherited from the medieval world, and forget all of the ways in which Hollywood has variously pictured its devils. Those images might unnerve, frighten, or even intrigue us, but they’re finally too thin to do justice to that which Jesus wrestles with in his wilderness. Pushed to the very edge of survival, he needs to keep recalling himself to his foundational identity as the beloved Son, and keep pressing forward into the life and ministry to which he is being called. Against this the satan—in Hebrew literally “the accuser”—offers the seductive alternative of an easier way. But because this seductively easier way would subvert the very person Jesus was and is—because it is a way that would leave the world trapped in its patterns of death—this satan is a far more destructive thing than the horned devil of popular imagination.

Alongside of this text from Mark, we also heard a brief reading from the 1st Epistle of Peter; a reading that offers a sweeping view of what it means for us that Jesus resisted these temptations. Our reading included references to “the spirits in prison” and to “angels, authorities, and powers,” which through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension have been “made subject to him.” There is a claim being made here that on account of Christ, God has spoken a binding word over the life of the world. And the “angels, authorities, and powers” cannot speak anything like that word.

Not that we live in a world in which other words are not spoken, other claims still made. As N.T. Wright asks, “which principalities and powers have tricked us into compromise and collusion”? Where do we allow that which is other than the God of Jesus Christ—other systems, other temptations, other powers and structures—to determine who we are, both individually and corporately? If you’re tempted to imagine on the one hand that the satan is merely some evil character looking to trip up or torment individual people, or on the other hand that the language of principalities and powers is all the stuff of some bygone world, consider this. It was one of the most educated, ordered, and technologically sophisticated nations in modern history that embraced the convoluted version of reality that was the Third Reich. It was everyday, church-going and law-abiding German citizens who ran the gas ovens of Auschwitz, in which they murdered people who had formerly been their neighbours. Claims other than the one made by God in Christ held sway—death-dealing words spoken over that self-evidently civilized society—and a hell-on-earth held sway for a decade and a half.

It is to such a vision of humanity that Jesus uttered his definitive “no” when he faced his tempter in the wilderness. And maybe such a powerful word of renunciation can only be uttered after having spent serious time alone in the desert. Just as Israel needed forty years in the Sinai to get its Egyptian experience out of its collective system, perhaps the very human Jesus needed those forty days to be cleared of any illusion that he could do this work as anything other than the Son, the Beloved. For us too, sometimes the place we most need to be, the place where we will grow and learn and be seasoned, is in the wilderness. It is part of what we are challenged to consider during the symbolic forty-day desert season of Lent.

To be sure, sometimes our own personal desert and wilderness experiences don’t neatly line up with a forty-day liturgical season; in fact, sometimes our personal wildernesses can seem like they just won’t ever end. “Has God led me into this?” one can fairly ask. Depression, prolonged grief, unrelenting periods of deep doubt or despair? No. I don’t believe God drives us into those kinds of places, nor does God keep us there as if to teach us some hidden life lesson.

Which might lead us to consider that other phrase from Mark’s brief account: “and the angels waited on him.” “They were not to keep Jesus from being tested by satan,” says N.T. Wright, “just as finally they would not keep him from Calvary itself.” The angels—and the word literally means “messengers”—were there, “to assure him that his beloved Father was watching over him, was there with him, was loving him, acting through him, pouring out His Spirit all the time in and through him.” What did Jesus actually see of these messengers? Typically, Mark won’t give us so much as a hint, but I suspect it was not so much a case of seeing something grand and glorious as it of Jesus being given an experience of being accompanied and not alone, and an inner knowledge and deep trust that there was a way to survive into the next day; and the next, and the next. In a wilderness season, that kind of trust and that sense of “not aloneness” are perhaps the very things—the gifts, in fact—to which we most need to learn to be open.

A season in the wilderness. May it in its own way be for you a blessing, a seasoning. And may the angels wait upon you in the darkest and hardest days.

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