The season of Lent begins in brutal honesty. The story of Noah and the ark – for all the children’s toys and Bill Cosby comedy monologues it has inspired– is a pretty dark tale. God got so sick of the violence and corruption on earth that God destroyed all flesh except Noah and his family and a remnant of all the other animals. The Almighty regretted ever creating the earth. Wow. That’s pretty angry.
And in Mark’s gospel, just after he’s been baptized and hears God’s voice say to him, “You are my Beloved son, in whom I am well-pleased,” Jesus is “cast out” into the wilderness by the Spirit, of all things. The other gospels say he was “led out into the wilderness,” but Mark uses the same word as he uses to describe what Jesus does to demons–he “cast them out.” And he doesn’t elaborate on the temptations Jesus faced. Mark just says, “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” Enough said, apparently.
God didn’t have a remote control with which to click off the news and the movies and the dramas and the stupid comedies and the endless sales pitches, like we do. I hardly watch any television (except Downton Abbey, from which we’re all forced to fast this season!), but don’t you just get to the point where you have to turn it off sometimes? There’s just too much bad news, too much violence, too much corruption, too much campaigning and posturing and name-calling, too much sickness, too much…. God didn’t have that option, as Martin Copenhaver points out (textweek.com for 2/26/12), but it’s no wonder God was the most sick of it all. It does make you wonder today, when you look around and see that apparently quite a few seeds of that violence and wickedness and corruption got tucked away in the ark and survived to live today. I notice its flutter every once in a while in my own heart.
So that’s what our reading from Hebrew scriptures would have us take in as we begin our Lenten journey. Look at the state of the world. Look at what human beings are doing to each other and to the earth. Probably a good idea not to start off too cocky.
And the gospel reading makes sure that we know that Jesus is in the mess with us. No special treatment here. Like many native traditions, Jesus is sent on a vision quest, into the wilderness, whether literal or figurative, to test and clarify his vision of who he is and what he is about, what he’s up against. This is no journey to embark upon naively or too optimistically. Jesus begins his journey in the human reality of sin, failure, struggle, doubt, hardship, hunger, but as one commentator says, he “enters into the ‘darkness’ to transform it…[In fact,] God’s love and mercy will be most clearly revealed in the darkest part of the story.” (David Lose, workingpreacher.org, 2/26/12)
“We can take some comfort in Mark’s honesty about how Jesus ended up in the wilderness,” one preacher suggests (Phyllis Kersten, Christian Century, 2/22/12, p. 20) He was “cast out” by the Spirit, just as we often find ourselves dropped into the midst of the wilderness– cast out by a phone call, or a pink slip, or the shattering of a relationship. “The wilderness,” another writer says, “is anyplace we must decide if God can be trusted with our lives…The wilderness is anywhere where the teachings of Jesus seem foolish and other voices seem reasonable.” (Tom Are, Jr. Journal for Preachers, Lent, 2012, p. 3) You’ve been there, haven’t you?
Unlike Jesus, we are much more likely to try to regain control of the situation as quickly as possible, aren’t we? 40 days?! Let alone 40 years?! Who’s got that kind of time?! We’ve go to get on with problem-solving, with finding a solution, with finding out who’s responsible…
But cell phones don’t always work in the wilderness. Our usual ways of finding out what’s the matter, calling in back up, sucking it up and just getting up to do what needs to be done, just don’t seem to work in the wilderness. Food is not readily available, water’s at a premium, and then there are the wild beasts.
The wild beasts in the story of Jesus in the wilderness may represent all the dangers present–those glowing yellow eyes circling around him in the darkness, the sniffs and growls within earshot, the seen and unseen dangers that are real or imagined–, but maybe Mark had that text from Isaiah in mind, you know, the one where the wolf shall lie down with the lamb, and the lion with the kid. (Is. 11:6-9) “The wild beast are signs of transformation,” one writer suggests (Tom Are, op cit.), just as Isaiah said God would transform the earth. “There is no wilderness devoid of the wild beasts.”
“And the Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] 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.”
You get the impression that Jesus was tempted by Satan throughout the forty days. “Like the cell phone technician in the TV ad who keeps going into remote and secluded areas to test reception [Phyllis Kersten suggests] God kept asking Jesus, ‘Can you hear me now? Can you hear me say that you are my beloved son now, when you see that this struggle with Satan isn’t a one-time event, but of long duration? Can you hear me now that you know that unlike Abraham’s son Isaac you will not be spared, that you will be offered up for the sin of the world? Can you hear me in the angels I send to wait on you? Can you see and hear in them the assurance that I will sustain you?’ ‘Can you hear me now?’ God also asks us.” (Ibid.)
Can you hear me now in this wilderness you find yourself in? In this illness or in this break-up, or in this struggle, or in this dying? Can you hear me now?
“He was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him,” Mark says. The journey ahead–of Jesus, ahead of us–is difficult. How do we find the courage to begin, let alone to continue on? The angels ministered to Jesus, and spiritual aid is available to us. “The way is not restricted to the exceptionally gifted or heroic folk among us,” the German theologian Dorothee Soelle pointed out (cited by Mitzi Minor in The Power of Mark’s Story, p. 18) We do not journey alone–there are “angels” all around us, in many different shapes and forms.
And note what Jesus says, first thing, after coming out of the wilderness–“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” God’s reign has already begun, as already broken open the heavens to “come down,” as he saw it. Even in the wilderness, –especially in the wilderness, among the wild beasts and angels and Satan–that vision was clarified.
Yesterday a number of us spent the day trying to discern what we might do to get “the good news” that we have to share broadcast to the community. In the midst of the mess that the world and our lives are in, what is the good news that can transform us? Lots and lots of pages of newsprint were filled with ideas and suggestions, hopes and struggles.
We usually focus on what we should be doing, what we are doing or not doing in relationship to God or the world. But it is God who initiates the reconciliation in the story of Noah after the flood. It is God who transforms that ancient weapon – the bow – into the sign of promise (“they shall beat their swords into plowshares…”) It is the reign of God that is loose in the world, Jesus preaches with renewed passion and clarity as he emerges from the wilderness. The violence and corruption and evil are still present in human life, but so is God, and God will prevail. That’s a promise.
You might practice looking for the promise in these days ahead–this week’s practice–as you prepare a meal, notice the promise of nourishment. As the season progresses and you begin to prepare the earth for your garden or flowers, notice the promise of beauty and sustenance. As you make your bed, notice the promise of rest. What other signs of God’s sustaining, renewing promise can you see or become?
As we proceed through this season of Lent, not making detours around the difficult times and obstacles, but meeting them square on and with open eyes, let us keep the sign of the bow–the sign of God’s promise– before us as well. May the wilderness clarify our vision, may it remove our illusions and self-delusions, may it strengthen us, and toughen us, for the way ahead. But know that you, too, are God’s beloved, surrounded by both the wild beasts and angels.
May these words be hope and courage for us for the living of these days. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark