02/21/21 “Peace in the Wilderness”

Mark 1:1-9

They were a divided people. One group wanted to rebuild the monuments of the past. They claimed to be the party of law and order, and they had strong views about who could marry whom. They wanted to keep outsiders out, and they advocated building a wall to accomplish that. The other group was motivated by the desire for inclusion. They were interested in bringing people of diverse backgrounds together and incorporating them into the community.

No, I’m not talking about Congress or even the United States as a whole. This is a description of the Jewish nation when Mark wrote his Gospel. The separatists’ beliefs were rooted in the soil of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. The universalists looked to the books of Jonah and Ruth and 2nd and 3rd Isaiah. Mark’s Gospel places him squarely among the universalists. He looked to the day when the unity of the kingdom of God, inaugurated by Jesus, would be fulfilled here on earth. Our verses for today are one of his earliest hints of that.

I’ve always been drawn to the stories of what we call “The Temptation of Christ.” The stories I remember are the ones in Matthew and Luke—the ones where Jesus and Satan have a spirited dialogue as Satan tries to tempt Jesus to abandon his divine nature and his human commitment to his mission. Their two versions are pretty similar, with a couple variations. The temptations happen in a different order. Luke includes a final, sinister sentence that always gives me the creeps: “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from Jesus until an opportune time.” It’s so sinister. Matthew doesn’t mention, as Luke does, that after Satan’s departure, angels suddenly appeared to minister to Jesus. Matthew’s and Luke’s are dramatic and memorable stories.

Mark’s account? Not so much. His account is so short you might think that he didn’t consider it all that important. There’s no drama here—just one sentence in two parts: Jesus “was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him.” It’s just one sentence, but Mark packs an important message into it: that the wholeness of God’s kingdom has come near in Jesus.

His message of inclusion actually begins with the first part of our passage: the account of Jesus’ baptism. Obviously, Jesus didn’t need John’s baptism of repentance; he had nothing to repent of. But he had a message for the people who did need it—for the people who had come to John with a desire to prepare themselves for the one who was coming. Just as Jesus placed himself at the dinner tables of the sinners he came to save, he shared their baptism. Upon emerging from the water, he heard God’s words that affirmed who and what he was: God’s Son, the Beloved, with whom God was well pleased.

After that, Jesus spends forty days in the wilderness. Matthew, Mark, and Luke describe the Spirit’s role in this differently. Matthew’s Greek word is one that meant “to lead up to a higher place.” It brings to mind all those who drew closer to God on mountaintops. Luke’s Greek suggests that Jesus was led through the wilderness with the Spirit by his side—that the Spirit led him by the hand. And then we have Mark, whose translated word sounds much more forceful or even violent: “the Spirit immediately ‘drove’ Jesus out into the wilderness.” But that word doesn’t necessarily entail violence or force. It can simply mean a power that is irresistible. And it can also mean causing someone or something to move straight towards its intended goal.

These are the meanings that make the most sense to me. If you’ve ever felt drawn to (or pushed) to some life-giving thing in a way you could hardly resist, you know what the Spirit’s power feels like. As much you try to avoid that divine leading, the Spirit just won’t leave you alone. You can say no, but the Spirit won’t let you forget that you did. When the Spirit drives us, we are being guided straight to a goal, one we may or may not understand at the time. When that happens, we may need some time in the wilderness ourselves—a time of reflection, a time of sorting out, a time of coming to grips with what the future may hold.

I picture Jesus, emerging from his baptism in the Jordan, hearing and seeing the divine confirmations of his identity and mission, feeling the driving force of the Spirit moving in his soul. He will need some time to come to grips with the weight of the burden he will carry, the difficulty of the road ahead, the life and death consequences of the message he has to announce. So, the Spirit causes him to go into the wilderness where he can prepare to move straight on his intended path.

His wilderness time is a time of testing. All three Gospel writers use the same word for this testing, which is often translated as temptation. It can certainly be malicious—a crafty invitation to sin. But it can also suggest a testing that is an exploration of sorts to find out what someone thinks or how someone will behave. I think it’s safe to say that both types of testing are happening here. Satan’s tempting of Jesus was for no good purpose, designed to see if Jesus’ integrity could be compromised. But I expect that Jesus was testing himself as well—probing his own ability to carry out the mission he’d been born to.

It seems like Satan knows when we are trying our hardest to be faithful or experiencing growth in our faith. When we engage in a time of reflection and intentional seeking of God’s will for us, as Lent is, Satan sees his opportunity. As we open ourselves to God in the midst of our own Lenten wilderness, Satan tries to crash the party. He tempts us in order to test our resolve, our sincerity, indeed our love for God. If you want a heads-up on all the ways Satan tries to tempt us away from God, read The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis. It’s a novel in which one of Hell’s bureaucrats mentors a young protégé on all the most effective ways to draw human beings away from God. It’s a good survival guide for those times when we’re vulnerable to Satan’s temptations.

After the temptation, we get to the heart of Mark’s account of Jesus’ wilderness time—the emblem of the kingdom Jesus will soon begin to proclaim. For Mark, it is the ideal that will immediately put Jesus at odds with a significant part of the Jewish community and arguably be the first step on the road to the cross. It’s a vision of the unity that fulfills the prophecies of Isaiah and characterizes God’s kingdom: “He was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him.”

For us, “wild beasts” conjure up images of threat and danger. Certainly, they did the same for ancient people as well. But that enmity between people and animals wasn’t part of God’s original plan for creation. There was no threat by one to the other in Eden. In Eden, animals weren’t even given as food for human beings; God very specifically offered trees and other plants for people to eat. It wasn’t until after the fall and the flood that humanity and the animal world became adversaries who feared and preyed upon each other. This division ran parallel to the divisions within the human race and within the human heart as well. The wholeness of creation progressively eroded as we got more and more distant from Eden.

You’ve probably seen paintings by the Quaker artist Edward Hicks called “The Peaceable Kingdom.” They’re scenes inspired by Isaiah 11: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” For Hicks, the wild animals were more than long-feared creatures. They were also symbols of humanity’s worst characteristics. Hicks believed that each of us harbors fierce passions symbolized by the different animals, and that these passions lead to sin and division until they are reined in by the power of Jesus.

In one brief sentence, Mark paints a similar picture. Jesus is with the wild beasts. There’s no suggestion of danger or threat. Jesus co-exists with them, and the animals co-exist with each other. Mark paints a picture of Isaiah’s prophecy fulfilled. Predator and prey rest and eat together. The rupture between humanity and the natural world is healed. The animal passions of the human heart are brought under control. Mark’s picture is one of peace between humanity and creation, and wholeness within the human soul. Freed from the destructive power of sin, human beings are able to live in peace with one another, with the natural world, and with God.

Charles Wesley captured these ideas in one of his hymns. He wrote,
Prince of universal peace,
destroy the enmity;
Bid our jars and discords cease
Unite us all in thee!
Cruel as wild beasts we are
Till vanquished by thy mercy’s power,

Men, like wolves each other tear,
And their own flesh devour.
But if thou pronounce the word
That forms our souls again,
Love and harmony restored
Throughout the earth shall reign;
When thy wondrous love they feel
The human savages are tame;
Ravenous wolves and leopards dwell
and stable with the lamb.

O that now, with pardon blest,
We each might each embrace!
Quietly together rest,
And feed upon thy grace,
Like our sinless parents live!
Great Shepherd, make thy goodness known,
All into thy fold receive,
And keep us ever one.”

We live in a world that is anything but peaceable. Just as in Jesus’ day, and in Mark’s, there’s political and social unrest. There are ideological factions vying for power. There are the ever-present problems of illness and poverty. And, like Paul, we often suffer from division in our own souls; like him, we don’t do what we want and do the very things we hate.

But, Jesus left the wilderness ready to bring good news to us—news of a peaceable kingdom, God’s kingdom. We can hold that vision before us and find the peace that was present in the wilderness with Jesus. We can co-exist with the wild beasts who prowl through our spirits when Jesus calms and tames them. We can work towards making the world more like God’s kingdom as Jesus lived it and Mark described it: one that celebrates both unity and diversity. When we find ourselves in the wilderness, we can be sure that Jesus is there with us, and where he is, the peaceable kingdom is brought near. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young