Genesis 3: 1-7
Mark 1: 9-15
I have known Loren for over 26 years, and he has been one of my teachers. I first met him in 1992, when he came to the church in Middletown to get a Thanksgiving basket. I became acquainted with his mother, an addict, who taught Loren how to steal to help support her habit, and his brother and sister, also addicts and also in and out of prison. Over the years I visited him in a lot of different prisons, and then he would call me (collect) from prison. I was, after all, the only person he knew with enough money to accept his collect calls. Well, there was this one conversation, when he became very frustrated with me, accusing me of not understanding. “You don’t know,” he said, “what it is like to be tempted---to be tempted to steal food, because you are hungry, tempted to do drugs to block out all your painful thoughts and feelings, tempted to steal a wallet, so you can pay your rent. If you have any temptations at all, he sneered, there are probably no serious consequences to them. And if there are no real consequences, then there is no real temptation. Now Loren is no theologian, but he actually knew what the great Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, knew, who said that the worst temptation of all is to have no temptations. Loren forced me to stop, think and consider the question: what really tempts me? What really tempts you?
Now I have to admit that although there are things in Mark I love, Mark is not my favorite gospel, because it is too compact for my taste. I like more words, certainly more details, and this is not something we get in Mark, like in today’s reading, where we have a very shortened version of Jesus’ temptation, when compared with Matthew and Luke. Mark gives us no dialogue between Satan and Jesus; we never hear from Mark what the nature of Jesus’ temptations were. But even in a few sentences Mark gives us a depth of meaning---though we have to do a lot of digging to get at it.
The first thing we should note is that immediately after his baptism, the Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness, where he is tempted by Satan. Think about that for a moment. Jesus has just come out of Jordan’s muddy waters and declared to be God’s beloved Son. But there was no basking in that identity, no time for Jesus to reflect, because immediately the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness. Jesus was not pushed or pulled there by bad people, not even by Satan. He did not go there because he decided on his own to do so. No, Jesus was driven into the wilderness by the Spirit, and it was there that he would face Satan and be tempted for 40 days and nights.
So what do we make of the Spirit, who drives Jesus to the place, where he will be tempted? It does not seem like a very spiritually supportive thing for the Spirit to do, does it? Aren’t we rightly suspicious of people who drive their friends or others to places of temptation? What if someone has a problem with alcohol, and his or her friends drive her to a bar. Is that really what a friend should do? And do we not each week pray the Lord’s Prayer Lead us not into temptation. But in this reading it is the Spirit, who drives Jesus into the wilderness, where he will meet temptation. Why?
Martin Luther once said that Christians make the mistake of thinking that Jesus is the most admirable man. Well, Luther said, you can admire him, but not without pitying him, because he was the most tempted of all human beings, tempted not only in his humanity, but also in his divinity, tempted to grasp at his God-identity in such a way that his humanity would be overcome by his divinity. And that was a terrible struggle, a struggle none of us would ever want to face. Furthermore, we should never make the assumption that temptation is ALWAYS a sign of weakness. On the contrary, we are not tempted to do what we cannot do, but rather what we can do. The testing is often one of strength, and the stronger one is, the greater the temptation. As someone once said, “You do not have a sea storm in a puddle.” So Jesus’ temptations were certainly real and certainly great, but like all temptations, they were also deceptive.
Consider how Satan is in the habit of making his appearance. How does temptation usually come? It isn’t that an actual demonic figure appears and says, “Here I am to tempt you.” Rather evil often appears as a friend, which is why later in the gospel, when Simon Peter rejects the idea that Jesus would suffer and die, Jesus said to him, “Get behind me, Satan.” While Peter thought of himself as Jesus’ friend, one who would, of course, not want to see him suffer and die, Jesus saw Peter’s resistance to the hard truth of suffering and death as a sign of Peter’s alliance with Satan. When the serpent tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden, he did not say, “Do you wish to become like me, the serpent,” but rather, “If you eat the fruit, you will be as God, knowing good and evil.”
The most serious temptations are NOT invitations to debauchery, but rather invitations to great heights. Debauchery is obvious, lacking in subtlety; we know what it looks like and where it leads. It is a fall, and it does ruin lives. But it is not as spiritually dangerous as the fall that comes from grasping at greatness. Consider the myth of Satan’s fall. He was not tempted by debauchery, but by godliness. He wanted to be like God. He was the best and brightest of the angels---the star Lucifer was his name, but he wanted more, and so he fell---fell, according to the genius of Dante’s Divine Comedy, into a block of ice, upside down, unable to move, unable to change and grow. And if that is not hell, I do not know what is.
Consider now the place of Jesus’ temptation, the wilderness. We imagine wilderness as a harsh, uncharted land, a place of danger and vulnerability that challenges our physical and mental strength. But the wilderness is also the place where great things happen. God did not appear to Moses in the familiar territory of Midian, where he lived with his wife and kept flocks for his father in law. No, God appeared to Moses in the wilderness. unfamiliar territory. The wilderness is also the place where the Israelites wandered for forty years, tested and tried that they might become God’s covenantal people. The wilderness was the place where the Jewish identity was formed. They were not finished products even after coming through the wilderness, but they had a far better sense of who they were and who they were called to become---though time and time again, they would forget. So while the wilderness is a tough and frightening place, the ground of testing, it is also a holy place, a place of meeting and making.
And so too was it that for Jesus, the place his identity was being formed. Though not yet a finished product when he emerged from his battle with Satan, he knew more about himself and his God after than he did before. And he would continue to learn, even as he would continue to be tested. Jesus would be finally stripped of everything, and even his God, according to Mark, would abandon him, and then in abandonment he would find and be found by God. This is the paradox of the cross: the love of God is most profoundly present in what appears to be love’s absence.
But this is not something Jesus knew when he was first driven into the wilderness by the Spirit. He would first have to learn and experience other things, including wild beasts and angels.
We should not be surprised by the presence of wild beasts in the wilderness. Isn’t that what we are afraid we will find there? And since Mark pairs the wild animals with the angels, it would make sense to interpret the wild beasts as the opposite of angels, forces against which Jesus had to do battle. But Mark may have something else in mind here. Rather than fearful beasts, Mark may be alluding to the idea of a peaceable kingdom, where as Isaiah puts it: 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. This is the healed creation, where discord and disharmony are overcome. Mark’s intention here may be to point toward the new creation that is now breaking in through Jesus as the Christ.
And the angels, who cared for Jesus, symbolize Jesus’ intimacy with God. Angels in the bible are often the point of contact with God, as in the dream that Jacob had of a ladder with angels ascending and descending. Those angels were Jacob’s contact with the divine, and here Mark is hinting that Jesus is our contact with God.
We Christians call Christ the new Adam, the obedient One, who repairs what Adam and Eve have broken with their disobedience. When the couple was expelled from Eden, an angel was placed at the east of the Garden of Eden with a flaming sword guarding the way to the tree of life. In Jesus as the Christ the guarding angels are gone; instead they serve him who is the way to full and abundant life.
Together the angels and wild beasts tell us that a new beginning is dawning. When his time of testing was over, Jesus left the wilderness and his ministry began. Satan, however, is not finished---not finished with Jesus, not finished with us. Though Mark does not tell us Satan will return, Luke’s gospel does. Luke writes, “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from Jesus until an opportune time.” That opportune time would come later, and what a time, what a struggle it would be.
About Our Pastor:
I am very happy to be here at the First Church of Christ, Congregational in Unionville, CT. I arrived here in July, 2017, and have been warmly received. This is a wonderful church community. I have been an ordained minister for over three decades now, and I consider it a great privilege and challenge to be called to serve. Before coming to Unionville I served churches on Long Island, Middletown, CT and then ten years in New Haven, Center Church on the Green. My home is in Middletown, where I live with my husband, Donald Oliver, who is a professor of molecular biology at Wesleyan University. We have four grown children, two boys and two girls and three granddaughters, the youngest born on October 3, 2017!