Sermon February 21 ~ Mark 1:9-13 Jesus’ Temptation Rev. Betsy Hogan
Did you ever cheat on an assignment for school, or maybe work? I’m not going to make you raise your hands or anything… This is not some sort of appeal to ‘lay it all bare before the Lord’ at the beginning of Lent…
I just found myself remembering this week, as I considered the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert the way Mark tells it, a book report that I had to write in Grade Nine about the book “All Quiet On the Western Front”.
Which I had somehow omitted to read. And since the book report was due the next day, this presented me with only one option.
Well, there were two options, I suppose. I could have stayed up all night reading the book and cranking out an honest book report in the early hours of the morning, but alas this is not what I did.
Instead – the other option -- I made up a book report that was based entirely on what was written on the inside flaps of the book cover. Baddabing, DONE. I didn’t copy, I hasten to say, I put it all in my own words… But still, although karma should have ensured that I’d get a really lousy grade on it, apparently karma decided to give me a break that day, because I got a really good grade on it. Oh, the shame…. I have since actually read the book to try to make up for it.
These days, of course, writing a book report based on the book cover would be considered crazy. Not because we’ve all attained some higher level of morality, but because there are so many other more EFFICIENT ways to cheat. I don’t envy the teachers and professors who have to scan for plagiarism these days – there are probably thousands of “All Quiet on the Western Front” book reports just awaiting overwhelmed students in the glorious bowels of the internet. Quite apart from that old favourite, now conveniently online –
Coles Notes. A synopsis for every book you never actually read. Want the gist of the plot so you can impress your friends or get through an exam? Coles Notes is the thing for you. All the basics, and none of that pesky literary artistry to bog you down.
Which brings me to the gospel according to Mark.
Every year, on the first Sunday of the season of Lent, the lectionary cycle of readings treats us to the story of Jesus cast into the wilderness by the Spirit at the beginning of his ministry, to be tempted for forty days.
Every year, on this Sunday – he’s baptised by John in the Jordan, declared Beloved by the spirit of God, and forced out into the desert. And if you’ve experienced the first Sunday of Lent in church before, you might be pardoned for having expected narrative gold. A struggling but steadfast Jesus, beset by an dangerously alluring Satan who presents the requisite Rule-of-Three temptations that are meant to test Jesus’ readiness to accept the fulness of the mission that lies before him.
The temptations to trade his allegiance to God for ultimate influence, ultimate power, and ultimate wealth.
But alas, not this year. This year, in the lectionary cycle of readings, we get the gospel of Mark. The Coles Notes version of the temptation in the wilderness. Just the basics and none of that pesky literary artistry to bog us down.
Into the wilderness, Mark records, Jesus was cast by the Spirit to be tempted. And he was with the wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.
That’s it. That’s the whole story, as far as Mark’s concerned. Certainly it’s a lot less dramatically striking. And it doesn’t lend itself quite so well to the old-fashioned three-point sermon.
But at the same time, there’s also a sense in which if we can set aside everything we might know or half-remember about the specific temptations that are detailed in the other gospels so dramatically, Mark’s very straight-forward Coles Notes version can actually possibly become maybe even more meaningful.
Maybe not so much to the broader story of Jesus, but more meaningful to us in our own reality, as considered alongside and in connection to his.
Because there IS something visceral and very real about the notion finding ourselves cast, as Jesus is said to be by Mark, just simply “into the wilderness”. Alone. Where the wild things are.
It’s one of my absolute favourite books, Where the Wild Things Are, the Maurice Sendak children’s book. And in large measure that’s because in a way that really does evoke the image of Jesus cast out into the wilderness, it reflects -- with an amazing authenticity that connects with adults as much as children -- this reality that ya, there are times, in a blue fury, or in an almost speechless boiling-over frustration, or in a real down-and-dirty struggle within ourselves, there are times when that’s where it feels like we wind up.
Where the wild things are. And letting ourselves feel it. All of it.
He was with the wild beasts, it says in the gospel of Mark. And ya, I bet he was, as he stared down the barrel of beginning his ministry. And although it’s extremely satisfying to read in the other gospels about how cleverly and neatly he fends off every attack by “the devil” like some sort of Ninja Jesus -- at the same time, there’s something profoundly meaningful, I think, in the simplicity of the way we hear about it from Mark.
In the notion of Jesus really just experiencing, in a kind of broader and deeper no-details-provided sort of way, the kind of real dark night of the soul, where-the-wild-things-are wilderness that we might find ourselves deep within and carried along by just as surely.
And then… Jesus making it through to the other side. Battered but not broken. Scarred by the struggles even, but still whole. Jesus who’s been where the wild things are, not any LESS Jesus, but maybe a whole lot more US.
Because what it comes down to, whether it’s OUR where-the-wild-things-are in the wilderness or JESUS’ where-the-wild-things-are in the wilderness, is that the essential “testing” being faced is the same.
For us right now, the most striking thing about hearing this story with the emphases Mark has chosen HAS to be the aloneness of it. The loneliness of it.
Which I think is new. For that to be most striking. I mean, I'll only speak for myself but I don't think I ever fully appreciated the ALONENESS of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness, any other year that I've heard or preached on this story on the first Sunday of Lent.
But this year, it's what feels most overwhelming. And even more so, perhaps, because I don't know that I ever fully appreciated before the fact that it wasn't an aloneness that was chosen.
"The Spirit DROVE him out into the wilderness" is the way Mark puts it. This wasn't Jesus choosing a silent retreat, recognizing his own need for self-reflection, deciding to take a bit of time to pause and pray and prepare for the ministry ahead.
The Spirit DROVE him out into the wilderness – the isolation's compelled, it's enforced, it's not optional, it just IS.
And before we reactively undercut the impact of that, with our caveats that he is after all JESUS, and so surely would have understood the plan, and so obviously would have had at his disposal the inner resources to meet any challenge without issue --
It's crucial, for Jesus' life to be at all meaningful to us in the way that God intended, it's crucial for us to remember in this moment his humanness. His full humanness. Because the incarnation – all of God squished up into a person – the incarnation is meaningless if he's not a real person.
A real real person, for whom the experience of an aloneness that can't be escaped and seems to be relentless, is ITSELF testing.
I think that's why Mark doesn't even bother with the details Matthew and Luke think are so important. Because for whatever reason, for Mark, Jesus getting through the simple, unchosen, driven out to the where-the-wild-things-are, of it all is actually meaningful enough.
And you know what? After the past year, and still looking ahead into uncertainty, I think he's right.
Because I don't think there's a single one of us who hasn't learned something significant about ourselves over the past year. What we need, what we miss, what makes a difference in our day, what's unbearable, what matters, what can be enough.
And is that learning redemptive? It's not. Not for all the learning in the world are fifty-three deaths at Northwood an appropriate price.
But the learning is real nevertheless, and it's meaningful. In fact, what we discover because of the Spirit DRIVING Jesus into the wilderness to be alone, and with the wild beasts, and with the angels ministering to him, is that it's obviously meant to be... good.
Not fun, not great, not easy, but weirdly... good.
Until this year, I've always thought about Jesus' time in the wilderness as being a time of preparation. A time of strengthening himself, making himself ready for what lies ahead. And so I've always construed it in preaching as being an invitation to us to essentially do the same. Pay more attention to the way of faithfulness we're trying to follow, deepen our sense of connection to Godness, to give us strength, to give us courage.
And there's nothing wrong with any of that. But after this past year, I find myself wondering if the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness ALONE, at least in part, because of what gets revealed about ourselves that we might not have otherwise known. Each of us. What we need, what we miss, what makes a difference in our day, what's unbearable, what matters, what can be enough.
There's a purity in becoming aware of these things. A freedom even. Because they're simply how we're made. American theologian Nadia Holz-Weber talks about the season of Lent being about going deep enough to know our limits, the limits of our humanness as we are, because that's the point past which God begins.
And the point past which God begins READILY. Because our limits are who we are, and who we are is beloved.
So, a different kind of Lent this year, perhaps. A Lent we begin after nearly a year already of being driven into an experience of aloneness and separateness, into an experience of where the wild things are. And so a Lent that's an opportunity, perhaps, to crystallize a new awareness about ourselves. Each of us. What we've learned about what we need, what we miss, what makes a difference in our day, what's unbearable, what matters, what can be enough.
It's not the full story of us. But it's kind of the essence. The Coles Notes, the distillation on the book cover. It's amazing how much it actually says.
Thanks be to God, who meets us readily with open arms, at our limits. Amen.