Sermon February 18 ~ Mark 1:9-13 Jesus’ Temptation                 Rev. Betsy Hogan

Do you enjoy the texting abbreviations? There’s an actual name for them, which is of course also an abbreviation – SMS language, short message service language – but usually we just call them text-speak. 

And lest we collectively imagine that it all began with Millennials or GenZ and the appearance of smart phones, I must point out with no small amount of firmness that it’s a bona fide legacy of Generation X – first appearing the mainstream of pop culture in 1990, when Sinead O’Connor made a global hit out of Prince’s song written in 1984, “Nothing Compares 2 U”. 

But of course it did really take off with smart phones. To the point that there are now actual online dictionaries of text-speak. For which I am regularly thankful! But I’ve also found it kind of fascinating to essentially watch a new language sort of organically develop in real time.

And even lift its way out of written use via texting to get used orally – like when LOL for laughing out loud suddenly weirdly starts getting conjugated as a verb. It’s enough to make you start lolling.

But the text-speak I really love is TL:DR. Mostly because when I first saw it, I thought I should probably get it tattooed on my forehead. Because it means “too long: didn’t read”. Which for Wordy McWorderson over here, I have to tell you, I seriously felt seen.

Because “too long: didn’t read” is pretty much my best thing. Not that I necessarily want to be told that by other people… but what the advent of “too long: didn’t read” DID do for the rattlers-on like me is that it nudged us a bit into taking a step back bytimes –

And distilling all the glorious wordiness of our rattling-on… into a TL:DR version that just gets to the point. Put it right up at the top of the rattling-on, and anyone who’s just not up for the rattling-on can read that one sentence and they’re good.

Like, for example… I might perhaps feel myself moved by compassion for all of you in this particular moment and say: “TL:DR – Too long, didn’t read is crisp and clean and covers all the bases. Much like the Gospel of 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 TL:DR 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 TL:DR 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.

Because 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.

And 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, ALONE is actually meaningful enough.

And you know what? I think he's right. And in fact, what Mark helps us discover in his crisp and clean TL:DR version 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 that first enforced isolation of Covid, I 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 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 that first isolation of Covid, I found myself wondering if the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness ALONE, at least in part, because of what gets revealed about ourselves when we necessarily turn inward that we might not have otherwise known. Each of us. We can’t escape confronting and coming to terms with or even embracing what essential to us -- what we need, what we miss, what helps make 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.

It’s not easy to come to terms with our limits. What’s essential: what we need, what we miss, what gets us through a day, what's unbearable, what matters, what can be enough. There’s a reason for Jesus too that his experience of Lent, as it were, is where the wild things are. 

But at the same time, it’s also how he found that soft edge between himself and Godness and learned the points past which he needed the angels to minister to him. If for no other reason than to invite us into doing the same. 

And finding – NOT the full story of us. But maybe kind of the essence. Too long: didn’t read. It's amazing how much it actually says.

Thanks be to God, who meets us readily with open arms, at our limits. Amen.