"He was in the wilderness forty days,
tempted by Satan;
and he was with the wild beasts;
and the angels waited on him.” ~ Mark 1:13
I wonder if the first night out was the worst.
A chill in the air, hard ground as a bed, and discomforting solitude.
And the mystery,
the mystery of the Spirit of God that descends gently at the baptism,
then drives, forces, compels him to leave all behind
and retreat into the wilderness.
One moment, dripping wet with John’s baptism,
he had understood the vision and the voice
and his own divine destiny,
and the next moment he was being driven away from
all that was secure,
from family and familiar places,
from the synagogue where he had felt so at home,
from daily responsibilities that had shaped his identity as a Nazarene.
One moment the Spirit descended;
the next moment, the Spirit drove him.
And that first night he knew why.
Many others who answered divine calls moved into spiritual retreats.
The desert offered silence so that even if God whispered,
God would be heard.
The wilderness offered solitude so that
even if God appeared in unexpected ways,
the Divine Presence would be clearly discerned.
But this was no vision quest.
This was no retreat into nature’s beauty, peace, and quiet.
This was a deliberate confrontation with the forces hostile to the Creator God,
a struggle between light and darkness, good and evil.
Here in the wilderness wasteland
is the “residue of the primeval chaos that menaces human life.”
In Jesus’ time, it was believed that evil spirits
inhabited the wild places along the Jordan
and surrounding barren hills,
spirits that thrived in the seeming absence of God.
I wonder if that first night was the hardest.
It is cold and dark and lonely.
And then come the sounds:
mournful cries, evil laughter, menacing growls.
He knows who he is and what he must do.
He knows what time it is and why it must be announced.
He knows God is not absent from him.
He even knows how long this spiritual journey will take.
God’s covenant with Noah followed forty days and nights of raging rains.
Israel was in the wilderness forty years.
Moses was on Sinai forty days,
and Elijah’s journey to Horeb took forty days.
So, forty days. And nights.
He knows all that.
But what he doesn’t know is whether he can endure the test.
He doesn’t even know if he can endure the sounds of the night.
The cries of the wolves.
The laughter of the hyenas.
The growls of the jackals.
The jackals began crying at dusk.
The troubling thing is that jackals often followed leopards to their kills,
to finish the leftovers.
So were there leopards out there as well?
Up to 200 pounds, six and a half feet long.
Known to attack young cattle, pigs and boars, even humans.
If they lurk in the night, there is little hope of escape.
They are agile, can climb trees, and have a remarkable leap.
Another sound comes, a quick yapping bark,
then a shrill howl. A fox.
These cries are at a distance.
But closer is the laugh of the hyenas.
They laugh as they seize prey and fight among themselves for food.
They might travel in packs of up to a hundred members.
If that weren’t enough, their cries sometimes attracted the leopards.
If the hyenas were close, where were the cats?
So much for the silence of the wilderness that night,
and every subsequent night he was out there.
I wonder if he knew the word of God to Job:
“you shall laugh and not fear the wild animals of the earth...” (Job 5:22)
And what about Isaiah’s prophesy:
“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.” (Is. 11:6)
A vision of the peaceable kingdom.
How casually Mark’s gospel mentions the “wild beasts.”
To be Jesus means that all will not be heavenly voices and descending doves.
The voices in the darkness may be terrifying screams or mournful cries.
And the creatures that descend may be snarling jackals or hungry lions.
For Jesus in Mark’s gospel, there is danger on the first page and at every turn.
And perhaps, too, for Mark’s earliest readers
there is the terror of wild beasts awaiting their prey in the Coliseum.
Some of Mark’s readers may find comfort in the words of the Psalmist
who promises God’s protection, saying,
“...He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up...
you will tread on the lion and the adder;
the young lion and the serpent
you will trample under foot.” (Ps. 91:11-13)
But if Mark’s readers have forgotten the psalm,
he assures them that the angels waited on, that is, ministered to Jesus.
Here is an assurance that the kingdom is at hand,
when the promises and the prophesies are enfleshed
in the beloved Son who sojourns forty days in the wilderness.
“The one who journeys safely with wild beasts
and whom angels feed will finally triumph.” [Beverly Gaventa, TFP]
That is what Mark wants his readers and hearers
to know and to believe and to trust.
Whether they face their own temptations
or find themselves pushed into some threatening, even terrifying, wilderness...
whether they face persecution at the hands of the enemies of God
or the lions in the Coliseum,
God is never absent, but always present, always gracing them
with steadfast love that saves, frees, guides, and sustains.
It may be an ancient book, filled with words perhaps made dull by long familiarity,
but if we listen carefully,
it still carries good news, gospel, for us!
God’s Spirit is with us in our wilderness, and present in our struggles,
and God will not allow us to be devoured by threats or defeated by evil.
Because Jesus endured that face-off with Satan, evil personified,
because God’s Beloved passed the test at life’s rawest edge,
he could pass through the waters of the Jordan,
move beyond the empty wilderness,
and boldly march into Galilee proclaiming the gospel
in powerful words and mighty acts.
On this first Sunday in Lent,
it is time to ask ourselves if Jesus’ story is ours.
Is his journey one we can take?
Is his gospel one we can believe and live?
As Lent begins, and Mark sketches out his bare-bones account
of Jesus’ encounter with the Spirit, Satan, wild beasts, and angels,
do we find any help for the living of these days, the facing of this hour?
Lamar Williamson says that for Jesus
his commissioning means conflict and his sonship means struggle.
What does our baptism in his name mean?
What does being ordained an elder mean today?
What does it mean to be his disciple in the coming week of your life?
Struggle? Of course.
Lent is not the only season that finds us tested
or tempted or wandering in the wilderness
or camped out in a dangerous place surrounded by
beasts we cannot control.
For the Christ-follower, every season brings challenges of its own.
No less than Jesus are we pulled into the harsh side of life.
We see in his peril something of our own experience in life’s empty places.
We hear threatening sounds in the darkness, suffer deep loneliness,
wrestle with temptations, and fear the absence of God.
Since we are not Jesus, we do not fare as well in the wilderness.
We give into our fears.
We negotiate with the Tempter.
And we wouldn’t know an angel if it stood at the foot of our bed and glowed!
We are more prone to listen for beasts than to look for angels.
A woman named Rayanna struggled in the wilderness of cancer recently.
I don’t know her, but her pastor is a former student of mine.
In his church newsletter, I had read that she had come home
from the hospital after a bone marrow transplant.
No visitors for at least a month.
That may have been part of Rayanna’s wilderness,
but listen to the “angel” part of her story.
Jon’s church has an average attendance that is a little less than ours.
But his church, in response to Rayanna’s need,
organized a community-wide bone marrow drive
and enlisted 337 people for the National Bone Marrow Donor Registry.
Angels are at work there, feeding Rayanna’s hope for recovery and healing!
(And you thought the only people touched by angels were TV characters.)
In his book called Wishful Thinking
Frederick Buechner writes something of angels that I know I’ve shared before:
“Angels are powerful spirits whom God sends into the world
to wish us well.
Since we don’t expect to see them, we don’t.
An angel spreads his glittering wings over us,
and we say things like,
‘It was one of those days that made you feel good
just to be alive’
or ‘I had a hunch everything was going to turn out all right’
or ‘I don’t know where I ever found the courage.’”
Someone once did some research on what angels sound like.
Instead of hearing beautiful, sweetly musical voices,
in the Bible the sound was more like a person saying, “Hurry up!”
An angel comes to Peter in jail and says, “Rise quickly.”
An angel says to Gideon, “Arise, go and use this strength of yours....”
To Elijah, an angel says, “Arise and eat.”
To Joseph, father of Jesus, and angel had warned, “Go quickly.”
To Philip, a follower of Jesus, an angel will say, “Arise, and go.”
What a monotonous sound those angels make.
But full of get up and go!
With Jesus in the wilderness, no angelic sounds are reported.
But Mark says the angels wait on him.
Serve him. As in feeding and protecting.
And I suspect encouraging, reminding, comforting.
Mark’s gospel is so understated.
But his point is that God takes care of God’s own.
The wilderness may be a cosmic battleground,
where God’s Light and Satan’s shadows contend for our lives,
but God is still God, and God does not desert the beloved chosen One,
And God will not desert us.
In our wilderness, full of warning and promise,
as we sit in cold darkness, facing our fears,
surrounded by mournful cries in the night
or snarling anger or mocking laughter,
we must let God be God,
and let the angels come.
In her weakness and vulnerability,
Rayanna had encountered 337 persons,
who responded to voices that said, “Arise; do something. Serve.”
And they offered themselves to her and to countless others through the donor registry.
A small gift.
Hardly noticed by the world.
But a blazing sign of love that lights a whole church
and dismantles the hopeless landscape of her wilderness.
A Spanish philosopher once wrote,
“Tell me the landscape in which you live,
and I will tell you who you are.” [Ortega y Gaset]
Jesus’ identity is announced at his baptism in the Jordan.
And in the wilderness landscape, his identity is confirmed.
As his followers, we disciples in all ages,
move from our baptisms to walk with him into the wilderness,
and we come face to face with who we really are,
not just researchers and nurses, farmers and teachers and parents, retirees and elders,
but, all, beloved children of God.
We will continue to pray,
“lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
For Jesus has announced the kingdom come,
God’s will done on earth as in heaven.
The rest of Jesus’ proclamation according to Mark’s gospel
gives us our assignment for our forty days of Lent and our lifetime:
in this world full of beasts and angels,
“Repent, and believe in the good news!”
Then, get up and go!
Speak out like a prophet.
Comfort like a healer.
Lead like a shepherd.
Give as if there were no gift you lacked.
And every day, thank God you are never alone, no matter how wild the wilderness!
~ The Rev. Jeff Kellam