WILDERNESS TEMPTATIONS The Rev. Brian Backstrand February 22, 2015
Mark does not waste time. In our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus is baptized, Jesus is tempted in the wilderness, and Jesus proclaims the Good News, that the Kingdom or reign of God has arrived—come near. All in seven compact verses.
The Lenten journey begins this way on the first Sunday and the accounts of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness receive attention on this day. Matthew and Luke provide us with extended passages that focus on Jesus’ temptation. But Mark only says the following
First, Mark says he was in the wilderness forty days. Forty here is a significant reference. Forty days fit the pattern of both Moses and of Elijah’s fasts, placing Jesus in the tradition of the great prophets of old. Forty years also comes to mind, reminding us of the long wilderness wandering of Israel as it was tested. Besides Deuteronomy, Psalm 95 verse ten makes reference to this experience. Here God says for forty years I loathed that generation and said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray and they do not regard my ways.” Forty years keeps a whole generation of the Israelite people in the wilderness and they are not allowed to enter the Promised Land, to enter the divine gift of the land which is described as God’s rest.
Second, Mark tells us simply that Jesus was in the wilderness tempted by Satan. Satan is described as God’s adversary. Satan is also called the tempter. And so Jesus is exposed to the power of temptation. Alone, in the desolation of wilderness, we should see Jesus here as vulnerable—being tested, tempered like steel is tempered, readied for the mission ahead, prepared.
Third Mark tells us that Jesus was with wild beasts. Perhaps this phrase shows us the vulnerability of being alone in wilderness. Others would see in this phrase a reference to paradise—a restoration in which Jesus enters the paradise of Eden. The reference is unclear.
Fourth and finally the angels waited on him. Alone, isolated, vulnerable, exposed to the power of temptation, in need of solace and comfort – Jesus spends this long time in wilderness.
The specific temptations to eat stones turned into bread while famished; to worship a being less than YHWH; to exercise pride in throwing oneself down from a pinnacle all are absent from Mark as is Jesus’ quotation in response from the Mosaic book of Deuteronomy Do not put the Lord your God to the test. We find these in Matthew and Luke’s more extended accounts.
But in Mark we are left only with the more general idea of temptation itself.
The Holy Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness. We should not miss the fact that Jesus is a player in a larger drama. In this larger drama, Jesus’ ministry will often be confrontational. This confrontational approach, balanced by acts of healing power and compassion, will characterize his ministry and eventually lead him to die as a common criminal. It will not be easy.
Lent reminds us that our own following of Jesus will also not be easy. We also are exposed to temptations that would distract us or rob us of spiritual purpose and power.
Temptations can be subtle. We can be tempted to focus upon ourselves and forget about compassion. Our world, filled with persuasive messages in all the forms of mass media, constantly tempts us to think about ourselves, indulge ourselves, protect ourselves. Self focus, preoccupation and self-love can become a powerful force in our lives that can isolate us from others and keep us from the great commandment that we have to exercise love—for God and for one another.
We can also be tempted to discount ourselves. To send ourselves little internal messages in which we put ourselves down, minimize our god-given gifts and abilities, and in general create a negative view of ourselves. This in turn can rob us of our own sense of what we should be about as followers of Jesus.
All of us can add to the beginning of this list of temptations.
Yesterday I attended a meeting of the churches of the west that you and I were invited to attend. We met in Richland Center at St. Barnabus Episcopal Church and about forty were present to hear a presentation on the Christian life model and to discuss the needs of their churches. Mineral Point, Prairie du Chien, Platteville, Richland Center and through me Monroe all were represented.
As I listened to other church leaders discussing the problems they were facing and possible solutions I could not help reflecting on our own situation and the Bishop’s comment that St. Andrew’s Monroe is small but mighty. We remember that phrase as a wonderful description of our Christian community.
But there is a sense in which we also can be tempted corporately as a church; a sense in which we also can become exposed and vulnerable and tested.
And so we must ask the question about ourselves from time to time.
- How do we see ourselves?
- Is there room in our current understanding of who we are for faith, for optimism, for energy that comes from prayer, for energy that comes from mission?
When we live in the presence of faith and trust and hope and love, we live together and come together with purpose and joy. We share our common life and reach out to others. We present ourselves to God and ask for guidance. We listen to one another and to the Holy Spirit. We engage in mutual ministry. When we do these things together we become mighty. Faith, hope, mission, prayer and compassion drive out temptation and fear and place us in the presence of the Spirit.
But it is also possible to abandon these qualities and the life-giving power that comes with them. It is also possible to yield to the temptation of negativity. It is possible to tell ourselves that we are going nowhere, that we are so few, that we have so little resources. Emotionally and spiritually it is possible to yield to the temptation of fear and to focus on mere survival. It is also possible to feel the burden of mission and of our actions together when we reach out and tell ourselves that we are too tired to go on. When we do these things, wilderness draws close around us and we give away the power that comes through faith. When we do these things, we become famished and small.
And so we have a choice to make. It is not just for today or for the past but it will also lie ahead of us in the future. We will have to make it again and again. We can live in the powerful of world of Christian community and mission that comes to us through corporate faith and trust. In the words of our Bishop, we can become mighty.
Or we can choose to listen to the negative messages about who we are – messages that come to us with tempting power. We can abandon our plans to live together and grow into our future. We can see ourselves in minimalist and negative terms as merely small.
Jesus’ crew was small. Only twelve were chosen for his core group. They were small to be sure. But through faith and commitment to him they became mighty. Who will we be today, next week or one year from now. And whose will we be. Will be we small or through the Spirit will we be mighty?