It’s a two parter this week. A common literary device. Compare and contrast, light and dark, or near and far, lots of different ways to configure this dualism. Our author, Jack Levison writer of the book “Fresh Air” from which we took this Holy Spirit series, writes this penultimate chapter with two characters in mind.
The first is the title character and for most of us the most important one of all: Jesus. You might think that Jesus should have been the subject of the first chapter, or the last chapter. And that he wouldn’t have to share a chapter with another character. That’s the way it should have been done, we’re pretty sure. The way we would have done it anyway. But no, here it is the next to the last chapter, “Jesus’ Test.”
Mark 1:9-13 NRS In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." 12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Ah, yes, the wilderness experience. Three of the four gospels tell us that after his baptism, Jesus spent time in the wilderness. John’s loquacious Jesus doesn’t have time to be alone, he’s got disciples to call and parties to attend, wine to make. But the other three are pretty clear that Jesus needed time to get things in order. At least that is what it seems like he is doing. What kind of messiah is he going to be? Matthew and Luke describe the conversation in the wilderness, the temptations. They give us some background into the decisions facing Jesus as he launched his ministry. Lots of juicy detail about what was going on there, lots of debate about the test.
But Levison didn’t choose Matthew or Luke. You’d think if he was going to title a chapter “Jesus’ Test” that he would. But no, we get Mark. Who presents the temptation in the wilderness in two verses. Who doesn’t itemize the questions. Who doesn’t tell us how strenuous it was. We just get some bullet points in Mark’s PowerPoint on Jesus. Item one: Jesus was there forty days. Item two: He was tempted by Satan. Excuse me? How, sir, how was he tempted by Satan? No time for questions. Moving on. Item three: He was with the wild beasts. What? What do you mean with the wild beasts? Attacked by them? Surrounded by them? Fought them for food? Turned them into pets? What? No time for questions. Moving on. Item four: He was waited upon by angels. Waited on? They brought him meals and such? They mopped his brow and fanned him with big leaves? Or that they stood on the edge of the wilderness and tapped their toes and checked their aPhones for texts from Jesus? End of lecture.
Um. OK. What was going on there? Mark says we don’t know. He says Matthew and Luke made up stuff, or had other sources or pestered Jesus until he told them what happened. Mark says it doesn’t matter, really, what exactly happened. Mark says the important stuff is there. Back up, he says, look at the process. Baptism, heavens torn open, gentle Spirit like a dove settles and Jesus is blessed. Then gentle Spirit becomes an irresistible force driving him out into the wilderness. Driving him. Temptation, wild animals, angels. That’s all you need to know.
Right. Um. Right. So .... What? Wait, you said there’s another character in this chapter, maybe that will help us figure this out. Do you think? Who’s the other character? Another Old Testament prophet? An early church figure who took a test? Who?
Mark 13:9-13 NRS "As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them. 10 And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations. 11 When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. 12 Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 13 and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
And the other character is? Well, it’s you. You all. All y’all. Us. OK, a bit of a sleight of hand here, since we are the second character in every chapter. But, I had to come up with a way to explain the two passages this week, two texts from Mark. One for Jesus and one for us. We’re supposed to hear an echo in these two passages, I think. We’re supposed to see us walking where Jesus walked, in that lonesome valley, with the wild beasts.
We have those beastly moments from time to time, don’t we? We find ourselves cast out into a world we aren’t ready for, dealing with things for which we didn’t prepare, wondering if we are going to survive. There are choices to be made, paths to follow and we are never sure which is right, what will bring us back into the gentle blessing of the Spirit and which will drive us deeper into conflict with the adversary.
And our first thought when we find ourselves in difficult situations is what did I do wrong? How did I get off track? One wonders if Jesus thought that while stumbling around the wilderness. What did I do wrong? Surely not, we think, he must have known what he was doing. It must have been his idea to go and spend some quiet time before diving into the busy years of his earthly ministry. But then, why does it say the Spirit drove him out? Doesn’t that sound like he didn’t want to go? It sounds like punishment, God drove Adam and Eve out of the garden. It sounds like getting rid of something you don’t want, Jesus himself would later drive out demons and drive out disease. It was a way of getting obstacles out of the way, Jesus drove out the mourners when he wanted to rescue Jairus’ daughter from the grip of death.
The Spirit drove him out into the wilderness. The Spirit tore open the heavens and drove him into the wilderness. And in the middle he was blessed, with a gentle presence and loving words. He was tempted in the harsh wilderness for forty days and in the midst of it he was waited on by emissaries of the God who claimed him at the river. Again, there’s an echo of our own lives which seem to vacillate between moments of love and acceptance and moments of doubt and terror. We seem to be swallowed up in uncertainty even as we are comforted by the blessings of those who love us.
Mark tells us, Jesus tells us to lean into the Spirit. Even when it blows you into uncharted territory. Even when it seems to be sending you out against your will. Lean into the uncertainty, because it won’t abandon you. And along the way there will be moments of blessing. Remember them. Cling to them. Let them be sustaining in times of temptation and deprivation. Let those words, You are my beloved, ring in your ears over the weeping and moans of your own brokenness, and let the gentle Spirit be what drives you to embrace the suffering of the world to bring healing and wholeness and love.
Wait, though. Light and dark, gentleness and suffering, Satan and angels. OK, we get that tension, that daily struggle to hold on, that hope in the midst of despair and the suffering that deepens love. But what about the animals? He was with the wild beasts? Who are they? Another danger? Another comfort? Another choice to turn away from or a responsibility to claim? Who are the wild beasts?
We are. He was with the wild beasts. That’s all we get. Did they attack to rend limb from limb or did they lie down to keep him warm in the cold desert nights? Yes. Maybe both. Maybe some attacked and some came along side. Maybe some ran from him and some ran toward him. We have that choice. Always have that choice. And we aren’t told what happened because it is still happening. Every day we make the choice. Lean into the Spirit, it won’t let you down. And you’ll find resources to face whatever may come in the wilderness.