Summit Presbyterian Church
March 1, 2009
Mark 1: 9-15
With the Wild Beasts
One of the main questions Christians have pondered, from the beginning of the church, is : "How is Jesus like us, and how is Jesus different? How is Jesus human, and how divine? The first disciples and all who have come after agree that he was a human being: or at the very least he appeared to be a human being. He came out of his mother in the usual way - even if the manger and the shepherds were NOT usual. He walked and talked and ate and slept and could touch and be touched. He suffered, died and was buried. The first disciples and all who have come after also agree that he was divine, or, at the very least had a special relationship to God. He was a powerful healer and exorcist. He performed signs and miracles: from changing water into wine to multiplying loaves to calming storms and walking on water. Most importantly, he rose from the dead: and then came back to talk and eat with his disciples before ascending into heaven. Christians have had trouble describing, precisely, how he was both human and divine, both God and Man. In the early centuries, church council after church council was called to hammer out the details. The bishops would, literally, beat each other up over this - once a bishop was murdered. (I should say that although the nature of Christ was the ostensible issue there were also other power politics involved!). On one end of the spectrum, some Christians have said that Jesus only appeared to be human: that he was God in human form, but didn't really suffer or die: or that's what some Christians have been accused of believing. On the other end, some have said that Jesus was a great prophet and teacher, inspired by God and revealing God's will in a unique way, but not himself God: or that's what some Christians have been accused of believing. Most Christians, and churches, though, have held that Jesus the Christ is both: both human and divine, both God and a Palestinian Jew of the first century. We still debate the hows and whys. When pushed we have to say "It's a mystery!" But most Christians - not necessarily everyone here in this sanctuary -- but most Christians and most churches have claimed what we say in the Nicene Creed: "God from God and Light from Light" but also "truly human."
Our scripture today is the story we read every year on the first Sunday in Lent, the forty days before Easter when we prepare to follow Jesus to the cross and celebrate his resurrection on Easter Sunday. It's the story of Jesus in the wilderness immediately following his baptism and before his public ministry. Mark's version is very short. When Matthew or Luke tell the story, Satan tests Jesus with a series of questions, or dares, and Jesus passes with flying colors. But Mark says simply that the Spirit immediately drove Jesus into the wilderness; he was there for forty days; he was tempted by Satan; he was with the wild beasts; and angels waited on him. Mark gives no detail. He trusts that these few words are all we need. Mark knows we can fill in the gaps from our experience of wilderness, temptation, of wild beasts and angels. We can imagine what that very human experience of being tested in the wilderness was like since we so often find ourselves there.
The first thing to say about the wilderness is that when we're facing the wilderness in our life, we're alone. When we're facing hardship, our sins and our failings, suffering from loss and confusion - in a certain sense our struggle is a solitary one. We may have friends or family or church or therapists or peers to support us -- and that's a huge blessing. We may learn that other people face similar struggles and we may talk with them or join forces, which is a comfort and a help. We always have God by our side - more on that later. But in a certain sense, we face our temptations, our tests with Satan, by ourselves. Only we can face our fears; only we can feel our pain (a popular saying to the contrary), only we can stop our drinking; only we can cry our tears or work through our grief. As we sang in the hymn, we have to walk that lonesome valley by ourselves. Jesus had to walk that lonesome valley by himself, too, at the beginning of his ministry as well as the end; he was driven into the wilderness without any human company. New Testament scholar Sarah Heinlich points out* that the loneliness of God's servant is a theme throughout Mark's gospel; and that we see it here in these opening verses. A very human loneliness.
We also know what it's like to be tempted - or tested as it's often translated - by Satan, even if we don't believe in Satan as a creature. Sometimes that testing can be a temptation to do something that's pleasurable or fun but that hurts us - or others - in the long run: eating things we shouldn't. Gossiping. Drinking. Spending money we don't have. Or, on a graver note, it may be a temptation to do something that will keep us from facing the consequences of our actions, or facing reality -- lying. Hiding. Pointing fingers. We always face the temptation to do nothing in the face of evil, a temptation we usually give into. The list could go on: every day we are tested, lured off of God's path. Jesus, too, was tempted; Mark does not tell us the specifics, but he knew that very human struggle.
Jesus was also with the wild beasts. He may have been the Son of God but he was on the ground - not in a palace or a fort - he was on the ground without protection from wild animals, dangerous beasts that could tear him from limb to limb. Now, being the modern, urban creatures that we are, for the most part we don't worry about animal predators. But we know about physical danger and what it's like to be vulnerable. We know what it's like to fall ill physically or lose a job or an apartment. In Philadelphia we may face violence on the streets; people around the world face bombs and hunger and gunfire every day. Sometimes those wild animals may also be psychological or emotional: wrestling with our sin - whether it's cowardice or arrogance or greed or indifference or whatever it is that separates us from God -- can feel like dangerous wrestling with a wild animal. In the wilderness, Jesus also knew danger. The danger that comes with being human.
So in the wilderness Jesus knew the human experience of loneliness, temptation and danger. He went through what we go through But his experience in the wilderness was also different from ours; it was an experience of divine presence. Mark does not say Jesus was divine, but if we listen and look carefully, we see clues. Unlike us, Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, but he did not succumb to Satan's charms. Mark does not give us the dialogue, but we know the tradition that's been handed down: Jesus was tempted but he resisted; he was tested, but he passed. Mark also says Jesus was "with" the wild animals: not that he fought them, or captured them or hid from them. He was with them. So although wild animals are dangerous, and Jesus faced that danger, it seems he was with them peaceably,** in a foretaste of what it will be like on that day when the lion lies down with the lamb, or the child is able to put her hand over the snake's den. And Mark tells us the angels waited on him. We may also know help from angels, but here they are signs of divine favor.
Before our prayer of confession this morning, I read words from the letter to the Hebrews that are often used to lead us into the prayer: "Remember that our Lord Jesus can sympathize with our weakness, since in every respect he was tempted as we are, yet without sin." Tempted as we are. Knowing what it was like to be in the wilderness, to face the loneliness, the temptation and the danger that we know in the face of our own sin and that of others. Because he knows it, he can sympathize with us: we don't need to feel ashamed, or frightened, of anything that we bring before God in Christ Jesus, no matter what we are facing or what we have done. Jesus has been in the wilderness, too. We can approach his throne of grace with boldness.
But Jesus is also without sin. Not because he's a better human being, more virtuous or disciplined or spiritual. We don't have to measure ourselves against him, feeling bad when we fall short. (Which is good -- because who would want to come before such a being?) But because in Jesus there is no separation between the human being and God. No rebellion against God's will. In Jesus there is the power of the Divine, the power of God's grace, the power of forgiveness; so when we approach Christ's throne, the throne of grace, we know that we are approaching God. A God who knows, intimately, our experience of sin, alienation and loneliness; but also a God who is God, and can grant us mercy, grace and peace.
During Lent, we are called to look upon, and follow Jesus; to direct our eyes to the one who has been in the wilderness and can sympathize with our weakness, but who now sits upon the throne of grace, ready, and able, to help us in our time of need. So let us look and follow Jesus, and be thankful.
**Pheme Perkins, The New Interpreter's Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 535.