Sunday, 18 February 2018

Jesus in the wilderness

Mark 1.9-15


Today I’d like to look at just two verses (v12-13). Jesus is in the wilderness.

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

The wilderness is a dry and barren land. It is hard. When we are in the wilderness we are weak, vulnerable, empty and lonely. We cannot depend on any of the things that we would normally rely on, and we are subject to forces that are much more powerful than us

The wilderness is the place where we know our poverty of Spirit: we are not in control, and the things that we normally put our trust in are useless
It is the place of mourning: where all that we cherish is lost to us, whether habits and rituals, comforts, possessions or people.
It is the place of meekness: where we are stripped of pride, where all our achievements and successes and status count for nothing.

We may find ourselves in the wilderness, in the desert, because of circumstances.
It could be loss and bereavement, a broken relationship, unanswered prayer, sickness, the crashing down of our dreams and hopes, a career failure, a moral failure, a breakdown or when we are simply brought low.
Or we may find ourselves in the wilderness because of a conviction.
We have heard the call of God to go into the desert.  
That might include a call to do something or go somewhere new, to move out of our comfort zone.
And, especially at this time of Lent, it might include fasting – maybe going without food for part of a day, for instance missing breakfast and lunch, or maybe going 24 hours without food; or it could be simply temporarily giving up some of those things that we look to provide us with comfort or meaning: buying things, social media, alcohol, work, doing good, even maybe speaking!
In my previous parish we used to have a silent retreat. For 48 hours a group of us went away to a retreat house, where we were together but did not speak – apart from in a few services. It was very special, but for people who were not used to it, it was scary. They thought how can I possibly do that? It was like a barren desert.

In Mark 1 we are told that Jesus was driven into the wilderness.  
It may have been through circumstances, but I suspect it was through a deep inner conviction that that was where he should have been.

And you will notice that unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark does not tell us what the actual temptations are that Jesus faced. As far as Mark is concerned all that is important is that we know that Jesus was tempted by Satan.
And I note that Jesus was tempted for 40 days.
Maybe he had that sense that he was to identify himself with the people of Israel, who had spent 40 years in the wilderness before they came into the promised land; or with Elijah who travels for 40 days before coming to the Mount of Horeb where he meets with God.

But 40 can also be a symbolic number. It can stand for ‘a long time, but a time with a definite end’. It rained for 40 days and 40 nights at the time of the flood; the spies are in the land of Canaan for 40 days; Moses was on the mountain receiving the law for 40 days and nights, Goliath challenges Israel for 40 days; Jonah gives the city of Nineveh 40 days to repent; and there are other references to 40 days. And if that is the case then these 40 days could refer to Jesus’ entire earthly ministry. The Spirit ‘drove’ Jesus from heaven to earth, where he was tempted by Satan, was with the wild beasts (crucifixion) and the angels waited on him (and we think of the angel who appeared to the women at the resurrection).

That is speculation. What we do know is that Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days.

And we see here that

1.      The wilderness is a place of temptation.

When we are stripped of everything, we begin to discover what is central in our lives.
We can turn to God, or we can turn from God.

And although Mark doesn’t tell us here which temptations Jesus faced, he does later speak of the great temptation that Jesus faced: the temptation to avoid going into the ultimate wilderness place – of going to the cross.

In Mark 8, Jesus tells his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem to suffer and die. Peter rebukes him. And Jesus replies, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things’ (Mark 8.33)
That is the temptation Jesus faced all through his life:
-          to use his power to save himself from going into the wilderness in obedience to God.
-          to avoid walking the way of the cross

And for the people of Israel in the Old Testament the wilderness was the place of testing.
In a highly significant passage, Deuteronomy 8, Moses speaks to the people and tells them, “God led you these forty years in the wilderness in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna ..  [He did this] to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good” (Deut 8.2,16).

They had to choose. To trust in God and go on or to turn back to Egypt. To grumble against God or to believe that he would provide for them. To receive and obey the law that he gave, or to create their own false gods.

And for us, the wilderness can be a place of temptation.
It is the place where we have to decide whether we turn to God or from God, whether we trust God and whether we obey God.

Please do not think that it is wrong to be tempted.
Jesus, we are told was tempted just like us (Hebrews 4.15).
And the Greek word for temptation and for testing is the same word, Peirazmos.

What is important is that we do not play with temptation.
There is a nice story of a mother who told her daughter that she must not swim in the river on her way back from school. The daughter agreed, but mum wisely decided to check her bag as she left the following morning for school. She found in it her daughter’s swimming costume. ‘What’s this?’, she asked. ‘It’s OK mum’, the daughter replied, ‘I only put it in in case I was tempted’.

More seriously, if you know that something is a weakness for you, just don’t go there. If you know that you are more likely to look at pornographic or inappropriate websites when you are tired, give yourself a rule that you won’t go online after 10pm. If you know when you are with a certain person you do stupid things, don’t go with them. If you know you can’t go past that shoe shop without buying something, don’t walk that way.

The early Christian writers are helpful on this.
They speak about how first comes the thought, then delight in the thought and then comes the action.
The wrong thoughts will come. The question is what we do with them. If we dwell on the delight of the thought, then we are most likely to move from thinking about it to doing it. Instead we are to get rid of the thought and not dwell on it. Pray and ask Jesus to fill you – use the Jesus prayer.
I know it is hard, but we are not on our own. We have a promise that ‘God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you maybe able to endure it’ (1 Cor 10.13)

Oh, and by the way, if you fall and give in, don’t then fall into the temptation of total despair. If you turn to God, confess your sin (even if you have lost count of the number of times that you’ve fallen), and he will forgive you and he will continue to work in you so that you will be able to stand in the future.

The wilderness is the place of temptation

2.      In the wilderness Jesus was with the wild beasts

People have understood this in two ways.

The passage could be taken in a positive way:
Jesus was with the wild beasts – a vision of harmony and the new future creation, when the wolf will lie with the lamb and the child will play with a venomous snake.

And we read of the desert fathers and mothers. Stories tell us how although they were terrorised by demons who often came in the shape of wild beasts, they also lived in harmony with the real wild beasts. Whatever we make of them, stories about St Anthony or St Francis or here of St Sergei of Radonezh, who you often see being accompanied by a bear, speak of the future harmony of all creation.

And the wilderness can be a place of beauty and harmony, of stillness and quiet, of oneness with nature and God. And that is one of the reasons why we can often long for the wilderness.

But I think that when this verse says that Jesus was with the wild beasts, it is speaking of how he was surrounded by danger.

The only other reference in the bible to ‘wild beasts’, at least in my version of the bible, is in Gen 31.39, where Jacob speaks of how the wild beasts have torn apart sheep in his flock.
And Psalm 22, which Jesus quotes as he hangs on the cross when he cries out ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me’, speaks of ‘Many bulls encircle me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me; they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion’ (Ps 22.13)

And it is important to remember the first readers of Mark’s gospel. For some of them the reference to wild beasts was frighteningly relevant. There was a very real danger that they would be arrested and thrown into public arenas to be trampled or torn in pieces by wild beasts.

And there are times when we can feel that we are surrounded by wild beasts, when we are very little and very vulnerable and it is as if we are about to be torn apart.

But the good news is that Jesus has been there. He has walked through that valley of the shadow of death. He has been there with the wild beasts and he has overcome, and he can give us the strength to overcome.

3.      The wilderness is a place of encounter with God

Angels, we are told, ‘waited on him’
[icon of baptism]
It is interesting that in Luke and Matthew, the angels minister to Jesus after the temptations.
In Mark it is possible to think that the angels minister to Jesus while he was in the wilderness being tempted by Satan.

You see it is when we identify with Jesus in his crucifixion, when we are desolate, weak, lonely, empty and naked, that we can also be most close to God, and most aware of his presence. Paul writes, ‘’I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3.10)

Last week I read part of a letter from Hugh Latimer. He was one of the bishops who, in the C16th was arrested by Mary. He was in prison, awaiting his execution. They would tie him to a stake, surround it with wood, and then set it on fire. That is a pretty extreme wilderness place. And it was a place of testing for him. He was surrounded by wild beasts. And he writes, “Pardon me, and pray for me. Pray for me, I say, pray for me, I say. For I am sometime so fearful, that I would creep into a mouse hole.” But then he adds, “sometime God doth visit me again with his comfort.”

I pray none of us will ever know anything like that. But we will find ourselves in the wilderness, and we will face trials or temptations, and we will be surrounded by the wild beasts. But James writes, ‘’My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you maybe mature and complete, lacking in nothing’ (James 1.2-4)


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