Genesis 9:8-17; Ps. 25
1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15
If we all wanted snow this winter, it came yesterday, with a vengeance: cold, driving, thick, wet. When we read the gospel account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, we usually imagine a warmer place, but certainly one as inhospitable as being outside yesterday. Just ask Bill, our cat, when he tried to venture out of doors, thinking it was as warm as the day before. No wilderness for that not-so-wild beast.
We’ve read about this wilderness before; in the other gospel accounts, in Matthew and Luke, we get a lot more detail about what Satan thinks will tempt Jesus to leave this mission behind and take up the easy life. We read nothing here about stones becoming bread, nothing about daring God to rescue him if he were to jump from the Temple roof, nothing about how all the powers and principalities of the world would be his to command if only Jesus would worship Satan. In this gospel the temptations are left up to our own imagination. It’s all there together, perhaps for the whole 40 days: the wilderness, the temptations, the wild beasts, the angels. When we read this story, we can write our own temptations into it: what struggles do we have which threaten to take us away from what God wants to do with our lives, which undermine our assurance that we are God’s beloved child?
We think of the Spirit in our lives as a good thing. In the old Prayer Book language we would say, “The Lord be with you,” and reply, “And with thy Spirit,” as though that were something comforting.
But the Spirit in this Gospel passage is anything but comforting. The Spirit appears first in the violent tearing of the heavens. And then the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness – literally, the word in Greek, is “to throw.” The Spirit, no gentle, soft thing, throws Jesus, pitches him like a fastball into the wilderness, into the arms of Satan, into the company of the wild beasts, into the care of the angels. And here again, the story is so spare, so parsimonious on details, that we can imagine our own life against this scrim of a gospel: with what power is the Spirit working in our lives? Is the affirmation we hear from God, about our beloved identity, accompanied by the soundtrack of our lives being torn apart?
In these gospels, there is something about the wilderness experience that prepares Jesus for his mission – to proclaim good news, to bring about healing and wholeness. There is something about being there – with Satan, and wild beasts, and angels – that made him ready to recognize that the time was right. When John was arrested, it seems, the whole operation is set in motion. The kingdom of God is no longer in the distance; it is near, here, present tense, good news, time to believe that things are getting better. What went on in the wilderness that made Jesus ready to face the bad news of John’s arrest with the Good News that God’s reign has begun?
Curious, isn’t it, that this Gospel story is paired with the end of the story of the flood – with God’s promise to Noah that the world would never be destroyed, that God would live in harmony with the world he created. Every living creature can live in safety under that covenant – that never again would God’s anger be so great as to destroy it.
Such a human longing, this is, this vision of the peaceable kingdom. The prophet Isaiah spoke of it, that God would never let anything be hurt or destroyed on the holy mountain. Utopian dreamers like Edward Hicks would base their fantastical paintings on this promise of a created world in which all live in harmony.
Could that peaceable kingdom be what Jesus experienced in the wilderness? A place where the reality of wild beasts and angels and the beloved Son of God living in such harmony drove out the devil himself?
What are we doing in our places of wilderness? We can find them as places of trial and difficulty, the dark night of the soul, the battles we must fight to earn our “hero’s badge.” Or we can see the wilderness as a place of preparation, a place apart from the rest of our lives, where we can see God’s purpose clearly, where God’s harmony is revealed, where we live with wild beasts and where angels take care of us -- a place where we can hide out for a while from the Spirit, until that day when something big happens, when the plan is set in motion, and we know, with clarity and strength, just what God would have us do.