February 21, 2021 At St. Peter & St. William Churches in Naples, FL
Genesis 9, 8-15 + Psalm 25 + 1 Peter 3, 18-22 + Mark 1, 12-15
It was the very first week of February when I spent a full day with this Gospel text preparing for this moment. I gave some serious thought to speaking before the Gospel rather than at his usual time, but I thought it might get everybody confused and then distracted. It would have been my way of trying to hear these verses without the influence of Matthew and Luke. They give all kinds of details about the desert experience with powerful images and dialogue between Jesus and the devil. Did you notice how Mark handles it? Two sentences. That’s all. It is a good example of how Mark’s Gospel works. It’s always short, but not lacking in depth and meaning.
The scene immediately before this is the Baptism of Jesus. He comes up out of the water of Jordan, “the heavens open and the Spirit descends upon him like a dove,” it says, the then he heard that voice affirming his sonship with the Father. The very next verse is this text today. “The Spirit drove him into the desert and he remained there for 40 days.” You don’t have to have Jewish roots to make some connections here with the clues: Water, Desert, and Forty. Connect the dots. For us there is a message here from God’s living word about Baptism. To help us connect those dots, the Church gives us that first reading today about a flood, a promise, and a covenant.
The language or the “words” that Mark uses suggests great intensity. The Spirit did not lead, coax, or invite Jesus into the desert. The Spirit DROVE him there, and in that desert, he was tested. “Tested” is the most accurate word for what happened as Mark tells it. It’s not temptation in the sense of having to choose right or wrong. It’s a “test” much like the tests we might undergo to see if we have a virus. This test is not some interior struggle. It is a battle of the greatest forces: the holiness of God verses what Mark calls: “Satan.” That whole image of wild beasts and demons is part of the intensity Mark wants us to feel. There is a fierce struggle suggested here between evil and good: wild beasts and angels who waited on him not at the end, but all during his time of testing. He learns to count on this heavenly support, this bread of angels.
For Mark’s first hearers, memories and stories of Israel’s forty days in the wilderness are raised up, and hearing of Jesus in the wilderness tested for forty days, they knew that this one knows them. He knows their trials. This time instead of so often failing the test, rebelling against God, and suffering God’s wrath, there is victory. The wild beasts are tamed. We get from Mark no details of the testing, but we know it had to be strong and clever. Given the relationship Jesus had with God, we can be sure that it was appropriate to his person and his powers. In other words, the greater one’s abilities, power, and influence, the greater one’s temptations.
It is still the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel. What we get today is a preview of the many struggles that will test him during his ministry. It will involve Satan, forces of nature, opposing clergy and even his closest friends, but there is a victory to come. Just as this preview ends up with the victory of Jesus, so will his whole life and ministry. It is natural when hearing this Gospel to look ahead to Gethsemane. It was a garden, but for one night it, too, was a wilderness and another time of trial and testing.
In the end this is all about us and how our hope for victory in the face of every test and trial will end. In the Epistle to the Hebrews it says: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” In some ways, this whole life we have here is the test. This earth, beautiful as it is, is really a wilderness where Satan and wild beasts can threaten and frighten us. We could name one of the beasts, “Covid” or Cancer, while Satan’s disguise might look like a violent terrorist. Yet, angels feed us on the sacred food of this table as often as we like every day just like that mana in the desert.
For Jesus and for us, the testing begins immediately after Baptism. The wilderness is this life here which, compared to paradise, is a wilderness. We are right in the middle of it these days, and we need this season, as Mark gives us a preview of how it shall be for us all. Listen then to a story of testing and trial. Listen with hope, for as long as we do not repeat Israel’s failures in that desert with doubts and idols, we will find ourselves in the promised land.