The First Sunday in Lent
22 February 2015
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner
1 Peter 3:18-22
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
As we moved through Epiphany, as we rode that runaway freight train that is the Gospel of St. Mark, we considered the meaning of “Gospel,” the good news of the kingdom, Mark’s way of drawing us back into the great story of redemption that Second Isaiah had begun to retell for a people still scattered likes sticks in the wind. There (and in Mark’s mind too) was the sense of a story interrupted that was about to get back on track. In Jesus, the wheels were beginning to turn again; the story will lead into darkness and suffering; but the chosen Son of God, who could go through that valley of shadow and come out the other side victorious, had now come into the world, been baptized, marked by God as Son and Savior. But before Jesus could go onwards, he first had to go back; back to a beginning in which God’s “firstborn son, Israel” (for this was how God instructed Moses to describe the enslaved Hebrews to Pharaoh) . . . in which God’s firstborn son had utterly failed, first in its wilderness experience, and then so many times in its subsequent history. There are Psalms given to rehearsing that bleak, dismal history; and the prophets frequently alluded to the wilderness disobedience of Israel to make sense of her sin centuries later. This history forced Jesus into a detour.
Mark’s story, as we know, rolls on quickly, so one has to pay attention to the details, or one is likely to miss something important. He introduces this detour by giving his readers just a glimpse of a primal event in the story of redemption, which was also a primal experience in Jesus’ own developing Messianic self-consciousness—the temptation or testing of Jesus by Satan in the wilderness. But that glimpse proves to be an arresting one. The narrative here, though brief, commands the careful reader’s attention. Compared with the story as it appears in St. Matthew (26 lines, 184 words) or St. Luke (28 lines, 203 words ), St. Mark gives us a bare-bones, 4-line account, 30 words. He gives none of the details of the temptation, and nothing of the movement from place to place, and nothing of the sequence of the dialogue between Jesus and the devil, none of the sweeping vista of all the kingdoms of the world; none of the devil’s bravado. What makes his depiction striking, all the more so in view of its brevity and velocity, is the way Mark brings everything to a screeching halt—just for a moment, because he doesn’t have much patience, but a moment in which all comes to a halt; a forty-day moment in which “place, location” is more important than “movement”; “memory” is more important than “dialogue.” In fact Mark’s entire story begins in the wilderness with the memory of Isaiah’s prophecy: the voice of one crying in the wilderness. It all begins in the wilderness.
Now, in the few words he’s given himself to narrate this event of Jesus’ testing, Mark says twice, without drawing a breath, “in the wilderness, he was in the wilderness.” Jesus was there by the Spirit’s doing; but where Matthew and Luke speak of the Spirit “leading” Jesus into the wilderness, Mark alone has the Spirit “expelling,” “thrusting” Jesus into the wilderness. Typically, Mark reserves this language for descriptions of the expulsion of demons, which, as Mark himself describes it, was often a violent affair; and it is used to describe Jesus’ action in the temple, when he “drove out” those buying and selling. This is violent language. While it might not be that Jesus needed to be dragged or thrown into the wilderness against his will, the language does suggest the possibility of resistance, reluctance (whether physical or emotional), of which we get a glimpse later in the Gethsemane story. What is underscored with this deft touch is the gravity, the seriousness of this moment in which the war against evil will be declared. It would start in the wilderness. What Mark has set up for his readers, and for us, is a wilderness tale. It is in fact a wilderness tale now, in Jesus, being retold. It is a story about God’s son; and a story about unfinished business.
Mark has made a point of stressing that God declared Jesus to be his son, and his rapid-fire delivery makes that divine announcement of Sonship the framework within which to understand the testing of Jesus in the wilderness. It is as if the heavenly voice releases the Spirit to propel Jesus forcibly into wilderness: one thing provokes the next; the pull of the lever, the bursting open of the trapdoor. The theme of testing in the wilderness takes us back to Deuteronomy chapter 8, where Moses is depicted rehearsing the Law for an Israel about to enter the land (after forty years of wandering and testing in the wilderness). Moses says:
“Remember the long way that the Lord your God has 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. 3 He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. (you’ll have noticed in Moses’ words some of the dialogue included in Matthew’s and Luke’s longer version of the temptation story)
15 who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions. He made water flow for you from flint rock, 16 and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good.
As Deuteronomy, long after the fact, reflects on the meaning of that generation of existence between Egypt and slavery, on the one hand, and entrance into the Promised Land as God’s son, on the other, it is the theme of testing that predominates. The conditions of the test are important. First, the wilderness is not a place to be underestimated: Moses himself calls it a “great and terrible place”: “great” meaning vast, endless, and “terrible” because it is a place of danger; a dry wasteland, inhospitable, and uninhabitable, filled with poisonous snakes and scorpions, wild beasts (as Isaiah describes it and Mark also points out); but in later times, when the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek, wilderness came to be equated with the demonic; civilized people did not live in the wilderness, though robbers and rebels might. Second, the wilderness was a place that was not one’s own; it was foreign, alien, and completely other. And it was precisely in such a place that God examined his people, his son, Israel, to assay their faith; to distress them with the boredom of manna, so that they might learn that life was not sustained by the bread they were accustomed to and preferred; life, true life, was rather the consequence of God’s provision whatever form that might take. Life is not about “where”; it is about “whom.” It was not full bellies and a magnificent menu that taught the lesson of God’s presence and provision, but rather, paradoxically, the opposite: let go of Egypt and all that you were used to; feel your hunger and thirst for what they truly signify—human frailty, insufficiency, and vulnerability; when you look around and see that you are no longer propped up my the familiar, when you can no longer take things for granted, then take hold of my hand, your Father’s hand, and let me feed you, and lead you, and quench your thirst. This was the curriculum of the wilderness. If they did not learn to trust God in the wilderness, they would surely forget God when they entered the land of abundance and began to prosper.
Jesus had to go back before he could go forward. The wider tradition tells us that he neither ate, nor drank during that forty days and nights (which is an idiom, meaning a long but limited time), and that it was when he was at his weakest and hungered that the devil placed before him the alternative way of Egypt (bread), but he chose the way of wilderness; the way of God’s son and God’s provision. And as Moses, on the mount with God, ate nothing for forty days and forty nights, and came down full of God’s glory, so Jesus, offered some fleeting, lesser sustenance, chose instead the eternal words of God. And “the angels ministered to him.”
Mark’s description of this necessary, successful detour calls to mind forty years of testing, forty days and nights on the mount with God; and the picture kaleidoscopes, giving alternating glimpses of Israel and her hard failures in the wilderness, Moses with God, Elijah near death in the wilderness but given strength by God to go forty days and forty nights of his own. But the primary testing in view is the test of Jesus’ divine Sonship, the divine Sonship to be fully lived out in frail human flesh. It is sobering and tragic that Deuteronomy contains within it not only Moses’ level-headed and clear explanation of the wilderness testing as God’s loving education of his son, but also, in the end, the certainty that Israel having failed to take this gift of sonship seriously, would be scattered to the winds. The outcome of Jesus’ testing is quite different—an astounding success. Jesus, God’s Son, the faithful and true Israel, passed the test that Israel, God’s son, most miserably failed.
It is no accident that Lent is forty days in length. It is no accident that our Lectionary takes us into Lent through the door of the temptation and testing of Jesus. Traditionally it is a time of setting aside something, doing without something, removing some piece of comfort that has become routine, sacrificing, fasting, and so on. Motivations for taking such action vary from person to person: to get closer to God, to experience or to signal solidarity with Christ in his journey to the cross, or solidarity with those in our world who have less than we do. I am not a mystic: I don’t have the Myers-Briggs for it. I do not think that by such Lenten practices we can endear ourselves more profoundly to God. God’s love for us is already perfect. But we all have unfinished business, which one way or another can take us back into our very own wilderness to face our weakness, what we lack: courage, love, generosity, forgiveness, empathy, faithfulness. It is in returning to our weakness, feeling it, owning it for what it is, not pretending it does not exist or doesn’t matter, that we can take hold of God’s outstretched hand and learn the wilderness lesson of dependence upon God. In Lent we go back, back to unfinished business, back to the basics, beginning again with frailty, need and dependence; we go back, so that we can go forward better understanding what it means to belong to God. AMEN.
© 2015 Philip H. Towner