"And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him." (Mark 1:12, 13)
If you were to take a survey of devout Christians… And I don't mean "devout" in the ways that we are depicted by the entertainment business—as some sort of anti-intellectual group of uptight, self-righteous snobs—I mean people who are authentic believers in Jesus Christ, people who are trying to follow the spiritual and moral vision that Jesus had. Real people, good people, honest, faithful. If you were to take a survey of them as to which of the four Gospels they would rather read, my guess is that Luke and John would be very closely tied for first place, and then Matthew, and then Mark.
Mark was the first Gospel written—it is the oldest. Matthew and Luke both draw from Mark's gospel, and if you compare them, Mark's gospel reads like the first draft. It is much shorter—only 16 chapters to Matthew's 28 and Luke's 24.
If we only had Mark, we would have no story of Jesus' birth. We would have nothing on John the Baptizer's birth and parentage. In fact, many of the stories that we treasure are found in the other gospels, and many of those accounts we would find preferable to Mark. When you read the vivid depictions in the other gospels, reading Mark is like looking at a coloring book before the crayons.
For instance, today's reading is Mark's account of the baptism and wilderness temptation of Jesus. Luke's community probably looked at it and shook their heads, and said, "No, this will never do. We need to see him wrestle with the genuine temptation to choose an easier path than the Cross. We need to see him twist in the wind a little bit."
If one day someone asked you if you knew the story of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness, you would likely feel the need to give at least your best recollection of Luke's account. You would probably feel that your answer was not sufficient if you gave Mark's version, which reads like this: "..the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him."
Admit it. It doesn't seem like enough, because Luke's version is so much more dramatic. In Luke, you've got the pinnacle of the Temple. You've got stones, and Jesus tempted to make them into bread. You've got the kingdoms of the world—the riches of every country and every place of power. Your mind stretches itself to see Jesus fighting the temptation to walk away from the deep sense of call to take the easy way out.
This is not just entertaining food for thought. Temptation stories are ancient and powerful. If you read the story of Siddhartha—the man who would become known as the Buddha—it is about going down all these tempting roads of pleasure and power, until he finally discovers that none of it brings him happiness. Oh, but it's a good story. And isn't that what life is about? Isn't life about trying this and this and this and having a little bit of fun here and there until in the end you discover that it's meaningless?
No. No, that misses the point for both the story of Jesus and the story of Siddhartha. The point is that the many temptations to easy power and pleasure provide nothing but suffering. And Jesus, unlike Siddhartha, does not need to travel those paths to know that.
But still, I return to the question, with all these vivid images in Luke—why would you ever just read Mark's two little verses? "He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him."
I sat with this text for a long time. I kept wanting to flip over to Luke, but you can't do that. Ironic to be reading the temptation story and be so tempted to run from it.
The scholars who settled on the canon of the New Testament felt that each version of the gospels needed to be included. They didn't choose one. They said, "Okay Church, here are four accounts—each with their own take on the life of Jesus. Have at it." So I tried to figure out why Mark didn't want to give us a little more flesh on the bone here, and I'm going to give you my best guess.
You see, there are contours to the devout life that are very difficult to speak of. Sometimes it is because of the distance we feel from God. When I was a teenager, one of my teachers was talking about prayer—I went to a Christian high school, so this wasn't really a big deal. He was trying to talk about how we should remember that God knows us more fully than we know ourselves, and because of that, when we pray, it is not so much that we need to tell God what's on our minds, but that we should think of it as finding out from God what is going on inside of us.
And my teacher said that he knew a man—I think the man was ordained, but I can't remember now. I'm pretty sure the man was ordained, because he said that when the man spoke about God he was very articulate and outgoing, but when he prayed, he had trouble with putting his words together.
My teacher said, "Even table grace with him is slow and halting, and you wonder why he doesn't just say grace…you know…`Bless us, O Lord and these thy gifts..' but he doesn't do that. It's halting; it's like he's not sure quite what to say, and that's sort of the point. He is trying to discern the voice of the Holy Spirit. He is trying to figure out how to pray to God who knows him better than he knows himself."
I think of that story from my teacher a lot, especially in private prayer, when the comforting forms of The Book of Common Prayer seem too formal, when it's just God and me. And we both know. We both know that I know less about myself than God does.
There are contours of the devout life that are difficult to speak about. When Mark wrote that Jesus "was with the wild beasts and the angels ministered to him," I think he was hoping that the lack of description would give our minds the freedom to fill in the blanks. That we would have a deep recognition of what that means. It's not easy to talk about.
In a sense, Luke's version is easier. You can close your mind around the three temptations—knowing that they are symbolic of many, many more. But the floodgates of imagination begin to open when the text gives no parameters. What did Jesus face out there? Everything. Realms of possibility. So many temptations, large and small; so many victories, large and small.
And when you think about your own experiences of temptation, and your own areas of weakness, it's not hard to nod your head in painful recognition that there are wild beasts and there are angels, and sometimes it's not easy to tell which is which.
It's not easy to talk about, because no one wants to talk about it, or listen to it. Even holy scripture uses metaphors when trying to speak about these things. The metaphor that seems most common in the New Testament is light and darkness. John's gospel and letters use that metaphor to get right into the calculus of evil and redemption—the temptations of thought and action that seem to lurk around every corner.
Let me just read from the first letter of John 1:5-9 (Pew Bible 989)
5"This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. 6If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; 7but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
John writes that God is light—pure light—in whom there is no darkness. If we believe that we are in communion with God—that we are in relationship with God—and yet we are in darkness—that is, unaware or complicit in doing bad things—then we are not really in relationship with God. But if we walk in the light—if we are honest with ourselves—then we have fellowship with God, and are forgiven for our sins. If we say that we have done nothing wrong—that every decision we made was right on target and pleasing to God, then we are only lying to ourselves. But if we admit it. If we confess to ourselves and to God that we have sinned, then God, who is faithful and just, will forgive us and more than that. God will even cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
This is a primary doctrine of the Christian faith, and one that the pulpit used to spend more time proclaiming, yet—in my experience—in ways that made God seem angry and unloving.
The point is not to get so hung up on the language of sin that it somehow makes the medicine worse that the disease. The vision of this text is to speak precisely to those many little disappointing and disturbing things we have thought about and done—little tiny things that seem so embarrassing to us personally. It's like living in darkness to pretend that we don't have them, or to imagine that God—who knows us better than we know ourselves—is not aware of them.
And the medicine for this—the real cure—is not to sweep them under the rug and pretend that if we ignore it, God will ignore it. No. The real cure is simply to admit that we have succumbed, and if we do that, then it's like the light has come on again, and we can have fellowship with God, who even goes so far as to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. It really is a very beautiful concept, and one that addresses a fundamental area of insecurity: the feeling of being embarrassed and afraid.
Mark wrote that Jesus was out there with the wild beasts and the angels; that he knew temptations large and small. The mind staggers with possibilities. I would imagine that it was a time of profound learning for Jesus. He did not come to judge the world, but to redeem it. And in order to redeem it, he had to embrace humanity—he had to live a real human life. To do that, he surely must have experienced the petty temptations.
A couple years ago, I was talking with a clergy friend of mine about this, and the longer we talked the more obvious it became that we felt very differently about Jesus' triumph over temptation. She said what she liked was that whereas we so often fall victim to sin and evil, that Jesus was victorious over it—that he could beat down the devil in ways that we often fail. And I like that, too. In my religious background, there was plenty of victory language and many more sermons about sin and struggle.
But when this story comes up, I think the feeling I have is gratitude. Not just that Jesus was victorious, but that he really faced the temptations we face.
In this life, you meet a lot of wild beasts, and a lot of angels—if you're fortunate. Sometimes the angels will pull you away from the beasts. Sometimes you even get to be an angel for someone else.
But the scariest thing is to know that you can also—if you are tempted just right—you can become a wild beast. You can be tempted to become an instrument of great harm.
I'm not just grateful that Jesus was victorious over that temptation, I'm grateful he faced it and knew it, because as long as the human race has life and breath, we are going to need a Savior who knows what that's like. And who can help us at the moment of our greatest weakness.
If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving to the church where you feel most at home.
The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.