February 21, 2021 – Lent 1
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 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.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
As a child, I was given to horrible nightmares – vivid, technicolor visions of my worst fears. These dreams were so real that I would sometimes startle awake and run to my parents’ bedroom to ask to sleep with them.
Lots of kids have nightmares, but I had them all the time. And so at some point, my parents started to worry and to look for answers. My father, in particular, seemed determined to make me face my fears and thus, he hoped, to vanquish them.
One day, our dog disappeared. Pepper used to run free at night, but always came back in the morning. But that morning, he didn’t. All day long, we searched and worried. That evening during dinner, a neighborhood kid knocked on our door and told us that there was a dead dog on the road to the gravel pit near our house. He thought it might be ours. “Come on,” my father said, “let’s go see if it’s Pepper.” And so, we grabbed some flashlights and a shovel.
But I was afraid, and so before we left, I tried to convince my dad that we should wait until the morning light. I didn’t want to walk down that very dark gravel road to the gravel pit. But my dad was insistent.
I couldn’t see much of anything as we walked alone, the gravel crunching under our shoes on that quiet summer night. Eventually, we came to the spot where the dog was. And sure enough, it was Pepper. And so my father and I buried him beside the road.
I wish I could say that that late-night excursion helped to free me from some of my fears. But it didn’t. I continued to be afraid of so many things that, after a while, fear was simply my default mode. And the only tool I had to resist it was my faith. My faith became a talisman of sorts; a means to protect me from evil. As long as I stayed close to Jesus, I thought, those things I was most afraid of simply could not get me. I would be protected.
In churches like ours, we may not say that as plainly or as boldly, but on some level, we believe it. There is an implicit understanding in most churches that if we just believe the right things and do the right things; if we are humble and loving, then God will protect us from those things that frighten us. And yet we still get sick sometimes. We still lose jobs. Some relationships crumble. Geopolitical realities threaten. We pray, we ask, we hope - but more often than not, those things we fear are still with us. So, what are we to make of that? Are our fears signs of a lack of faith? Or are our fears just part of life, and something that lives alongside our faith?
The Gospel of Mark is the oldest and the shortest of the four Gospels. Mark is not into flowery detail, and he loves the word “immediately.” He has Jesus rushing from one event to another with hardly a breath in between. And that is certainly true of how he tells the story of the Temptation of Jesus.
This story is always heard on the first Sunday in Lent, because the symbolism is too rich to ignore. Jesus was tempted for 40 days. And our Lenten journey is 40 days long. Jesus faced his mortality, and in Lent, we face our own. Jesus was tempted to find ultimate comfort in the material world. And in Lent, we seek to be more conscious of those riches that are not material.
Mark’s temptation account starts with the baptism of Jesus - a dramatic event during which the heavens are ripped in two and the Spirit divebombed like a bird of prey. Then the voice of God announced that Jesus was the Beloved Son, with whom God was well pleased. It was a moment of pure joy and clarity of purpose.
But it didn’t last long. Mark reports that immediately afterwards, the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. The Greek verb “to drive” is “ekballo” and it is very strong. In other words, Jesus was thrown out or cast out into the wilderness, implying it might have even been against his will.
Once there, he was tempted by Satan for 40 days. But Mark gives us none of the details that the other Gospels do about what those temptations were. The point seems to simply be that Jesus was tempted, as we are. In that way, he identifies with us, and we with him.
But then Mark adds a unique detail, found in no other Gospel. All the gospel writers mention angels coming to minister to or feed Jesus, but Mark alone adds this intriguing tidbit: “and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”
In the entire New Testament, the wild beasts are only mentioned two other times. And each time, the implication is that they are deadly and dangerous. Imagine, if you will, Jesus in the middle of the night, out in the wilderness, surrounded by the glowing, beady eyes of wild beasts. Maybe he heard them rustling in the brush or panting in the dark.
In the other Gospels, the angels arrive only at the end of his Temptation. They are his reward for a job well done. But in Mark, there is no sense of a strict chronology. Mark seems to put the angels and the wild beast together: “… he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” wild beasts and angels - together.
And doesn’t that mixed bag sound familiar, surrounded as we are by the wild beasts of illness and loss and unemployment and loneliness. And then there’s COVID - a beast so ferocious that fear of it has shut down our world; a beast so relentless that almost 500,000 Americans are dead.
But the wilderness is also the natural habitat of angels. Fear is far flashier and gets more press. But that doesn’t mean the angels of God are not there. Wild beasts and angels, grace and fear, want and plenty: they all live side-by-side. Our lives are not neatly divided between good days and bad days. They are simply messy, complicated days. And that makes the Gospel very good new indeed.
I am still sometimes afraid of those things that go bump in the night. I still have my moments when fear grabs me by the throat and throttles me. There are specters that still haunt my dreams. I still try to avoid them. But the Spirit keeps driving me into the wilderness, where those wild beasts dwell. But so do the angels.
They come with extraordinary kindness when we were sick. They comfort us when we are confused. We meet them in a hand on our shoulders or in a gentle hug or a shared tear. And sometimes, there is even a peace that surpasses our human understanding, and we have known something of the divine presence.
I wish I could tell you that you will always be rescued in the way you want to be. But I can’t. What I can tell you, however; what I can promise you is that you will never go to that place of wild beasts alone. There will always be angels there to minister to you. And there will always be Jesus, who traveled this road before us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.