The promise amidst the temptations in the wilderness
By Melody Kroeger
There is a lot of action packed into the readings this first Sunday of Lent. We began today with Noah and the “everlasting covenant between God and Noah and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” (Genesis 9:8-17) A covenant not just for Noah and his sons and their son’s generations but for ALL future generations – that God remember God’s promise and never again send flood waters to destroy the earth and all that lives there.
The psalmist calls us to remember “All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.” (Psalm 25:1-10)
And Peter writes his community reminding them of the covenantal promise made “when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark”, the promise now given to us in “baptism—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God.” (1 Peter 3:18-22)
All of these readings bring us to the message in Mark’s gospel today – God’s promise amidst the temptations and loneliness of the wilderness.
Have you noticed just how brief Mark’s temptation story is? A summary only. To the point. Just a few briefly tantalizing details. It’s easy to miss the promise inherent in Jesus’ baptism when the text tells us that “immediately, the Spirit” – the same Spirit that conferred upon Jesus God’s profound blessing – drove him into the desert, where he was tempted for 40 days before returning to begin his earthly ministry. There’s not much to go on.
Matthew and Luke give us so much more to consider. Luke provides the reader with a full genealogy of Jesus back to the son of Adam. Matthew tells us that Satan appealed to Jesus through his hunger, tempting him to sin through petition to our human desires for pride and greed.
But Mark, I would argue, writing in the urgent days of the Roman Jewish war, is calling our attention to something else.
Perhaps temptation doesn’t matter as much to Mark as it does Luke and Matthew, or it matters differently. Maybe Mark, writing with a breathless urgency, is drawing our attention to the same promise we hear in the covenant with Noah, remembered by the psalmist and recalled by Peter.
For Mark, Jesus’ baptism is inextricably linked to Jesus’ temptation.
“Immediately” after Jesus goes into the Jordan, he rises up out of the water. Upon rising up, Jesus “sees “The heavens being split open.” No doubt Mark intends a reference to the prophet Isaiah calling out for deliverance of the captives from Babylon – “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”
After the splitting of the heavens, Jesus also sees “the Spirit like a dove descending into him.” Not only did the Spirit “come down,” but it went into Jesus. The plea of Isaiah is answered, and dramatically! “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”
And therein lies our promise. God tears open the heavens and comes down – to dwell in us. God waits patiently for us when we are tempted by a hunger for pride or greed, even as we wander, lonely and lost, in the wilderness.
The baptismal promise is that now, with all battles with evil, with that which tempts us, our journeys are changed because God is present – God has remembered God’s covenant, torn open the heavens and come down to live in us. We are not asked to walk in the wilderness on our own.
Why was this wilderness experience necessary? Did the human Jesus – God made flesh – need to be in the wilderness for some reason? Did this wilderness period of struggle and temptation provide something essential to his ministry?
We don’t know for sure – Mark doesn’t tell us. But I have wondered if one fruitful approach to Mark’s narrative might be to imagine that indeed the author placed these two passages together intentionally – the baptism and the wilderness – so that the deeper meaning lays in the creative tension between the two. And if we can imagine that, then might we also look at some of the wilderness places we have chosen to go recently and wonder the same.
But this is where Mark’s gospel intersects with and diverges from our own. Unlike Jesus, we rarely volunteer to go to wilderness places. We don’t often look for opportunities to struggle or to walk alone in exile. And the same is true with our periods of trial, temptation, and struggle. We don’t usually choose these trials – they happen to us. But can we possible imagine that the Spirit might make use of us during these challenges? Maybe Mark is calling our attention to something else lying beneath his simple narrative.
Mark is asking us – in his subversive way – to imagine that perhaps God is at work both for us and through us during our wilderness times. To remember the covenantal promise – the covenant made with Noah and Abraham and Isaac – the new baptismal promise in Jesus Christ – is available to us too – even in the midst of the wilderness.
This reading of Mark shouldn’t be taken lightly, especially when the struggles we face are major. I’m not advocating a spiritual Band-Aid, or suggesting that God wants us to suffer. Far from it. I believe God wants only good things for God’s children.
And yet struggle, trial, even misery – that is, wilderness times – abound. And I wonder if we can look at the struggles around us in light of this story and ask, “Even though I did not wish for this, how might God be at work? What can I get out of this? How might God use me to help someone else?” These kinds of questions aren’t meant so much to redeem or make meaning out of struggle and suffering but rather to remind us of God’s presence during those wilderness times.
I just finished reading the book “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail” written by Cheryl Strayed. Cheryl loses her mother, her family and within fairly short order, her sense of whom she is. Wrapped up in sorrow and confusion and fear she fell into a life of drugs and infidelity. At a point when she was as low and mixed up as she had ever been, Cheryl picks up a Pacific Coast Trail guide and eventually finds herself walking a long portion of the 2,700 mile long trail. Along the way, she meets bears and foxes, gets lost in snow and loses her hiking boots on a steep mountain slope in northern California. Initially, cruelly abandoned and hurt by family and friends, Cheryl is distrustful of everyone. “I don’t need your help” she tells a well-meaning person offering to share provisions. “I can do this alone” she responds to a park ranger who tries to warn her about unprecedented snow fall blocking the trail ahead.
Eventually Cheryl, who describes herself as the woman with a hole in her heart, finds that she doesn’t walk the journey alone. More to the point, she can’t walk the journey alone. Fellow hikers help her sort out her pack – the essentials from the “nice to have but too heavy to carry” stuff. A customer service rep from REI mails Cheryl a new pair of hiking boots when she loses hers. Old acquaintances mail re-supply boxes with food and socks. Slowly, walking in the wilderness, this damaged woman begins to regain her trust in others – to realize that we don’t walk alone but in the company of something much greater than ourselves.
God tears away our every attempt to say, “While I appreciate your help, God, I’ve got this. I can figure it out.” We don’t want help. We don’t want to ask for help. Help is a sign of insecurity. We believe it exposes our weakness. Cheryl Strayed believed she was weak when she needed the strength of others in the wilderness of the PCT. Our stubbornness to recognize our need for help, especially when it comes to matters of faith exposes our inability to thwart sin. It seems we are even good at pretense before God. To read the temptation of Jesus in Mark’s gospel is to call attention to our greatest temptation — the temptation to think that God is not present.
But that’s exactly where Jesus’ temptation in Mark should shatter our carefully constructed faith worlds, or at least the ones we create for the eyes of others only. Jesus goes into the wilderness, not with the conviction of success but only because he knows that God has chosen to tear apart any boundary, any structure, any religious practices or piety that would separate him from God. The same Spirit of God that descended into Jesus at Baptism and drove Jesus out into the wilderness also accompanied him during that time and brought him back again.
So also, God will not abandon us during our sojourns in the wilderness but will bring us back again. God remember God’s promise. God patiently waits for us. And that’s not a bad thing to remember at the beginning of Lent. I believe Mark wants us to be able to look at our struggles, to know that when we walk around with a hole in our heart, we can still hear the promise of God’s presence with us, and then look for God at work in and through us for the sake of this world God loves so much.
The lesson in Mark is to look at Jesus’ temptation, and know, God was there – the baptismal promise lives! And, the baptismal promise is here – for us in the midst of our wilderness. God is indeed present.