So much is said in so little. It is the suggestion of scholars that Mark was wrestling in his gospel with the question of If Jesus was the Son of God and did all the wonderful things he did, why did so few people recognized him during his earthly life? The answer suggested in Mark’s gospel is that Jesus intentionally kept his identity as much of a secret as he could. So like a mystery story writer, Mark gives us lots of information in compressed and symbolic statements.
Jesus has just finished his Baptism and has been declared and identified as the Son of God. Jesus has been given a clear statement of his identity. He has been given his marching orders. He has his assignment. The Baptism is vocational confirmation. The Baptism is the revelation of his true identity for him. He now has been given a self-awareness of who he is and what he is to do.
If Jesus is the Son of God, if He is the Messiah, there were a number of expectations that many would immediately happen. When the Messiah comes, He will bring in the long promised Day of the Lord, and in that day of Judgment there will be a might conflict with the powers of darkness and evil. If Jesus is the Son of God, you would expect his life to begin with a confrontation with Satan and that his whole ministry would be a war between the powers of goodness and the forces of evil.
So the first thing that happens after Jesus has received the assurance of Baptism as to his true purpose, he is driven by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness. He is driven, not invited, not encouraged to go, not permitted to go, but driven, forced, compelled to go because God is mightily at work in Jesus and this confrontation with the powers of evil is central to the whole work.
Jesus is driven out into the Wilderness by God to engage in the testing of the power of Satan. The wilderness is the dwelling place of the demons and forces of evil. The wilderness is the moral and spiritual dumping grounds. The wilderness is the Warren County of the spiritual world for into the wilderness are driven all the scapegoats who carry upon their heads all the sins of the world. The wilderness is that God forsaken place of chaos and abandonment. Lonely and fearful at night. Wild and vicious beast. The wilderness is the place where the Children of Israel wandered in punishment for refusing to trust God. There in the wilderness Jesus engages in the temptations of evil. Home court advance to team evil.
Forty days. A long time. Forty days and forty nights God made it rain in judgment. Forty days were the number of days for mourning in Egypt for the beloved Abraham. Forty years the children of Israel wandered in that desert and ate manna. Forty days Moses was on Sinai. Forty years were the days of peace in the time of Gideon. And David reigned over Israel for forty years. Forty days we will be in Lent. Forty days Jesus endured the agonizing testing. Always the temptation is the same. To hold on and remain faithful to that new revelation of Grace that God has given or to give it up, let it go, settle for something less.
These two realities are as much true for us as they were for Jesus. Our greatest temptations as followers of God’s grace will always come immediately after we have been blessed and inspired by a new revelation of what we might be or become, and the temptation is always the same. To give up the new vision, turn away, to declare that’s not really for me. That’s not who I am. Jesus had been given the assurance and revelation that He was to be the Son of God, and now immediately he goes into the wilderness and confronts the temptations to abandon that calling, to settle for something less, to decided that he really did not understand the message correctly. “If you are the Son of God,” because maybe you just misheard the voice. Maybe the voice wasn’t for you. If you are the Son of God, then maybe you better do things to show you are the Son of God. Maybe the style and the manner you have for the Son of God is wrong. Maybe you ought to try a little magic. Maybe you ought to be a messiah who gives the people what they want. If you are the Son of God, you ought to have power and rule kingdoms, not look forward to a crown of thorns and a cross. To be so caught up in the enthusiasm and excitement and passion of the new revelation of who and what you might become, and then the struggle and the testing when all those questions come up about whether or not you can really be all you were meant to be, whether you really want to have that kind of power and to bear that kind of responsibility, whether you are really willing to make the sacrifices necessary to become the new vision.
Somewhere you find yourself inspired and assured that inside your body there is a new slender, healthy, agile, and beautiful body just waiting to be released. That is the new revelation of the new you, and then comes the temptations in the wilderness. Are you willing to make the sacrifices to become the new you, do you really want that new you badly enough to do the work. All kinds of questions come that challenge you about whether or not you would really be happy being that slender and that hungry all the time. Always and everywhere the essential quality of temptation is the same — whether or not we will live in accordance with the understanding of ourselves that is the real us. Mid-life crisis are that kind of testing, for someone is supposed to be finally deciding that they want to be something different, either that who they have been is not the real them and it is finally time for them to be real or they are tired of being who they are and they think that they want to try to be somebody different.
I had one of those crisis in the fourth grade. My mother and father were both school teachers and always active in education. My mother was so active in the PTA and room mother that she attended school more days than I did. My older sister was one of those bright perfect first child. Smart, nice, perky. I was one of those boys who was big and chubby until the eight grade when I grew about 8 inches one summer and gained no weight. So in the fourth grade I decided to yield to the temptation and try a different version of me. In the fourth grade I decided to be a bully. To abandon the vision of who I was that my parents, my church, my baptism were encouraging me to become and to try the role of the tough guy. I tried to be the smart mouth. I punched and picked on others. I misbehaved in school. I would be late and not do my work. I was tempted by the idea to be somebody else, to be feared instead of liked. The only problem was I never really got comfortable with trying to pick fights with people and when a young girl blooded my nose in one of those situations, my zeal for the image of myself as a thug diminished. That wasn’t who I was. Temptation is always to try to be something you are not or not to be the something that you are.
There in the wilderness Jesus endured the testing. He holds on to his understanding of who he is now and what he is to do in obedience to God and will not abandon, forsake, or reduce that vision of his life. He will not turn his back on the revelation of his baptism as the agent of God’s love and forgiveness even if it includes the cross and death. Jesus passes the first encounter with the temptation and there finds the comfort and ministry of the presence of God’s servants. The angels come and minister to him. For there is a celebration in the Christian faith for each and all of us where we resist the temptation to forsake or betray the destiny that God has given for each of us. There is a sense of joy and victory when we know that we have faced a major challenge to forsake who we are and to remain faithful to our own particular mission and purpose.
Satan leaves,but it does not mean the battle is over. There will be other times and other nights when in the Garden Jesus will be tempted to abandon the God given identity and work. There will be other times when the testing comes as to whether or not he will remain faithful to his calling or whether he will settle for something different or less.
And that is our reality as well as we continue as Christian disciples in the conflict with good and evil. For there is a constant testing of whether or not we will remain true to our calling as a children of God in our own baptisms. For in all kinds of directions there come the temptation to give up on ourselves and to try something different. The temptation to deny who we know ourselves to be and to try to be something different than we are. When you hear your friends say about something you are wearing. “That’s not really you.” So much of what we have all around us is the siren call of the testing for us to settle for something less than what God hopes for us to become. So much of the world around us invites us to some easier path which means that we settle for something less than our best. Why study to become informed about a subject, you can pass the test with a just surface knowledge? Like Jesus we have been called by God to be children of God and called to live a life that is full of his power and glory, joy and peace, but the wilderness is all around us all the time, and there is the testing of whether or not we will continue to be obedient and faithful to that glory vision of ourselves as God sees us or whether we will turn away, claim it is not possible for us, God really wasn’t talking about me, it just not my style, I could never be that so why try. But like Jesus and the children of Israel where we continue to struggle and to resist we discover that God is in the wilderness as well, in the midst of the struggle and as we remain faithful to the calling, to the vision, to the image of ourselves that God has for us, God ministers to us by his angels and brings us more and more into conformity with that image He has given us.
Thanks be unto God who keeps us in our testing.
Rick Brand is Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Henderson, NC.