Lent I ‘18—Wild beasts and angels
Mark’s Gospel doesn’t waste any time on the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. While Matthew spends 13 verses telling the story and Luke uses 11 verses, Mark does the whole thing in two sentences: “And the Spirit immediately led him 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.”
End of story, Mark says, let’s move on….
Well, you don’t get off that easy! But I’ll be brief. Three points and three only: 1) What was the ‘wilderness’ where Jesus was led? 2) How are we to understand ‘temptation’? and 3) What’s the ‘wild beast’ and ‘angel’ thing about?
First: the actual ‘wilderness’ in the gospel stories is almost certainly the desert lands that make up the whole of south-eastern Israel. It is a barren and desolate and dangerous place. Almost nothing people from Connecticut would recognize as ‘vegetation’ grows there but it does provide enough to sustain snakes, spiders and scorpions and enough food for small animals. The small animals provide enough food for the bigger animals and scavengers that eat them. A single human being can’t survive there for long—certainly not forty days….
But what is more important is that as soon as Jesus is declared “the Beloved” by the voice from heaven, he is removed from his society and culture, from the necessities of life, from human contact. The “wilderness” is a lonely, empty, forbidding place—the natural habitat of dangerous creatures and evil spirits.
Few of us can identify with a long sojourn in the desert—but I suspect a good percentage of us know about the “psychological and spiritual” wilderness. I suspect many of us have experienced that lonely, forbidding and empty place within us. Most of us have known the dark night of fear and despair. Most of us have been to that ‘wilderness’ sometime in our life. THAT PLACE, we know…
Secondly, the Greek word that is translated as “temptation” is “peirazein”. Peirazein does mean “to tempt”, but it also could mean “to try” or “to test”. You might notice that when we use the contemporary version of the Lord’s Prayer, we say “save us from the time of TRIAL” instead of ‘lead us not into TEMPTATION”--two different and equally legitimate translations of “peirazein”. In fact, in one of the gospels that was left out of our Bible, Satan is called “The Angel of Testing”.
We tend to think that ‘temptation’ is uniformly ‘bad’. “Don’t tempt me,” we say when someone asks if we want a second helping of dessert. So we want to be saved from ‘temptation’. But being ‘tested’ is a way of measuring our competence is some skill and ‘facing trials’ is a way of building up our strength.
We live in a world that will give us temptations and trials and tests of our abilities. That is not always a bad thing.
Finally, what’s this about wild beasts and angels? You can take it literally, if you wish—as Mark certainly did. But one thing was almost as certain in Mark’s thinking—because Jesus was the Messiah, the Holy One of God, the ‘wild beasts’ were no threat to him. Throughout the Old Testament there are stories of wild things being positive aspects of life. Adam and Eve lived in peace with all the wild beasts. The lions didn’t hurt Daniel. The huge fish took Jonah where he was supposed to go.
And angels, well, I believe we are surrounded by ‘angels’ all the time—those who treat us kindly, those who help us heal, those who comfort us when we mourn, those who bring joy and meaning into our lives. They may be the people you love most—or they might just be total strangers—but if you listen closely you’ll always hear the distant rustle of wings….
Lent is our desert, our wilderness. It is the opportunity to wrestle with temptation, to ‘try’ ourselves by trying new things, to go into the dark and lonely places to be tested. But remember this: the Spirit leads us there and the angels AND the wild beasts will serve us well and we will never, no never be alone.