Sermon: Lent I
Love for the Wilderness to Come
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.”
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The Lord be with you.
On Wednesday night we looked back to last Sunday’s Gospel, which told the story of Jesus’ transfigura-tion. I made the point that this was the start of Jesus’ and the disciples’ journey to the cross. They were about to set on a course that would be dark and difficult, and to strengthen and sustain their hearts, he gave them a vision of great light and splendor, showing them for the only time something of his true glory as the beloved Son of God. This was light for the dark journey to come, a journey we will join them on during this Lenten season.
Today’s Gospel text takes us back to the beginning of Jesus’ journey of ministry. This is when God sent him out for the work he was called to do — proclaiming the in-breaking of God’s kingdom, and demonstrating that through powerful words and acts of love and mercy. This is the traditional text we read on the first Sunday in Lent, and just as the story of the Transfiguration showed how Jesus prepared his friends for the darkness to come, so this story tells us how God prepared Jesus for the wilderness and temptation that was to come as he went about his work.
As we read this text, you may have noticed something similar to last week’s Transfiguration story. In both cases, the heavens were opened and God’s voice was heard from heaven, affirming that Jesus was the beloved Son of God. Immediately after his baptism and this divine affirmation, Mark says, Jesus was driven into the wilderness by the Spirit, there to be tested by the evil one, to be beset by the wild beasts, and to experience the comforting ministry of God’s angels.
I want to suggest to you today that this story shows us how Jesus was prepared for the difficult journey of ministry he took. It was through his baptism and through the affirmation of God’s love for him as his beloved child that Jesus was strengthened and would be sustained in the days and years to come.
And so, if the Transfiguration was meant to give light to the disciples for their dark journey, Jesus’ baptism was meant to put God’s love firmly in his heart for the lonely and tempting journey into the wilderness he made.
Mark spares us the details of the temptations Satan subjected Jesus to. It is enough to for him to tell us that he went into the wilderness for forty days. This is a clear allusion to the story of Israel, who were delivered from Egypt and became God’s sons and daughters at Mt. Sinai, where they received the word that God had chosen them to be a nation of priests, called to bring his light to the whole world. When they left Mt. Sinai, they travelled into the wilderness and faced temptation after temptation, test after test. In the face of those challenges, they let go of God’s word of redeeming love and failed those tests by failing to trust that God was with them to help and sustain them.
However, unlike the Hebrews, when Jesus went into the wilderness, he held on to God’s word that was given at his baptism, clung to his identity as God’s beloved Son, and trusted God when he was tested. In baptism, God had reinforced his love and calling for Jesus in a powerful, memorable way. Jesus remembered that, and it sustained him.
But that’s not all. Mark includes a message for followers of Jesus here as well. There is an interesting detail in Mark that is not found in any of the other Gospel stories of Jesus’ temptation. Look at v. 13 — “He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”
Folks have wondered why Mark added this detail about the “wild beasts.” Let me tell you why I think it’s there.
The traditional view is that Mark was associated closely with the Apostle Peter, and that his Gospel reflects Peter’s point of view. Peter, of course, was identified with the church in Rome, and it is said that Peter died in Rome as a martyr under the Emperor Nero during a particularly intense period of persecution. Commenters think that Mark may have been written as a pastoral Gospel, designed to strengthen and sustain the Christians in Rome who were going through that persecution.
If that is the case, then Mark’s mention of the “wild beasts” here would be very clear to those first readers. It would have a special significance for those called to face the wild beasts in the arena. It would say to them that their Savior faced the same kind of testing and the same danger and difficulty they did.
It would also remind them to find strength and sustenance in the same way Jesus did, by remembering their baptism, when God’s word affirmed them as his beloved daughters and sons, and by knowing that God’s angels were with them to minister to them no matter what they had to endure.
And so, Mark’s account of Jesus’ temptation is meant to be an encouragement to all of us as well. The journey of discipleship is filled with challenges, obstacles, and pitfalls. It can be like the wilderness — lonely and dangerous. We face trials without and temptations within. Sometimes it seems as though we are at the mercy of the wild beasts of the world, the flesh, and the devil.
Here is my encouragement to all of us today — let us remember our baptism. As we walk through each day, which can sometime be a wilderness, let us remember and hold on to the fact that God has washed us clean and claimed us as his own beloved children. Let this affirmation strengthen and sustain us.
And as we face whatever “wild beasts” of adversity may threaten us, let us rest in God’s accompanying presence and the ministry of God’s angels. We are his beloved children, and nothing can ever separate us from his love. Amen.