The story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is always the gospel reading for the 1st Sunday of Lent. However, Mark’s version is short and sweet. It’s almost like an afterthought…or is this intentional? “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. Jesus was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”
This takes place immediately after Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. The wilderness our gospel lesson is referring to is not a lush rainforest, but a hot, dry desert. I have spent time in this wilderness during my trip to Israel. Even in January it’s warm, so I can only imagine how hot it is in the summer. The wilderness has lots of sand and sparse vegetation, except in the springtime, where these sandy hills are covered in wildflowers. You will also see date palms in the wilderness. Every once in a while, there is a wadi which we would call an oasis. It’s fed by a deep, underground spring and is the only place travelers can find refuge from the arid climate which surrounds them.
But Jesus is NOT in one of these comfortable wadis. He’s not munching on dates and drinking water from a cool underground spring. He is in the wilderness, Right smack dab in the middle of it. I think our gospel lesson means this both literally and well as metaphorically. Literally it is his GPS. Metaphorically, it is a time of testing, trial and temptation.
We all know what the second kind of wilderness is like. We have all been through desert times when life makes us feel parched and withered; where we long for shelter but there is no shelter to be found; where grief, loss and sadness are our only companions.
So, I find it comforting that Jesus is in the wilderness, which you might think is odd. But Jesus’ time of trial and temptation reminds me that he has firsthand knowledge of this experience. He knows what it’s like to suffer, to experience a dark night of the soul.
This is comforting to me because he promises to be with us when we find ourselves suffering a similar fate. He promises to be with us when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death; when we experience pain and loss; when we are so bone-tired that we feel like we cannot put one foot in front of another.
As Mark continues the story, he says that Jesus was in this wilderness for 40 days. Those of you who studied Revelation with me know that biblical numbers are always intentional. Noah and his family were in the ark 40 days and 40 nights. [Gen 7:4] Moses went up the mountain to receive the 10 Commandments. He was there for 40 days and 40 nights, and neither eat bread nor drank water during this time. [Ex 34:28] The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years until they reached the Promised Land.
Do you see what I mean? 40 is a powerful number. It represents a time of trial and testing. It is a period of soul-searching where we may feel like we’re all alone, but these stories tell us that God is ALWAYS with us during this difficult time in our lives.
During the 40 days Jesus spends in the wilderness, the only thing Mark has to say about it is that he was “tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”
This is a little disappointing to say the least. We want all the gory details. What happened during this time? What issues was Jesus wrestling with? What did he do to keep himself spiritually strong? Inquiring minds want to know!
Both Matthew and Luke have an extended scene in their gospels between Jesus and Satan. It includes dialogue and is filled with lots of powerful imagery. But Mark, Mark give us absolutely NOTHING. Like I said earlier, it makes us feel like Jesus’ temptation is an afterthought. It makes us feel like it’s not important. But the more I thought about it this week, the more I came to realize that Mark’s silence is pure genius.
In the years where we read Matthew or Luke’s version of the story, it leaves us feeling like we know all there is to know. We have this temptation thing all figured out and sorted. Mark’s version is brilliant because it leaves the details up to our imagination. We project onto Jesus all the feelings and emotions We go through when we experience wilderness times.
This bonds us to Jesus in a way that is much more powerful than if we had all the details of the story in front of us. The other thing Mark’s sparse account does is that it reminds us that people often suffer in silence when they experience wilderness times. We may put our game faces on every Sunday morning. We may be all smiles and hugs and “I’m doing great! Thanks for asking.”
However, those faces may be hiding secret pains, profound losses, difficult life-struggles, and never-ending sadness. Wilderness times can often feel like lonely times where we hesitate to share what’s really going on inside of us. We do this because we worry about what people will think if we tell them the truth. We worry that they’ll wonder why we just cant get over it and move on.
Do you know what I’m saying? It’s like the year and a half I struggled with chronic itching. I tried not to talk about it too much for all the reason I mentioned above. I forced a smile on days when I was screaming on the inside, or overwhelmed with sadness.
I know you can relate to this. I’m fairly certain that you’ve done the same thing, too. I think its a natural human instinct to do this. It goes back to our “survival of the fittest days” as prehistoric cave people. It’s also prevalent in the business world where we NEVER want to show any sign of weakness or vulnerability to our boss, our clients or our competitors. We feel like if we do this, it will open the door for others to take advantage of us. So we suffer in silence. Mark’s silence about the details of Jesus’ temptation mirrors our experience in life.
Thankfully, we are not finished with the story yet. While Jesus was being tempted by Satan and it felt like wild beasts were closing in for the kill, Mark simply says “the angels waited on him.” In other words, God was with Jesus the entire time he was in the wilderness. Jesus may have felt like he was alone, but he was never truly alone.
During the times of our lives when we find ourselves in the wilderness, may this story remind us that we are not alone. We do not need to suffer in silence. God is with us. Jesus suffers in solidarity with us. Every once in a while, God sends angels, human and otherwise, to give us some relief, and fill us with hope.
I can honestly say that during by wilderness experience of chronic itching, God never left my side. I was introduced to coloring books for adults which became a meditative device for me that took my mind off the fact that I was itching 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. [Or is that 40 days and 40 nights?]
A friend introduced me to a physicians assistant Jay Clark at Carolina Mountain Dermatology. He was my angel warrior. He listened to me carefully and compassionately. He researched my symptoms and took me on as a personal challenge. He jokingly called me his “problem child,” and I think he was just as joyful as I was when we finally found a solution to help me get better.
I share my story with you to remind you that no matter what wilderness you are facing, you’re not alone. Mark’s story of Jesus’ temptation reminds us that Jesus knows EXACTLY how we are feeling, because he endured the wilderness, too. It also reminds us that we are never alone when we face wilderness seasons in our lives. It may feel like our only companions are Satan and wild beasts, but the angels are with us too, bring us relief and hope.
Today, is the First Sunday in Lent. As we make this journey together, my encouragement to you is that if this is a wilderness time in our life, take the time to draw closer to Jesus. There are many ways you can do this. I can point you to resources to help you on your spiritual journey. Secondly, reach out to the human angels who are sitting on either side of you in church this morning. We are here for you. You are not alone. Finally, keep an eye out for those angels. You never know when, and in what form, they will appear in our lives. But they are there to minister to us as we make our way though the desert. AMEN.
Copyright ©2018 by David Eck