Lent 1: Testing

Lent: Resurrection Rules  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented
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Mark 1:9–15 NRSV
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 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. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. 14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Are you tempted? Do you feel the pull towards attitudes and actions you would rather set aside? Do you look at this season of Lent as a chance to distance yourself from these temptations? Or does it feel hopeless?
We all face temptations. Perhaps not to the magnitude that we witness in Jesus’ life, the temptations of the Satan, the liar, the trickster, the evil one. But we each partake in this inner and outer battle, warring in ourselves over why we do what we wish we would not do and do not do what we desire to do.
Lent is a season for facing these temptations, focusing on their root causes, and deliberating asking for God’s help in setting us free from them.
Look at this moment early in Jesus’ ministry. We hear, once again, the words of God’s loving affirmation of Jesus as he raises from the waters of baptism. The fabric that separates heaven and earth is torn open and it is revealed how God loves and supports Christ in his ministry. We’ve heard that part many times. It should never be diminished that God’s affirmation of Christ as beloved extends, now, to us, as the beloved ones, washed in baptism, marked with ashes, and set upright to love and serve as Christ does.
But what happens next? When Jesus receives this ordination, this calling and affirmation by God, what happens next?
Our text says that the “Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” To the wilderness. He is sent out into the very deepest, most essential place of creation - the wild. He receives his calling and it drives him back to the basics, to the center of God’s created world. He doesn’t head to an ashram in the mountains or a synagogue retreat. Jesus isn’t guided into a leadership development program at a prestigious university. And neither is he directed to go right into his pastoral, priestly, prophetic ministry. He is sent into the wilderness to be tempted…and to prepare.
40 days, to be tempted, tested, live amongst the wild creatures of the world, tended by God’s messengers, beings outside of time and matter, angelic and fierce. If we think about it, to be sent into the wild is to be sent into the chaos, the untamed, that which does not have the order and civility of our normal urban, gathered life. It could be said that this is yet another part of his baptism, a continuation of changing and rebirth that Christ goes through. However, I also see how this is a return to the very origins of the cosmos, the creation story, where Jesus ventures into the wild, untamed places, like the spirit hovering over the chaos of the waters of creation. If there is one place around us that most resonates with the deep, eternal birthing of life, it is in a return to the wilderness of creation. But this is not the garden of Eden, either. This is the place of temptation, fasting, testing, and reprieve.
We, too, are being drawn into this kind of wild space. Today is the first Sunday of the season of Lent, the 40 days of fasting and purgation that lead us to Holy Week and the Triduum, the Three Days, of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. We, like Christ, are being called out of our normal circumstances to be tested and refined in this season.
If you are unfamiliar or new to practicing the season of Lent, let us all be reminded. These next 6 weeks are all about focusing on the essentials of our faith, pairing away distractions, fasting from our vices, directing our attention towards prayer and devotional practices that work to tune us in more deeply to the way God is at work among us.
The Gospel of Mark is characteristically sparse in its description of the events that lead Jesus into the wilderness and what takes place, but we hear these three things: He was a) tempted by Satan, b) with the wild beasts, and c), the angels waited on him.
Let me unpack each of them a little more…
First, he was tempted by Satan.
Throughout the Scriptures, we hear of Satan, or satanas, the evil one. We might also describe Satan as the Trickster, the archetypal character who confuses and confounds, tests and misdirects us. In many of our deep myths and stories about the world, our great hero or savior is met with a force which challenges and seeks to deflect their journey. The evil one, here, meets Jesus to tempt and test him in place of vulnerability.
It’s a bit difficult to simply rely on Mark’s gospel and its telling of this part of the story. Our other Gospel writers give much more detail about this encounter, how Jesus was offered power, might, and position in the world. But we can infer, based on the context, being out in the wild, likely eating much less, amongst wild animals, that Jesus was tempted and tested to a point of struggle. He needed the angelic beings to wait upon him, or as the greek text says, “ministering to him.” He needs care amidst this ordeal.
Second, the text confirms he is amidst the wild beasts. As noted above, this is much like the point of chaos at the beginning of Creation. Order and law have little influence in the wilderness. This is the place of John the Baptist, the wild man, the one who sees visions of what is to come and who stands outside the orderly systems of the day. Jesus, having just been amongst followers and friends who affirm his baptism, now goes into the void of the wild.
And finally, it is in this place that he is met by angels, being that are beyond order or chaos, wild and free. God’s messengers bring him “a ministry” — a service of care, we can infer. They help him face the temptations and testing.
It should be noted that times of deep spiritual experience and fasting and testing — these clearly are, if we have any experience with them, trying and difficult times. To fast and pray, even for a few moments, much less 40 days, is to be challenged at the deepest parts of ourselves.
So Jesus’ time in the wilderness is a test, a challenge, a difficult part of his journey.
He was tested.
And then, the time comes, and he emerges from this test. I can imagine Christ returning to Galilee to find out that during his 40 day sojourn, his cousin John was arrested. And, having faced his tests, having been refined by this 40 day trial, Jesus is ready. Remember, when we talked about types of chronos and kairos time in the Scriptures, well, here it is again — Jesus knows that “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near…” The kairos time is now. The time of gestation is over, it is time to give birth and begin this new part of the story. The good news is here, Jesus proclaims!
I found myself, this week, as I began my lenten practices and devotional studies, struck with these stories from a new angle. Oftentimes, we approach a season like this, with Easter on the horizon, and work from the perspective of “Oh, we know what’s going to happen, so it all just points to that…Easter is coming.” And that’s true and good, no question. We are a people who proclaim resurrection and new life, even through our trials. But as I read some of these first Lenten texts and reflected on where I am at in my journey, I found myself drawn to the immediacy and urgency of them for what they are. Not as prequels to some marvelous story, but real examples of what faithfulness in difficult, testing, even apocalyptic times can be like.
We are being whisked out into the wild today to be tested and refined. The immediacy, the “now-ness” of this story, tells me that I must focus on the letting go and refining process before I reach the place of new life. Not that God holds it off, like bait on a stick. But that I need to go through this time of trial and testing so that I am equipped to experience the joy of the resurrection fully.
As well, rushing quickly to the resurrection of Christ can short-circuit our real, lived process of accepting resurrection and rebirth as it actually arrives to us, each day. It all points to the power of Christ over death, but where does that power come from? Well, from God, certainly, but also from taking deliberate action to face the tests of life and withstand them, with God’s help. To enter into the chaos on purpose, not out of nihilistic despair, but trusting that God will form us through it. The only way out, is through, they say.
So journey this season through the trials. Take them slowly. Let the healing presence of God’s spirit go along with you, supporting you as they heavenly beings ministered to Jesus. For the Good News arises out of that process of being sustained by God. We are able to see the Good News as we witness God’s faithfulness to us through our struggles, temptations, and tests.
And, we are tested, are we not? Individually, we face great tests of strength which stretch us and threaten to break us.
And sadly, we cannot simply say we are each just dealing with our personal temptations and tests and they’re all very nicely, neatly self-contained and don’t bump up against each other or hurt or influence or blur into one another.
No, sadly, despairingly at times, we are not alone in our temptations. Our world is being tested. Pushed to the point of great tension, possibly breaking. I do not mean to be a doomsday preacher, but to ignore the depth of testing and struggle our world faces is to be ignorant and naive of what is very real.
The world faces a time of great trial. Unjust, lopsided wars seeks to wipe out whole people groups that threaten the dominant powers of the day. Israel invading and demolishing Gaza. Russia systematically undermining and attacking the nation of Ukraine and the supposed stability of the world order. And our tests are not just war, they are political and social. Our systems of government are breaking under these tests, the temptations to lord power over the weak or hurting, the division over ideologies which ultimately harm the poor and benefit the rich. Truth becoming optional. Respect and mutuality thrown out the door. The world is breaking all around us under these tests.
So what are we to do?
How are we to be faithful, as Jesus is faithful, during such times?
Our example of how comes from Jesus.
Upon entering times of trial, these great 40 days, Jesus leans not on his own willpower or strength, but upon the chaos of creation and the providing hand of God, to sustain him. So, with us, we enter these 40 days of purgation and purification and must lean upon God’s presence to sustain them. We must fast, pray, devote ourselves to the Scriptures and worship, these means of grace that God gives us amidst this chaotic time. God walks this road of Lenten practice with us. And we walk together, not isolated in the wilderness, but as a community of practice that links arms together and supports one another.
This is how we live out the good news amidst the crumbling of order and the chaos of the wild. This is out we proclaim freedom for all who are oppressed — we focus on God’s way, we live in love for one another, we support and align ourselves with Christ’s actions. The time for us to do this is now.
Friends, I close with this — I sense some greater immediacy in our need to focus in and grow deeper in reliance on Christ at this juncture. The chaos is not letting up. The world is full of tests and temptations. Who will we be as we face these tests? Who will we serve as we navigate these trials? What will our guiding light be? Will it be Christ, who through temptation and trial still proclaims the Good News and calls us to participate in sharing that with the world? I pray that it will. And I pray that you find a place of refuge, sustenance, warmth, and belonging here, amongst the wild people of God. May we be a people focused, in these 40 days and beyond, on Christ’s way alone, becoming more like him, together.
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