I have read the Gospel of Mark a few times before and one of the passages that I struggled with was this reading this morning from Mark 1.
I have mentioned before that if someone has never read the Bible and wants to start reading, it is suggested that they start with the Gospel of Mark because its style makes understanding easier. Simple sentences without complicated transitions or long speeches. Also, Mark reads like a script for an action movie. When you read Mark, it’s like you’re just following the camera wherever it is going. Mark offers an excellent introduction to the life of Jesus.
I was reading this passage we have here, and I came to that part where it says: “12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” Jesus was just baptized. The heavens were torn open and a voice was heard this is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. And then there was the Spirit descending upon him like a dove.
Everything makes sense up to this point but then what about this part that says: immediately after his baptism Jesus is driven, not just led, but driven into the wilderness by the same Spirit that just earlier descended upon him and conferred to him God’s profound blessing. Why would God shower Jesus with his blessing and tell him he is the beloved son on whom he is well pleased only to lead him immediately into the wilderness for 40 days so that he can be tempted by Satan? Why is that? It feels like a setup. If this is what happened to Jesus then surely it is bound to happen to us as well who profess to be Christians, aka followers of Jesus. That’s how I can make sense of this passage.
In our baptism, we receive a new identity. We are God’s beloved sons and daughters in whom he is well pleased. And that identity is essential to weather the temptations and struggles to come. The identity given us at baptism is what guides us through the challenges and struggles that await us on our journey as well. For the longest time, I was stuck on the fact that the Holy Spirit was the one who drove Jesus into the wilderness, that place of challenge and struggle and purification, and testing and temptation. Why? Did Jesus need to be in the wilderness for some reason? Did this wilderness period or struggle and temptation provide something essential to his ministry or accomplish some end that isn’t immediately apparent?
We don’t know for sure as Mark doesn’t say. But what if we assume that indeed the Spirit’s prompting wasn’t random, that the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness with a purpose? And if we can imagine that then might we also look at some of the wilderness places we have chosen to go recently and wonder the same.
But there is the rub isn’t it? We rarely volunteer to go to wilderness places. We do not often look for opportunities to struggle. Which is probably why Mark reports that the Spirit DROVE Jesus rather than simply make a suggestion. And the same is true with our period of trial, temptation, and struggle. We do not choose these. They happen to us. We did not choose this pandemic. We did not choose to be unemployed. We did not choose so many of the things we are going through right now. Even when the challenges in front of us are of our own making, let alone those put upon us by others or the fortunes of life, we rarely want or actively seek such hardship.
Just to be clear: I am not suggesting that God causes us misery or suffering. Not to teach us something and not to punish us or put us in our place. Notice that the Spirit does not tempt Jesus but rather drives Jesus into the wilderness. Similarly, I do not believe that God wants us to suffer let alone causes to. But I do wonder if we can imagine that perhaps God is at work both for us and through us during our wilderness time. Again, I am not inviting people to stay in situations of danger or personal degradation. Far from it. God wants only good things for his children. And yet struggle, trial, even misery, that is wilderness times, abound. And I wonder if we can look at the struggles around us considering this story and ask: “Even though I did not wish for this, how might God be at work through this difficult period? What can I get out of this? How might God use me to help someone else?”
These kinds of questions are not meant so much to redeem struggle and suffering as if that’s our job, but rather to remind us of God’s presence during those wilderness times that leave us feeling stretched beyond our abilities. Because you know what? The same Spirit of God that descended upon Jesus at baptism and drove Jesus out into the wilderness also accompanied him during that time and brought him back again. So also, God will not abandon us during our sojourns in the wilderness but might even from time to time drive us there for our benefit or that of someone around us. God is after all in the business of taking that which seems only to cause death and somehow wring from it resurrection life. And that’s not a bad thing to remember at the beginning of Lent.
11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
What kind of wilderness do you find yourself in? Are you able to look at your struggle, face your struggle, name your struggle? If so, do you also remember the promises God made to you on your baptism? Do you remember your identity as the beloved son/daughter of God in whom he is well pleased? Do you remember his promise to be present with you always? In the midst of your struggle, in the midst of your wilderness, remember God’s promise to be with you always, and then look for God at work in and through them.
But this is where temptation comes in. When you are struggling with something, when you are dealing with hard stuff, when you feel you’ve hit bottom, when you feel all 4 walls are closing in on you, whatever kind of hell you think you are already in, it’s during those moments that the greatest temptation kicks in. The temptation to think that God is not present. We are tempted to believe that God is absent in our suffering. God has given up on us. Withdrawn. Why do we think that God is not present when we find ourselves in the wilderness? I don’t think you need any prompts to answer that question. There’s a whole host of reasons. We think we are not worthy of God’s love, we think we’ve gone way too far, we think God will never forgive us, …
Our greatest temptation is to think that God is not present.
How did Jesus make it through the wilderness for 40 days without giving in to whatever temptations there were out there? Not by thinking highly of himself that he is Jesus. Jesus goes into the wilderness not with the conviction of success but only because he knows that God has chosen to rip to shreds anything that would separate him from God. He enters the wilderness only with the promise of God’s presence. Not with fighting skills, not with self help strategies, not with techniques for passing the tests, but only his personal knowledge of God’s direct words to him alone that God will be there.
Our greatest temptation is to think that God is not present. It is easy to give God praises and to be joyful when everything is going smooth in our lives. But when we go through the valley of the shadow of death, when we go through trials and temptations and struggles and difficulties in our lives, then we don’t find it so easy to praise God, do we? We are tempted to think that God is not present. And we give in to that temptation.
Jesus got through the wilderness because he never let go of the promise he heard on his baptism. That he is the beloved son in whom his Father is well pleased and that he will always be there for him. God’s presence is what got him through the wilderness. And God’s presence is the only power that will get you through your wilderness as well. Hang on to that promise and when struggles, difficulties shake your life you can confront it, you can face it, you will go through it knowing that you are not alone. God is present and he will see you through.
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