Ah, yes, the wilderness experience. Three of the four gospels tell us that after his baptism, Jesus spent time in the wilderness. John’s loquacious Jesus doesn’t have time to be alone; he’s got disciples to call and parties to attend, wine to make. But the other three are pretty clear that Jesus needed time to get things in order. At least that is what it seems like he is doing. What kind of Messiah is he going to be? Matthew and Luke describe the conversation in the wilderness, the temptations. They give us some background into the decisions facing Jesus as he launched his ministry. They provide lots of juicy details about what was going on there and lots of debate about the test.
But no, it is Year B in the lectionary cycle, and we get Mark— Mark, who presents the temptation in the wilderness in two verses, who doesn’t itemize the questions, who doesn’t tell us how strenuous it was. We just get some bullet points in Mark’s PowerPoint on Jesus. Item one: Jesus was there forty days. Item two: He was tempted by Satan. Excuse me? How, sir, how was he tempted by Satan? No time for questions. Moving on. Item three: He was with the wild beasts. What? What do you mean “with the wild beasts”? Attacked by them? Surrounded by them? Fought them for food? Turned them into pets? What? No time for questions. Moving on. Item four: He was waited upon by angels. Waited on? They brought him meals and such? They mopped his brow and fanned him with big leaves? Or they stood on the edge of the wilderness and tapped their toes and checked their iPhones for texts from Jesus? End of lecture.
Um. OK. What was going on there? Mark says we don’t know. He says Matthew and Luke made up stuff or had other sources or pestered Jesus until he told them what happened. Mark says it doesn’t matter, really, what exactly happened. Mark says the important stuff is there. Back up, he says, look at the process. Baptism, heavens torn open, gentle Spirit like a dove settles, and Jesus is blessed. Then gentle Spirit becomes an irresistible force driving him out into the wilderness. Driving him. Temptation, wild animals, angels. That’s all you need to know.
We have those beastly moments from time to time, don’t we? We find ourselves cast out into a world we aren’t ready for, dealing with things for which we didn’t prepare, wondering if we are going to survive. There are choices to be made, paths to follow; and we are never sure which is right, what will bring us back into the gentle blessing of the Spirit and what will drive us deeper into conflict with the adversary.
And our first thought when we find ourselves in difficult situations is, “What did I do wrong? How did I get off track?” One wonders if Jesus had those thoughts while stumbling around the wilderness. “What did I do wrong?” “Surely not,” we think, “He must have known what he was doing. It must have been his idea to go and spend some quiet time before diving into the busy years of his earthly ministry.” But then, why does it say, “the Spirit drove him out”? Doesn’t that sound like he didn’t want to go? It sounds like punishment. God drove Adam and Eve out of the garden. It sounds like getting rid of something you don’t want; Jesus himself would later drive out demons and drive out disease. It was a way of getting obstacles out of the way. Jesus drove out the mourners when he wanted to rescue Jairus’s daughter from the grip of death.
The Spirit drove him out into the wilderness. The Spirit tore open the heavens and drove him into the wilderness. And in the middle, he was blessed with a gentle presence and loving words. He was tempted in the harsh wilderness for forty days; and in the midst of it, he was waited on by emissaries of the God who claimed him at the river. Again, there’s an echo of our own lives that seems to vacillate between moments of love and acceptance and moments of doubt and terror. We seem to be swallowed up in uncertainty, even as we are comforted by the blessings of those who love us.
Mark says that Jesus tells us to lean into the Spirit, even when it blows us into uncharted territory. Even when it seems to be sending us out against our will. Lean into the uncertainty, because it won’t abandon you. And along the way, there will be moments of blessing. Remember them. Cling to them. Let them be sustaining in times of temptation and deprivation. Let those words, “You are my beloved,” ring in your ears over the weeping and moans of your own brokenness, and let the gentle Spirit be what drives you to embrace the suffering of the world to bring healing and wholeness and love.
Wait, though. Light and dark, gentleness and suffering, Satan and angels. OK, we get that tension, that daily struggle to hold on, that hope in the midst of despair, and the suffering that deepens love. But what about the animals? He was with the wild beasts? Who are they? Another danger? Another comfort? Another choice to turn away from or a responsibility to claim? Who are the wild beasts?
We are. He was with the wild beasts. That’s all we get. Did they attack to rend limb from limb, or did they lie down to keep him warm in the cold desert nights? Yes. Maybe both. Maybe some attacked and some came alongside. Maybe some ran from him, and some ran toward him. We have that choice. We always have that choice. And we aren’t told what happened because it is still happening. Every day, we make the choice. Lean into the Spirit, it won’t let you down. And you’ll find resources to face whatever may come in the wilderness.
And out of this moment, out of this beastly, wilderness moment, he comes to announce that the Kingdom of God has come near. Really? Where? Here in the non-wilderness world? Or back there? Where is the kingdom nearest to us? Is it when we are safe and happy and everything is easy, or is it when we are wrestling, like Jacob at Jabbok’s ford? That’s the invitation of this Lenten series, to feel the depths of love, the depths of presence, even at our most beastly.