Mark 1:9-15 (Lent I)
"And immediately". Mark is our gospel writer this year and like Matthew last year, he has his catchphrases, by far the most common being "And immediately". Jesus comes up out of the waters of baptism "and immediately" is driven out into the wilderness. By whom? Not Satan, as we might expect, but by the Holy Spirit. Satan tempts him when he gets there, but it is the Holy Spirit who drives him there. And if that strikes you as a surprise (as it did me) perhaps that suggests that we've all got a few misconceptions about this so familiar episode from Jesus' life. It is a little reminder that, when reading the bible, we have to read what it actually says, not what we think it says.
So, if the first surprise is that it is the Holy Spirit, and not Satan, who drives Jesus out into the desert, the second surprise follows hard on its heals, because Mark's gospel contains no detail about Jesus' temptations. No mention of the stones into bread, jumping off the temple or taking the world by storm. Why? Because Mark wants a different focus to this episode.
It is easy to get so fixated with the temptations that Jesus faced that we think of his time in the desert as a kind of endurance test - do you remember a few years ago a chap called David Blain tried to emulate Jesus by going 40 days without food or drink? He nearly killed himself doing it. He emerged from his glass case half dead, far from the heroic figure he had intended. The endurance test proved to be mere folly. And we, like David Blain, can easily turn our Lenten fast into a folly if we base it on the misconception that it is primarily an endurance test.
But it's impossible to have that view of it if you read Mark's gospel. In Mark's gospel there is a direct & intimate link between the time in the desert and Jesus's baptism. In fact, it all happens with a breathless rush - he is baptised [v11] "and immediately" rushes out into the desert [v12] and then reappears suddenly [v14], excitedly announcing "Good news - the kingdom of heaven is here! So repent and believe."
So let's look a little closer at what's going on. The key to the whole passage is in verse 11 of chapter one. Jesus goes to John for baptism, along with "the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem." [v5] But something very different happens to Jesus. As he is coming out of the water he hears the voice of his father and those familiar words [of v11] are best paraphrased to get the real meaning. God's voices says: "You are my darling child, the love of my life. I am so pleased with you" "and immediately" [v12] the Holy Spirit sends him out into the wilderness.
So it is love that prompts Jesus to rush to the desert. It is these extraordinary words spoken to him by his father that he wants to cherish, to meditate upon, to let them sink deep into his soul. No wonder, when he emerges, he is rather a heroic figure - full of life and excitedly announcing "good news!"
Now, before we begin to apply this passage, there is one other clue that Mark throws at us that we have to look at [v13]. Like last week's passage, there is a number clue that is intended to ring bells for us. The number 40, mentioned in conjunction with desert, would, do any Jewish reader, immediately conjure up an association with the 40 years the Jewish people spent in the desert, fleeing from slavery in Egypt as they sought freedom in the promised land, the episode we refer to as the Exodus.
Mark is telling us, very cleverly, that in this episode, Jesus is going back to that period of history and re-writing it. In the original Exodus, the people of Israel had to learn to become God's chosen people, his children. Now, Jesus is learning what it is to be God's chosen one, his son. But unlike the original Exodus, he does it rather well. Perfectly in fact.
And the clue to it is the way he takes his identity before God to heart. Most of us seek to find our identity by cramming our lives with all sorts of stuff - material possessions that make us look good and win praise from our friends, social status that allows us to be looked up to and listened to, power that allows us to control our environment and the people around us, trying keep our fears at bay. All of these are ways of seeking to fill the gap in our souls. A gap, we are told, that stems ultimately from our wandering away from God, so none of these other things are ever going to fit the gap. And we know that they don't satisfy, don't we? But unfortunately we keep on trying.
Now, all of these temptations, Jesus has to face. Jesus' temptations are very real. The reference to the "wild animals" [v13] is an allusion to him facing his deepest fears. But Jesus is at peace with them. Jesus finds himself in the true Promised Land - in God's very presence, but he is content to homeless in the desert, sharing our sense of being lost. He finds himself the son of a powerful person, but he is content to be waited upon by the angels, his father's servants, taking no power for himself and being content to receive only such possessions as his father gives him.
Instead of trying to forge his identity by cramming his life full of things that can never satisfy, he chooses to connect with his father. And in that choice, the severed relationship between humanity and God is reforged - here in the desert in these 40 days. And so a new Promised Land, a true freedom, becomes possible.
And it becomes possible because, in the desert, Jesus gorges himself on his father's love. He takes his father's words of love and approval deep into his soul. And it becomes who he is. No wonder he is so exhilarated when he emerges! Good news indeed. This is the kingdom of heaven, the Promised Land. And it's here now, for anyone who wants to hear those words for themselves, and take them to heart.
So, now to us. What does it mean for us?
Well, the first thing it must mean is that our 40 day fast must be a time spent meditating on our father's words. Giving up "stuff" for Lent is an excellent idea. We need to stop cramming our lives with "stuff" and cram it again with God. But abstinence is only part of the story. Gorging on our father's words is what we're really supposed to be doing: taking to heart God's words addressed to us - "You are my darling child, the love of my life. I am so pleased with you".
"And immediately" you will notice the difference. The focus of your life will shift. The way you view your life will begin to change radically - as will the effect you have on others.
So, in these 40 days, can you take a few minutes every day to flee to the wilderness, and gorge yourself on God's word? Our Lent books can help you. Can you face your fears and be at peace with them? Can you find the courage to stop cramming your life with "stuff" and seek instead the real treasure that will satisfy your souls - restored relationship with your true father? If so, you too will be set free from slavery and reach the Promised Land - here and now. The kingdom of heaven will come to you. And your whole life will change - every priority, every desire, every relationship (that's what we mean by repentance). It will take time, but it will happen. And then you, too, will have good news to tell.
Preached: - Cliburn, Crosby Ravensworth, 26 February 2012