Lent 1B St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Little Rock, AR
Wilderness Trip Mark 1:9-13
February 18, 2018
Lent always begins with Jesus sitting in the wilderness, being tempted by the devil, his hair still wet from his baptism by John. As soon as Jesus comes out of the water, the dove that lit on him turns into a guide bird with talons, leading him away from the river, thrusting him into the desert/ while God’s voice still rings in his ears: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” (Taylor)
Jesus gets this spectacular green light from the commission on ministry at the river/ as the sky opens and the boundary between heaven and earth is removed; but immediately Jesus is presented with these special general ordination examinations he must pass before beginning his ministry. Amazingly, God does not administer these tests, but the devil does, which points to a strange, almost Job like relationship.
Jesus also does not wander into the wilderness by mistake. He is led there by his new travel agent, the Holy Spirit, the comforter, our helper in time of need, who guides him not to a quiet three-day silent retreat at a peaceful monastery/ but delivers him instead to the devil, to a forty day canonical examination in the wilderness. Things keep getting worse. According to Luke’s gospel, this final exam by Satan takes place at the end of forty days, when Jesus is starving, has run out of his own resources, and might be open to a little help./
What about all this DEVIL talk? Does it make you uncomfortable? It does me. Devil talk is red orange, and Episcopalians tend to prefer beige and Brookes Brothers blue. We don’t usually speak about Satan. Except in reality this devilish figure appears at the very beginning of our faith story cleverly disguised as a serpent tempting Adam and Eve. You may also recall promises made at your own baptism: “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God? I do. Do you renounce the evil powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? I do.”
Well, these are the exact same questions put to Jesus alone in the desert after his baptism, except his examination is after a 40-day spiritual wilderness experience, and our baptismal examination takes less than 4 minutes while we are dressed to the nines and surrounded by all who love us. So, Lent is our yearly opportunity to stop, rest, renew, and remember our baptismal vows just in case we weren’t conscious or may have spent too brief a time agreeing to them in the first place.
On this Lenten renewal journey, besides reading the gospel of Luke with Episcopalians all over the world, I would like to recommend two other entertaining books by CS Lewis as we discern more about how evil works in our lives. (Busch) The first is The Great Divorce, Lewis’ classic about why people in Hell stay there. A busload of the damned go on a holiday excursion to the outskirts of Heaven and are warmly invited in. But even after experiencing Hell, they continue their same self-centered reasoning, reject the peace offered by angels, and with one exception return to the bus. My favorite passenger on the tour bus is the bishop who must return to hell because he is scheduled to give a lecture or sermon there on the meaning of God.
The Screwtape Letters is a series of correspondence from the devil, Screwtape, who sends diabolical advice to his nephew, Wormwood, assigned to negotiating/ into the infernal regions a young man, known only as the Patient, who devilishly, daily is presented with mundane and spectacular temptations. /
Typically, Mark, our minimalist, gives few details about Jesus’ own encounter with Screwtape so we go to the recent readings in Luke, our gospel Lenten study, to learn more about what happens in the wilderness. This is the devil’s examination: First he tempts Jesus to perform miracles to take care of his own needs: Command these stones to become loaves of bread. Next, he tempts Jesus to call on God for special protection: Throw yourself down from the temple. Finally, he tempts Jesus to take control of all the kingdoms of the world: All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.
All along, the devil suggests that Jesus deserves better than what God is giving him. If God cannot do better than this for his son, /maybe Jesus should start shopping around for another father. Jesus is tempted to rise above the helplessness of the human condition and seize power, something better for himself—to make himself a full Monty breakfast; to whistle up some angel bodyguards and start planning the largest and most spectacular inauguration ever, as president of the world. After all, wasn’t he just recently told he is “the beloved son of God.”/
Jesus is modelling for us how to discover what being the “beloved son of God” really means./
At this first rest and renewal stop on our Lenten pilgrimage, Jesus gives us the answer straight away. Jesus proves who he is,/ NOT by seizing power, but by turning it down. God’s Beloved will not perform miracles for his own use. He will not ask for special protection. He will remain human, accepting all the usual risks. Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that a Son of God is someone who listens to every good reason in the world/ for becoming God’s rival/ but instead remains God’s SERVANT.
Those who practice contemplative or centering prayer will recognize that as Luke describes the temptations, Jesus never dialogues with the devil. “Instead of being trapped in a noisy commentary with the thoughts that Satan puts in his head, Jesus quotes lines from scripture.” (Laird) This is similar to the prayer word used in centering prayer that refocuses the pray-er from distractions. When we are approached by temptations, distractions, Jesus’ example is not to engage with them, but instead “look over temptation’s shoulder” and re-center with a prayer word. Martin Laird calls us to keep a prayer word with us which is “an anchor in the storm and a bulldozer gently “excavating the present moment.” Great idea! While we read Luke and Acts this Lent and Easter, look for a word or phrase that can be a prayer word against temptation and evil. //
St. Mark’s Sabbath theme this year is Remember, Rest, and Renew. During these 40 days as we try to rest and listen to the Spirit within us, how will we recognize evil and temptation interfering with our renewal? I am reminded of that powerful line by Kevin Spacey in the movie, The Usual Suspects: “Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the devil is to make us believe that he does not exist.”
My experience is that evil does not show up with horns and a tail, wearing red tights. The Prince of Darkness is the grand force of subtlety, reasonable, charming and convincing. That dark power in my head says, “If you are a child of God, shouldn’t life be going a little smoother?” This is my favorite: “Are you the only one working today/ while every one else is sitting around eating bonbons?”/
The tempter in Eden and in the desert does not ask, “Do you wish to be as the devil?” but suggests, “Do you wish to be as God?” There is no mention of the debauchery associated with temptation. No self-respecting Satan would approach a person with offers of personal, social and professional RUIN. That is in the small print at the bottom of the temptation. (Craddock)
We also think that the evil one’s greatest temptations are the sensational ones: sex, money, drugs, alcohol, gambling—the fluorescent temptations. Not true. The work of Screwtape is accomplished in the mundane, day-to-day, small decisions that harden the human heart. The real work of evil is in the small resentments we cling to, in the raised eyebrow, in the snort of contempt. It is in the relative or co-worker or friend we refuse to forgive. It is our self-righteous attitude about those different from us. It is our refusal to forgive those who have harmed us. It is in the hatred we think we disguise behind a well-mannered look. It is in our blindness to the human needs and suffering of others---that is where the real devil’s work is done, in the normal activities of our daily lives. (Busch)///
We are invited today to retrace this desert journey which Jesus also took/ to become acquainted with our own humanity, to begin to know when we are living in self will and when we are living in God’s will.
Today we are invited to take Jesus’ same journey into the desert of our soul./ The struggle against evil in the world begins within OURSELVES./// But this gospel makes promises about this renewal journey: we are guided by the Holy Spirit, we have the journal of one who took this Outward Bound trip of the soul 2000 years ago, and we are told we will be ministered to, waited on, by angels and even wild beasts. We go in with one guarantee. When we journey into our wilderness to rest and renew,/ we will learn about places where we desperately need healing and forgiveness,/ and we will always meet Someone we never expected to be there at that bus stop in the middle of nowhere. We will always stumble on to Jesus/ who has already been there/ and who is waiting there/ to welcome us/ and carry / all the baggage we brought with us.
Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Wilderness Exam,” Bread of Angels, p.36-40, 1997.
Kenneth S.B. Campbell, “In My End Is my Beginning,” Homily from Church of the Epiphany, Ash Wednesday, 2002.
Glenn E. Busch, “Talking to the Devil,” Preaching Through the Year of Mark, p.21-24, 1999.
Laurence Hull Stookey, “Lent 1, Year B, Tuesday Morning, January-March 2003.
Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land, A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation, pp 69. 123-125.
Fred Craddock, “Test Run,” Christian Century, p. 21, February 22, 2003.