Old Testament Reading Genesis 9:8-17
Epistle Reading: 1 Peter 3:18-22
Gospel Reading: Mark 1:9-15
Sermon: “Driven by the Spirit”
As we begin Lent, we traditionally look the the temptation of Jesus this first Sunday, and so we turn back to the beginning of Mark’s gospel and read a terse, dense passage that, in brief and urgent words, conveys the beginning of Jesus ministry in only 7 sentences. Yet in those few lines we are told and shown that the Kingdom of God has come near. Indeed that is the theme of Mark’s gospel – explaining what the kingdom of God is all about.
The passage opens with Jesus being baptized by John. In keeping with the season of Lent, the brief lines before today’s passage, present John the Baptist in the role and likeness of Elijah – The one who is to prepare the way for Messiah – one who calls all to repentance from the lowliest peasant to Herod and his court. Mark doesn’t tell us much more than that, he doesn’t tell us any of the details of John’s preaching like Matthew does. John doesn’t try to talk Jesus into baptizing him instead either. We are left to ponder why Jesus, the sinless son of God came to John to receive this baptism of repentance – Identifying himself with sinners and the lowly and subjecting himself fully, in humble obedience to the will of his Heavenly Father. Yet in that act, Jesus is claimed by God in a most powerful way.
Mark gives us these brief words to describe the moment: (Mark 1:10-11 NIV)
“Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”” Mark’s choice of words here is noteworthy. Jesus didn’t just glimpse a heavenly vision, no, Mark says he saw Heaven being torn open! It’s a sudden, violent thing. It sounds rather apocalyptic and reminds us Isaiah’s prayer for God to appear (Isaiah 64:1 NIV) “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you!” It foreshadows the rending of the curtain covering the entrance to the Holy of Holies in the temple at his death.
The sight of the Heavenly dove, reminding us perhaps of the dove in Noah’s story, representing new life, in this case depicts the Holy Spirit descending on him as the voice of God speaks, lovingly claiming him as God’s own Son. It might seem like a sweet moment, but Mark allows us no such sentiment as the next verse says: (Mark 1:12 NRSV) “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” Wait a minute, the Sprit drove, that is, forcibly sent Jesus into the Judean wilderness, a barren and desolate place full of wild animals for forty days? That doesn’t sound like any gentle dove I know!
Once there, Mark again omits the details we read in Matthew and Luke. We are not told what temptations Jesus was offered, not even that he fasted, only that he was tempted by Satan, and that he was with the wild animals (the word here means dangerous – don’t think of Disney creatures prancing gaily around) and that Angels ministered to him. By the way, don’t think that this was the only time that Jesus was ever tempted. In the midst of the challenges of his ministry, I’m sure temptation abounded, yet this was a special time – a time of change and initiation. The beginning of the Good News.
There are many details here to remind us of God’s history with his people. Jesus’ 40 Days in the wilderness recall the 40 Years where Moses lead the nation of Israel in the Sinai wilderness, shaping and hardening them into a nation. Here Jesus is isolated in the wilderness. Such experiences, from a human perspective, often change a person. For Jesus, both Human and divine, the experience must have been even more intense. This was a time to focus the aims of his ministry, to prepare for the rejection and eventual death that was to come. Jesus was actually given a gift by that pushy Spirit – time to focus and to prepare. Time to test himself against the wiles of Satan and to experience complete reliance on God – the God who had claimed him as his beloved Son at Baptism, and then who demonstrates it as Angels are sent to minister to him. This part of the story echos – Elijah’s experience twice when he was traveling to meet with God at Mt Sinai. Two times Elijah is divinely fed and given water by an angel to sustain him on the journey. The message for us is clear: God takes care of his own when his children seek him. This is the promise of the Lenten season.
The wild animals intrigue me. It’s the one detail not mentioned by the other gospel writers, but obviously important to Mark. They seem to represent a threat to go along with the austerity of the wilderness… but yet in the presence of the kingdom – it is somehow different. Remember, Jesus will soon be preaching that the Kingdom of God is at hand. The kingdom indeed was present in his very person – God in Human flesh. So think back with me and recall in the creation story of Genesis – after God made Adam, God gave Adam dominion over all that God had made – all the animals and birds and fish, and the Garden of God to keep. God even brought them to Adam one by one so that he could name them. Now the Garden of Eden is a far cry from that desolate wilderness, but what if the creator is present again? Might it not be as Isaiah foretells of the day yet to come when the kingdom comes in its fullness?
Recall a passage we normally read at Christmas: (Isaiah 11:1-3,5-9 NIV) A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.  The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord.  and he will delight in the fear of the Lord…- Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist.  The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.  The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox.  The infant will play near the cobra’s den, the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.  They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
Now with that in mind, the temptations and the wild animals in the presence of Jesus Serve as a badge of identity for him – Righteousness and Faithfulness surround him as clothing and nature itself is transformed – back to the creators original intent. This experience serves to remind us of just who Jesus is and why he is our Savior. He is no less than the true son of God, loved by his Father in Heaven and sent here to this earth to open the way back to God for us all. Jesus is all that Adam was supposed to be and yet so much more. He is God’s own son – now revealed and ready to begin his ministry.
This is the time that was anticipated by the prophets for so long. God’s anointed one was ready to step out and proclaim the Good News of God’s great love and salvation for all.
Our 40 day Lenten journey in preparation for Easter is modeled after Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. During this time we too seek to claim our full identities as daughters and son’s of God. At his baptism, Jesus heard God proclaim him as his son – Just as at our baptism we too are claimed as children of God. That identities claims us just as we in faith claim it. We too have been given a name, an identity and a worth that does not depend on any earthly circumstances. It is grounded in the love and grace of God. And having heard that claim on us we are called to live it out. That calls for intentionality and preparation- that is what the disciplines of Lent are all about. In the wilderness, things are certainly simpler, if not so safe. There is quiet and time to think and sort out conflicting priorities and voices calling for our allegiance. We will find that we are changed – remade in that place. The process involves letting go of things that would keep us back and ceasing to listen to those words that would lead us astray.
You are invited to come on a trip to the wilderness these 40 days – To watch and listen and pray. Like any such wilderness trip, consider carefully what you will bring with you. What is essential? What is a hindrance? On this trip we will certainly be tempted to give it up and return to more normal things. We may meet a few unwelcome and untamed things as well – perhaps even discovering that they are things that have been with us all along that we only now recognize for what they are. We will be sustained and strengthened by God’s Holy messengers and agents – the angels so that we can come safely to the presence of God. Are you ready to simply place yourself in God’s hands and trust that whatever wild things come your way are in his hands too? Are you prepared for the silence of such a place? Will you be prepared for the temptations that are bound to come. Above all, will you trust the one who has already been there and returned victorious – our Lord Jesus? He is far superior to angels after all. Jesus has passed the test. And that is Good News indeed!
To Jesus Christ, who loves us
and freed us from our sins by his blood
and made us to be a kingdom,
priests of his God and Father,
to him be glory and dominion forever and ever.