Saturday, February 25, 2012

Testing Our Mettle

Zion Lutheran Church, Twin Valley, MN
February 26, 2012
Lent 1/Mark 1:9-15
Installation of Pr. Anne Pairan

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Mark the gospel writer likes to keep things moving right along—he writes in a lean style that is always short and to the point.

So while Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels give us similar, but longer and more elaborate versions of the story of Jesus’ temptation, Mark wraps it up in just 34 words—the length of a Facebook update.

But even so, Mark conveys to us, in dramatic, strong language the core of this story sandwiched between Jesus’ baptism and his first sermon….and for our purposes we can further reduce it to three words I want to explore with you:   wilderness, temptation, and angels.

The Spirit, in the form of a dove, descends on Jesus when he is baptized in the Jordan River…conveying God’s blessing and power….but suddenly the scene shifts.  

The Spirit, who at first is a sign of peace and favor, suddenly becomes Jesus’ taskmaster.  And the Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness…” (v. 12)

When you and I hear the word “wilderness,” we probably think of the northwoods of our great state, perhaps the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.   We hear “wilderness” and we probably smile and dream of a time and place away from the hustle and bustle of work and commitments.   “Wilderness” is a place to retreat and renew and rebuild our scattered lives.

But this is not the wilderness that the Spirit drove Jesus into.   In the Bible, the wilderness is most likely a dry, god-forsaken desert area.   It is a place of danger, where you could easily lose your life to the scorching heat, thirst or wild beasts.

Most importantly, the wilderness is about extreme loneliness.  In the Hebrew language, the word for “wilderness” means, roughly, “word-less.”   Wilderness is devoid of human contact, it’s where you are utterly alone with your dark fears and morbid doubts.   Wilderness is to be avoided at all costs.

The Spirit of God drives the newly-baptized Jesus into the wilderness….which is to say:  the Spirit takes Jesus to that place where we all spend some time during our lives—a place of questioning and deep anxiety and utter extremity—a place where no one, not even God, seems to be present.

And what happens to Jesus in the wilderness?   He does not just go there for a quick overnight in a sleeping bag and a cozy tent; Jesus stays there 40 days, which is a biblical way of saying “a good long time.”    Jesus is in the wilderness 40 days, and he is not in a protective cocoon—Jesus is “with the wild beasts.”

But what chiefly happens to Jesus during his 40 days in the wilderness, with the wild beasts, is that he is tempted by Satan.

We tend to misunderstand this idea of temptation, mainly because we have trivialized it.   We’ve frittered away the idea of being tempted because we assume it has something to do with falling off our diet, or tipping the bottle too much, or cheating on a spouse, or getting your hand caught in the cookie jar.   Temptation is a great National Enquirer headline word—it is, too often, the stuff of juicy gossip.

But in the biblical worldview, and in the language of Christian faith and life, temptation is always about something broader, deeper and more dangerous.   Martin Luther in his Small Catechism explanation to the Sixth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer—“Lead us not into temptation”—has this to say:  “God tempts no one to sin, but we ask in this prayer that God would watch over us and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our sinful self may not deceive us and draw us into false belief, despair, and other great and shameful sins.  And we pray that even though we are so tempted we may still win the final victory.”   

What does it mean to be tempted?   Temptation is about something far, far worse than falling off your diet or reneging on your no-smoking pledge.   Temptation is about doubting your God-given, God-claimed identity.  Temptation for Jesus in the parched wilderness was about being distracted from his mission, side-tracked on his path to the Cross, for us and for our salvation.

So what we need to picture here is a battle royal out in the wilderness.   Satan, whose name means “adversary,” assaults Jesus repeatedly over the course of a forty day period.   Mark doesn’t give us a blow-by-blow account, but maybe that’s OK.  Mark’s narrative leaves a lot to our imaginations, and perhaps that helps us identify with Jesus all the more.

Because we, too, have our own “good long times” in the wilderness of doubt and despair.   You and I also are pressed to the max, pinned to the wall, by all the “wouldas, couldas, shouldas”—all the ways we doubt ourselves and despair of trusting that God is with us.

This is where the Spirit drives our Lord Jesus….into the wilderness, with the wild beasts, to be attacked and assailed by his adversary for days that stretched into weeks that extended beyond a month:  Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness—which we ponder at the start of our 40 days of Lent.

What was God up to here?   Why did the Spirit “drive” Jesus into the wilderness?     What good, if any, did this episode do in the longer narrative of Mark’s gospel?

Richard Swanson, a seminary classmate of mine who teaches the Bible at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, encourages us to think of temptation as testing.[1]  

Swanson asks:  What if “the satan,” the adversary here is someone who actually serves God’s purposes?

There is a biblical precedent for this possibility, in the Old Testament Book of Job.  In the first chapter of Job, Satan is pictured among the heavenly beings in God’s royal court.   God allows Satan to test the genuineness of Job’s faith by permitting misfortunes to fall upon Job.

Professor Swanson wonders whether the satan is sort of like a building inspector, whose job it is to make sure that a building has been constructed “straight and true.”   The tempter who is really a tester, takes the full measure of Jesus’ faith and trust, for the sake of all the challenges that lay ahead of him, culminating in the greatest challenge of them all:  the Cross.

So what is the outcome of Jesus’ forty days of testing in the wilderness?   Mark doesn’t come out and tell us, exactly, but there are two things we do know.   First, Jesus was “waited on” by angels.   God’s heavenly messengers are dispatched, like waiters in a restaurant, to see to Jesus’ needs in the wilderness.    This place of utter desolation and loneliness isn’t finally bereft of God’s presence, God’s care, God’s keeping.   Jesus may be the only human being in sight—but angels are present, serving him.

Second, we know that Jesus didn’t succumb in his 40 days in the wilderness.   Jesus doesn’t die in the desert.   He comes through this wretched time of testing, and he takes up his calling to announce God’s Reign over all things:  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

These are the words of Someone who knows whereof he speaks.   Jesus has seen God’s word, God’s will and God’s ways attacked—but God has not been defeated.   Satan, the adversary, is no match for the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

This whole story, brief as it is, has a biblical rhythm to it.   Jesus is reliving the story of ancient Israel, God’s chosen people who escaped through their “baptism” in the Red Sea, were tested for 40 years in the Wilderness of Sinai, and emerged eventually to enter the Promised Land and live out their days as a sign of God’s glorious and gentle rule over all things.

This whole story, brief as it is, has stamped itself on our lives, as well.    There is a divine template here that reminds us of the rhythm that marks our lives as well.

Our Baptism into Christ doesn’t place us under a protective bubble.   Rather, our Baptism leads us into wilderness times and desert places where we feel dry and bereft, often for a “good long time”—abandoned by our neighbors, seemingly forsaken even by God.  

But God is never absent from such times of temptation.   God uses the adversity that comes to us to “test our mettle” and refine our faith, more precious than gold.

Pastor Anne, you are called to do what angels do best:  to be a messenger of God’s faithful, saving presence to these people, when their faith is under fire, their trust in God tested.  

When they are in the wilderness, serve these folks the same life-giving Word of God that sustained our Lord Jesus in the desert.   Proclaim to them the nearness of God’s Kingdom, God’s gentle and glorious rule over all things, in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

[1] Richard W. Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of Mark (Pilgrim, 2005) pp. 133-136.

1 comment:

  1. Bishop Wohlrabe, I reposted part of your sermon on my blog. Thanks for the solid teaching on temptation as testing of our identity in Christ. Peace.