Sunday, March 01, 2009

Angels and Wild Beasts: Sermon on Mark 1:9-15

It feels like we’ve been here before. The first chapter of Mark, the 9th through 15th verses… the baptism of Jesus, the beginning of his ministry. We have been here before, to be precise, on January 11th, when we read verses 4 through 11, and on the 25th, when we read verses 14 through 21. In the cycle of days and seasons that make up church-time, believer-time, we have tread this ground before, and recently. But we are back. And when we return somewhere, it’s usually because we have unfinished business there. Our unfinished business is comprised of the two verses in this reading that we have not read, that are, actually, new today, the two that were not included on those Sundays in January.

12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

After the baptism, before the ministry, came the wilderness. After the transcendent moment when the heavens were torn apart and the Spirit descended like a dove, proclaiming that Jesus was God’s Beloved… before Jesus began his program of urging people to repent and believe the Good News… there was the wilderness. And… it’s not as if Jesus chose the wilderness. That’s now how our story reads. “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness,” it says. Oh my. Why does this feel, all of a sudden, like some kind of mob initiation? Now I’ve got somewhere for you to go. Some people I want you to meet.

There is a violence to all these verses… heavens tearing, the Holy Spirit of God driving Jesus into the wilderness… the Greek word means something like “threw out.” The Spirit threw Jesus out into the wilderness, like some of our parents threw us out into lakes and pools so that we would learn how to swim in the context of terror for our very lives. This is no soft, squishy, “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord” Spirit. This Spirit is scary. This Spirit reminds us that just a short while ago most folks referred to the Spirit as the Holy Ghost. Scary. Haunting. Not necessarily friendly.

The wilderness is the place where the people of God come face to face with fear. Remember the Israelites, glad for about 40 seconds to be out of slavery in Egypt, suddenly face to face with what it means to be in the wilderness. No food. No water. The very real threat of death. “If only God had killed us in Egypt,” they moan, even as the Egyptian women are finding the bodies of their husbands washing up on the shore of the Red Sea[i]. “At least there we had food.” The wilderness is the place where the people of God come face to face with death. Fear is always, on some level, the fear of death, whether the death of our bodies, the ending of our breathing, or the death of some part of our souls… the death of relationship, the death of this or that way of living. In the wilderness the people of God come face to face with death.

So it is for Jesus. Mark’s telling of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness is famously short on detail, but evocative in what he does include. For forty days he was tempted by Satan… two of the other gospels spell that out for us, but Mark leaves it to our imagination to fill in the blanks. And you know and I know, the movie is always scariest before the alien or monster or wild beast appears on screen. Fear resides not in our eyes but in our hearts and minds. Fear is the “what if.” Jesus was tempted for forty days by Satan… and he was tempted in a rocky, scrubby wasteland, with no food or water to sustain him. We’ve been talking a lot about Satan in our bible study on Monday afternoons. One of the things we’ve discovered is that Satan is actually a Hebrew word meaning “Tester” or “Adversary.” And that it doesn’t always necessarily mean a bad thing. The one testing us doesn’t always wish for us to fail. Sometimes, in scripture, the one testing us is really God in a very clever disguise, and we know that God always wants us to pass the test.

We don’t know what the testing/ tempting of Jesus looked like. We only know that he emerged. But before he emerged, he had other encounters… he was with the wild beasts. I think there are at least two possibilities here, ways we can think about the wild beasts. In one, Jesus, like the ancient Greco-Roman hero that he is, encounters the wild beasts and masters them… he fights them off, sends them running with their tails between their legs, not a scratch on him. Jesus as super-hero! That’s one possibility. But it’s not the one I prefer. The wild beast scenario I prefer is an echo of a passage from Isaiah that we usually associate with the Christmas prophecies:

6The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. ~Isaiah 11:6-9

Jesus is with the wild beasts, and they do not harm him. But it’s not because he puts them in a chin lock or a bear hug or any of the other hundreds of professional wrestling holds I found on Wikipedia… Jesus is with the wild beasts and they do not harm him because this is the beginning. The time is fulfilled. The reign of God has come near. Something new, entirely new, has dawned. And the angels complete the picture, waiting on Jesus, ministering to him, attending to him.

It feels like we’ve been here before. The wilderness is the place where the people of God come face to face with fear. And, people of God, it is wilderness time, for you and for me. We have been invited into the wilderness, inadequate dining facilities, questionable companions, wild beasts, angels, and all of it. So the question for us is: what do we fear? What variety of death has its stranglehold on our hearts, chin-locking us with terror, bear-hugging us with doubt and insecurity? For some of us the fear is very, very real, it hits very, very close to home. For some of us the fear of death is literal, because we have looked it in the face and know in our bones and our guts, perhaps for the first time, the reality of it. The unknowingness of it. The solitariness of it.

And there are the other kinds of death that are different, though equally real. We fear the loss of our jobs… maybe it has happened already or is inevitable. We fear the loss of relationships, camaraderie and ease with those we know and love. We fear the loss of our future security, the possibility of retirement, plans for fun in our lives that have to be put on indefinite hold. Welcome to the wilderness. The good news is, look all around you. Here we all are.

Maybe Jesus looked around him in the wilderness and, abruptly (or, “immediately,” as Mark likes to say), the wild beasts were the angels. It’s all a matter of perspective. It all gets back to “Belovedness.” If Jesus managed to take the memory of that heaven-torn moment, the wild little dove descending and the possibly booming, terrifying voice speaking… “You are my Son, the Beloved”… Love has the ability to do this thing, where it absolutely obliterates the possibility of slipping down the drain of fear. There is no fear in love. Perfect love drives out fear,[ii] the way that scary Ghost drives Jesus into the wilderness in the first place. And those who seem to be the wild beasts… the ones who, in our normal everyday mode of clutching from moment to moment, bring fear to full flower in our hearts… those wild beasts suddenly, immediately have the look of angels about them.

The angels waited on him. Somehow, in the wilderness, the rocky, scrubby wasteland, there was bread. And there were angels. Who are our angels? We might well ask. And who do we suspect are our wild beasts but who might really, in the presence of love, be wild angels who were just really cleverly disguised?

It feels like we’ve been here before. The wilderness is the place where the people of God come face to face with fear. So it is, so it was, so it shall be. If we can just carry our Belovedness with us… the stones turn to bread, the rocks break forth with springs of living water, the beasts turn to angels, and the table is spread. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Or, the Sea of Reeds.
[ii] 1 John 4:18: There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.


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