I have been reflecting on our human capacity to choose the lure of temptation, to take the easier path as it so often seems to match and justify our desires and the direction we wish to take, however we wrap it up and present it to ourselves and others. This reflection forms the start of our Lenten journey with the reading from Mark’s gospel 1:9-15 which has an extraordinary description about Jesus’ experience of testing and temptation at the start of his ministry:
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him (1:12-13).
Mark does not name the temptations Jesus faced, unlike Matthew and Luke’s gospels. There is no fasting, prayer or hunger. No meditation, reflection or moralising. The Spirit actively drives Jesus into the wilderness and the word used for ‘tempted’ is also the same word Mark uses for the idea of being ‘tested’.
Jesus has barely had time to dry himself after being baptised by John in the river Jordan when he is driven into the wilderness. The same Spirit descending gently like a dove propels a grown man into the deserted places where wild beasts and demons roam. It wasn’t Satan who drove him there, but God who sends Jesus into the wilderness.
There is a long history of God testing people in the wilderness as God did with the Israelites in the desert to prepare them to be more faithful to God when they returned to settled lives. Our Lenten journey days take us to this place in the wilderness to be with God differently there and on our return.
And I’m interested in the world’s wilderness. What does it look like for you and I?
We’ve seen what it looks like in politics for example. In Parliament this week, the dreadful story of alleged rape and the apparent cover-up to protect the institution and the reputation of politicians, is done at the expense of a young woman’s expectations of justice and care. This is the same response made by many institutions towards allegations of child abuse including churches, sporting and community groups and government children’s homes. All established to protect and care children but they became terrible places of abuse and punishment. In this story, I see God in the wilderness of grief of those who are hurt and damaged.
Then there’s the temptation of quick money, gratification of sexual desire, career development, the need to achieve, other appetites unsatisfied; and always, our desires tempting us to justify what we want while ignoring those around us.
Too often we hear the justifications for our decisions and let me list some of the most common: I’m just doing my job, so what do you expect; I need to do this as I have bills to pay and a family to protect; I’m doing as I’m told, how could you expect me to disobey as I could get hurt; my leader is doing this and I’m following my leader; everyone around me is doing this why should I be different. I expect each of us has at some point used one or more of these justifications, as we are tempted and tested in wrongdoing.
However, God desires and hopes for something different from us. God invites us to explore our vulnerabilities together with remembering the times, opportunities and reasons which we know from our experience are likely to tip us into considering the lesser path. God knows our choices and our carefully constructed reasons justifying our decisions, irrespective of the hurt we do to others, to ourselves and God.
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts. (1:12-13)
Our sense of guilt and shame often propel us into the wilderness as we are confronted by the consequences of our decisions, actions and words. Waking in the dark and trying again to remember the reasons why we did or didn’t do what God invited us to do and be.
We also know the extent of our awareness of our apparently reasonable reasons is shaped by our capacity to blame others for our decisions and choices.
As I reflect on our God of love, I know it is our love of the powers, principalities and consumption of the world which direct our choices more often than God. However, when we choose to spend time with God in the wilderness, driven by God’s Holy Spirit, to this place to be tested and to understand better our vulnerabilities and our dependence on God, it also means God invites the angels to wait on us like they did with Jesus in this holy work.
We started this reflection with Jesus being baptised by John in the Jordan and God tearing the heavens apart in love as God’s Spirit anointed and affirmed him to the world, saying to all who would listen:
You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased. (1:11)
We share in this blessing as God’s children and are invited to share it with others. Jesus emerges from the wilderness, possessed by God’s Spirit and blessing and immediately steps back into the world:
Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.’ (Mark 1:14-15)
Jesus’ first actions to demonstrate such a truth are to heal and cast out demons. For Jesus to dispossess others, he must first be possessed. For Jesus to invade and occupy the territory of others, he must first be invaded and occupied himself.
No-one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered. (Mark 3:27)
Jesus says this later to those who accuse him of being possessed by Beelzebul. Jesus has no power to plunder Beelzebul’s property unless he has first been invaded and occupied by God. Mark tells us this is what is happening in Jesus’ baptism and this is what is happening to us.
In baptism we are possessed by the same power and for the same reason. We are now ready to listen and to celebrate God’s Spirit descending on us, like a dove. We can hear God saying to us: ‘You are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
Held with love we can dare to think about our poor decisions and actions, things done or not done, unkind words and deliberate, wilful turning away when we should have been present and witnessing. When we have been persuaded away from the temptation to do good and to love, by the powers and principalities of this world, settling instead for unkindness and discord as the way we gain what we desire from this world.
In God’s kingdom, Jesus tells us; ‘the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near’ (Mark 1:15a).
The invitation to ‘repent, and believe in the good news’ (1:15b) is something in which we can rejoice and be glad, as God’s love guides us and is always with us, God walks with us and lives in us as we learn to live in God. Each moment of choice we confront, our capacity, willingness and truly turning to God becomes more recognisably possible and our sense of trust in God continues to grow.
Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus’ power is the power of God who has come to serve and love, to heal, feed and redeem. It is the inner power of the spirit, not the earthly power of might. God’s heart is laid bare. Jesus is God’s precious one, just as are we. Anyone who loves so deeply is always vulnerable to great pain and loss, yet God still offers this treasured one on our behalf. The death of God’s Beloved strikes straight into God’s heart. Just as we do too.
Yet, God proclaims Jesus’ life, which challenges anything and everything opposing God’s love, and at the end it costs him his life, as a life well pleasing to God. The invitation from God to each of us is the same, my Beloveds.
The Lord be with you.