The Gospel of Mark’s story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is extremely brief: so brief, in fact, that in order for today’s reading not to just be comically short, the lectionary fills that story in with a few verses before and a few verses after. As Deacon Chris read it, I’m sure some of you thought, “Wait, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan…. – didn’t we just hear that at the Baptism of Christ? And: Jesus came to Galilee, saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’ – didn’t we just hear that on Annual Meeting Sunday?”
Well, yes and yes. But what we didn’t hear yet was what happened in between. “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.” I’d like us to just take some time this morning to study what happened in between.
The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. The Spirit has just descended on Jesus at his Baptism, and the very first thing he does is to drive Jesus out. When you compare that language to some of the tame and sentimental images of the Holy Spirit we encounter, it kind of gives you pause, doesn’t it? The Spirit drove him out; there’s a violence to it, an impulsion; a sense that Jesus barely has a choice, the action of God is so forceful. This next step in Jesus’ vocation is important business and the Spirit is going to get it done.
So where does the Spirit drive him? Out into the wilderness. Now if you are familiar with the Bible you know that important stuff happens in the wilderness. It’s where Moses met and argued with God before he was changed into a great leader of Israel. It’s where the Israelites journeyed and grumbled for 40 years before they entered the Promised Land. It’s where the prophets, centuries later after the congregation had become corrupt and apathetic, promised that God would make straight a highway for himself to re-encounter his people. ...
Let’s go on. He was in the wilderness forty days. 40 days and 40 nights, thou wast fasting in the wild, 40 days and 40 nights, tempted and yet undefiled. Again, if you are familiar with the Bible, you know that important stuff happens during 40-day periods. The flood, which we heard about in our first reading, lasted 40 days and 40 nights. Moses was on Mt Sinai receiving the law for 40 days and 40 nights. Elijah traveled 40 days and 40 nights to Mount Horeb to hear the still, small voice. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for not just 40 days, but 40 years. Whether or not it’s a round number or a symbol in some of these instances, when the number 40 shows up we’re being given a very big clue. This thing Jesus is going through is in a wilderness. It lasts 40 days. If you speak “Bible” at all, you know something vital is going on here.
He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan. Some of the other Gospels lay out what these temptations were, and another year we’ll look at that. But Mark is always brief. Cut to the chase, he says: Jesus was tempted, that’s all we need to know. Can we talk about that concept for a minute?
Our culture reacts to the word “temptation” with a kind of titillated amusement, and that’s because most of us don’t know what sin is. We think of sin moralistically, based on little lists of external things that good people should not do. Different groups of people all have their own lists; there’s a serious moralism of the left and a serious moralism of the right, and then there’s all the unserious minor moralism, stuff that we actually enjoy imagining as being on the naughty list, so that we can joke about being tempted by desserts with names like Death By Chocolate. (Wink wink nudge nudge.) That’s the naïve and reductionistic way our culture uses the word: temptation means wanting to break somebody’s rule, to do something naughty.
Now all of that, honestly, is so childish and broad-brush that it is an insult to the complex and endlessly fruitful way the Bible as a whole treats this topic. We don’t have time to go into detail today, but the word “Temptation,” in Scripture, is the same as the word “Test” or “Trial.” That’s why in the new version of the Lord’s Prayer, “lead us not into temptation” is translated “save us from the time of trial,” which is less elegant but probably more accurate. Both in Greek and Hebrew, the words are used, say, for testing the quality of gold or the strength of a bow. So in the case of people, temptation is like being faced with the opportunity to show what you’re made of.
And it can also, in a negative sense, mean being tested maliciously, set up, in hopes you’ll prove unequal to the task. Have you ever seen “What Would You Do” on ABC, the show where actors play out scenes of conflict or deceit in public with hidden cameras running? The focus is on whether or not bystanders intervene. You know: will the person call someone out on their racist remark, or not? Will the person return the extra $100 they received in change, or not? That’s far closer to what the Bible means by temptation than winking at each other about eating cake.
If you assess it by the Biblical framework, then, all of us are tempted multiple times every day. We are given all kinds of opportunities to show what we’re made of when no one is looking, to reveal to the hidden camera whether we trust God or really pragmatically trust ourselves, to demonstrate whether we will act based on mercy or based on tit for tat. Can we deal with losing? Will we cut that poor guy some slack? Every single moment like that is playing a role, positive or negative, in your spiritual life.
So Jesus went through that experience of testing in intensive form for forty days, fasting and isolated and weakened. According to the other Gospels, part of the test was that he mulled over three plausible courses of action, things that seemed to link his basic human aspirations with his passionately felt mission, and then unmasked the lie behind each of them. He chose instead utter reliance on the God who had driven him into the wilderness, who for all he could see at that moment might have been happy to let him starve there. Jesus was honing his commitment, consolidating what he was made of. In the wilderness Jesus tore away all the easy-answer plausible options and went all the way down to face the deepest root of sin -- which in the Bible is not doing things that are on the naughty list, but the bare choice: Me, or God? Do I trust myself, or do I hand it all over to him? Do I want my plausible options, or do I want whatever he wants? And of course ultimately, when all the pretenses are gone and you see things for what they are, the question boils down to an even simpler one: Life or death.
Over forty days of what must have been excruciating, wearing struggle, Jesus said: life, life, life. Except he said it not just for himself, but for all of us. Remember the clues? He was in the wilderness. It was for forty days. If God would just meet us again in the wilderness, the prophets had said, if he would just make straight a highway so we could get to him. Oh, they had no idea!
Because at last God really did, in the fullest sense, meet humanity in the wilderness. Out in that wasteland with the wild beasts, God incarnate in Christ Jesus was carrying the whole story of his people, the whole weight of it, reliving on their behalf the very same wilderness narrative that they had run to rack and ruin, and redeeming it, breath by arduous breath.
And not just them. Them first, but not just them. He was also doing it all on our behalf; us, who weren’t even born yet. Making on our behalf the choices that, when we step out of here today and are given chances to show what we’re made of, we’re just as likely to get wrong. For forty days he resisted the plausible voice of temptation to stay true to a self that was completely unadulterated, consistent in its integrity -- one human life given over as a wholehearted, full, perfect and sufficient offering of trust in God.
No wonder we start Lent with this story every year. No wonder the hymn calls him Victor in the wilderness. Forty days and forty nights, tempted and yet undefiled. And you just might wonder: Has there ever been a triumph greater than this?
Well, yes. If you think Jesus’ victory at the beginning of Lent is awe-inspiring, just wait till Holy Week.