Right after Jesus’ baptism when God said how pleased He is with Jesus, He drove Jesus into the wilderness and into the arms of Satan. What’s up with that?
Mark 1:9–15 January 26, 2020
Today’s scripture picks-up where Michael left off two weeks ago, with the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan but with a surprising turn of events.
Mark 1:12-13b At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert, and he was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan.
Now, what is that all about?
One minute we witness the Holy Spirit descend like a dove and the Father’s voice say, (Mark 1:11) “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” and then in the very next line, God drives this very same beloved Son into the wilderness – to face wild beasts and Satan himself.
What’s up with that?
And if God the Father, who so loved Jesus, would do this to him, well how secure should we feel?
Might God drive us into Satan’s arms?
Mark’s description of Jesus’ desert experience is very brief … just two verses.
The other things we think we know about Jesus’ fasting and about Satan’s specific temptations (turn these stones to bread, throw yourself from the roof of the temple, take the political power of a king) all come from Matthew and Luke.
The other gospels have their own lessons for us, but to hear what God is saying uniquely through Mark …we have put aside what we assume to know from elsewhere to let Mark speak for himself.
Desert-wilderness is an important and recurring theme throughout the Old Testament.
Growing up in a world where wandering from the safety of your village would place you into a parched landscape where you could easily die of thirst, be assaulted by robbers, or be ravaged by lions leaves you with a visceral feeling of the chaos and dangers that surround us.
Jesus’ forty days in wilderness recalls the time when the nation of Israel was tested for forty years in the wilderness – a test they badly failed.
Even though God had just parted the Red Sea and then destroyed their slave master’s pursuing army … when faced with endless wilderness stretching out before them the people here overcome by fear – some even begged to return to slavery rather than continue into the unknown
Exodus 14:12b It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”
Maybe there was a time when you felt so overwhelmed by a challenge or hardship that you toyed with giving-up and settling for a mediocre life.
Another wilderness test came when Moses left the people for forty days while he was on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments.
Without their leader, the people were ruffled and demanded that Aaron make a golden calf to worship.
Despite all they’d experienced with God, they wanted to hedge their bets with something tangible and familiar – just in case they had been wrong about God.
Exodus 32:1 When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”
And Jesus in the Judean wilderness echoes Elijah’s forty-day retreat to Mt. Horeb where he had fled from Ahab and Jezebel but then had to ride-out the storms and chaos to find God.
1 Kings 19:12 After the earthquake, there was a fire. But that fire was not the Lord. After the fire, there was a quiet, gentle voice.
What’s the common denominator here?
The common denominator is that in each case a crisis is provoked by the apparent absence of God.
The absence of God gives free rein to our fears: fears that we will be lost in chaos; fears that we will be overpowered by hostile forces; fears that we simply cannot endure.
The other common denominator is that these were tests: Israel was not qualified to enter the Promised Land until they could recognize God’s presence – even in the wilderness.
The people could not live God’s Law until they could be still and receive it – right out there in the barren desert.
Elijah could not continue to challenge Ahab and Jezebel until he could hear God’s voice amidst the howling winds and storms.
And only after Jesus completes the forty days of testing, could (he) proclaim in the next verses: (Mark 1:15) “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”
The wilderness is any place we do not feel the presence of God.
Your wilderness may be in an inner world where your mental soundtrack endlessly replays old hurts.
Your wilderness may be a world so full of demands and so overwhelmed by flashing video screens that there is no space left for your awareness of God.
Your wilderness may be an empty marriage, a physical ailment, the loss of a family member, or financial insecurity.
Or, your wilderness may be what Jesus warned of most: a life where our own inflated sense of entitlement, power, and privilege gives the illusion that you are secure without the Lord.
Being able to find God in your wilderness is your test.
This test of strength between Jesus and Satan.
Notice that Satan is not defeated.
The struggle that begins here in Mark 1 unfolds and is detailed throughout his gospel – and it plays out in each and every one of our hearts.
Now notice that while Jesus was surrounded by the wild beasts and Satan, he also found the angels to attend to him.
Mark 1:12-13 At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.
The angels did not drive Satan away – but the angels were there to care for Jesus.
Satan is relentless – but he is not the final word.
Don’t expect your life to be free of conflict and temptation.
Satan comes to many of us through an inner voice that sees catastrophe in every challenge, an inner voice that chides we are not good enough, an inner voice that haunts us with all the mistakes we’ve made.
One of the classic warnings that spiritual directors give new Christians is that soon after they experience the exhilaration of their new faith, a crisis will come their way.
This becomes a classic spiritual “fork in the road” when many new Christians turn away in disillusionment from their faith.
But actually, it may just be that their old self-destructive habits and attitudes had continued – the new Christian had not yet been healed, they were just too filled with joy and enthusiasm to hear them for a while.
But when normalcy begins to return it may appear that nothing has changed, that we are still the same old scared, wounded person we always were.
Then a voice whispers that maybe our new faith was self-delusion.
But the difference is that with faith we can – like Jesus – recognize that while the tempter remains, there also are angels with us.
And more than that: Satan’s power is real … but it is limited.
Wilderness ceases to be wilderness once we can see the angels with us.
Wilderness ceases to be wilderness once we stop trembling at the shadows, afraid to step into the unknown.
Wilderness ceases to be wilderness once we know that with the power of Jesus, Satan does not stand a chance in our life.
Jesus’ experience in the wilderness gives us both a warning and a promise.
The warning: If the Son of God had to spend forty tortuous days in the wilderness, then you will, too.
But there is also a promise: You don’t have to be afraid of your wilderness.
You see, this wilderness actually is where the Good News is found.
Not in some “happily ever after” fantasy, not in the destructive lie that super-faithful Christians lead perfect lives.
The Good News promise is that in the midst of your wilderness there are angels who will see you through it.
Psalm 23:4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me…
There will be valleys, some will get dark, but valleys are not dead ends, and God will walk us through them.
We might shake their our heads as we read about the faltering faith of the Hebrew people as they wandered the desert.
How could they have doubted God?
They were accompanied by the pillar of fire at night and the column of cloud by day … right in front of them, for all to see!
But I’ll bet it wasn’t so clear for them at the moment.
Looking back, we see the angels.
Looking back, we can see the fingerprints of God all over our old problem.
Looking back, we can say that next time we will confront the test quite differently.
I want to invite you to try something that can be a great help for when you face a wilderness later on.
I remember talking with one of our members who said that she had recently opened her prayer jar to read her prayers of years earlier.
She found that prayers she had written had all been answered, that things she had feared most had been overcome … but mostly in unexpected ways that led to better outcomes than what she had asked for.
A prayer jar is a place to store one or two sentence summaries of a challenge we are facing and a prayer we are offering.
A prayer jar doesn’t have to be something fancy – it could be a sugar bowl or an oatmeal carton is fine.
We put a scrap of paper with the prayer inside, put on the lid, and continue our prayers.
It’s a way of letting go and turning things over to God.
But also, it gives us a way to later look back and see how God has been at work.
If you start a prayer jar today, then in a couple of years you will be amazed to open your jar and see how God and His angels brought you through your wilderness.
I can almost guarantee you that it will be different than you expected.
If I were in Jesus’ sandals, then I would probably have prayed that I not have to go into the wilderness at all.
Or I would have prayed that Satan and wild beasts would not have shown up.
Or I would have prayed for a 24-hour wilderness experience … and with a Coca Cola machine nearby.
Instead, Jesus got forty days of the worst the world has to offer, but he came through with the preparation he needed to proclaim, (Mark 1:15) “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”
Now we are going to take a few moments for you to write out one or two of the wildernesses you are facing right now.
Take a minute to think carefully.
Write down your condition, and write what your prayer is.
If you would like, you can fold that up and start your own prayer jar this afternoon.