Mark 1:1-15 (NRSV)
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
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.
Now after John was arrested, 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.”
God with us. This one statement is probably one of the most difficult concepts to imagine. Most of us are perfectly fine with the concept of a supreme being far off in the heavens. Most if not all of us can perfectly accept the stance of a creator who hung the stars with his fingers and set the heavenly bodies in motion. We are ok with the statement of Christ the king, this one might get us a bit because our culture does not like the idea of a king. We like to have our own say and the ability to vote. The concept of a no g means that there is a personality out there whose word is law. A personality who may not even care what our opinion is, which does not sound very democratic. But the idea that this divine being would live with and among us is almost unimaginable.
There are a couple of important aspects to the divine king coming to live among mankind. The first is that the subjects would have an opportunity to gain understanding directly from the source, instead of the information filtering through various agents. Within each level the official makes some interpretation to what the intent of the law is. And to traverse between the levels takes time. For some things this process can be beneficial; for example, if there were not bureaucratic levels to traverse for oil pipelines or other potential environmental threats companies could potentially cause unnecessary damage that could have been prevented. At other times it can hinder the course of justice; the greatest examples of this are people who have been wrongfully incarcerated for crimes they did not commit, who serve time in prison while the court appeal processes are navigated. To give humanity direct access to the divine king would mean that the divine monarch would be able to teach us themselves, they would be able to show us by what intention their decrees were given. And our cries for justice or mercy would be directly heard, instead of having to wait for our requests to be delivered by the various levels of the royal court.
The second aspect of the incarnation of a divine king is that the king has intimate knowledge of the lives and lifestyles of their subjects. Nearly every day I see some statement being made about the disconnection that the ruling class has with the common people. Nearly every day I see statements being made from people on subjects that they have little or no expertise in expressing some sort of change that might make sense in theory yet in practice rarely works according to plan. For example, several times through the holiday seasons I had managers make lists of tasks to accomplish during the day. The first task would always be to stock the shelves with the products received that day. The problem would come when the estimated or allotted time necessary to accomplish these tasks according to the company standards exceeded the scheduled labor force available that day. It was actually not uncommon to have the necessary time to double the number of laborers, leaving the first task on the list unfinished and management wondering why the second and third task were left unaccomplished. This disconnected feeling often leads to diminished moral, unless the manager is seen sharing the load.
I know those are simplistic examples but hopefully it allows us to begin to see the amazing reality of the incarnation. Jesus being fully God and fully human connects the divine king to common humanity. Jesus through his incarnation steps out of the royal palace and moves into our neighborhood. He eats the meals of a common family. He labored on tasks like everyone else. Jesus was divine yet human.
Today we meet Jesus once again on the banks of the Jordan with his cousin John, who we know as the Baptist. When we first read this passage our mind almost instantly focuses on the dove that has descended from the opened heavens to rest on Jesus. We can almost hear the voice speaking with our ears. This image is powerful. Right away we see Jesus as the divine king. But the image is almost too powerful, it almost causes us to only see the divine aspect to Jesus’s personality. If we are not careful we can disconnect with the teachings of Jesus because we see the monarch the ruler and judge not the man. We might begin to think that the decrees of Jesus are all good on paper, and they make good discussion points but cannot possibly be put into practice. And suddenly we lose God with us and again see God over there in the high heaven as detached from human reality as a royal family is detached from the reality of life in the slums of a city. Jesus becomes God with them instead of God with us.
It is no wonder why in the history of the church humanity has sought other advocates for our plights. Christ is king, but I am funeral director how can the king know what I am going through. So, we find someone that was close to God and similar to us so we ask Saint Joseph of Arimathea to talk to Jesus for us. Or maybe you are a teacher so we ask Saint Thomas Aquinas to speak on our behalf. Maybe I have fallen into sin, and was caught stealing and feel I cannot approach a righteous king so I instead call on Saint Nicholas of Myra the patron saint of repentant thieves. Christ is king, He is over there and I am here. He is far away and I am struggling. But we know that Christ is our advocate we know that those saints of old are merely human as we are, but why then do we often sit in our struggles, why do we watch our friends struggle trying to become good enough on their own?
Do we really believe that God is with us? This is where the temptation of Jesus becomes so powerful. Jesus was fully divine yet He faced temptation. Jesus was the cocreator of the entire universe yet while he walked among humankind he had struggles. Three of the four gospels mention the trials that Jesus faced. Some of those accounts are very detailed while Mark describes it in one paragraph, in two verses. Over the years I have found a great deal of comfort as I have contemplated the temptations of Jesus. Nearly every time I come across it in my reading, I find myself sitting with it for a while. I know that sounds weird, even a bit unrighteous but I like knowing that Jesus struggled. To be honest I tend to bypass these two verses in Mark, I usually get to this point and I either move along to the next verses rapidly, or I turn to one of the other gospels and sit with them before moving forward. This week I stayed with Mark. I stayed because Mark mentioned Jesus’s struggle and he did so in his own unique way. “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.”
The other two gospels that mention Jesus’s temptations go into detail of what Satan tempted Jesus with, yet Mark only says that he was tempted by Satan. Mark is also the only account that speaks of wild beasts. That is what caught my attention this week. Why would Mark explain this time as he was with the wild beasts? While I looked up this word I found that most often referred to undomesticated animals, but as I continued to read about it this same word I found it to be more interesting. Although it could be used to refer to undomesticated animals it mainly described a predator. So, in the wilds of ancient Israel these wild beasts would prowl around to attach the sheep. But that was not the only interesting thing I found. The term translated “wild beasts” was also used to describe the enemies of Israel. More specifically the Philistines. But like an infomercial there is even more: Wicked people, monster, and demon. I even found that this is the same word used in The Revelation to describe the anti-Christ. Jesus was out there in the wilderness for forty days facing monsters, enemies of God’s people, predatory animals, and everything that opposed the nature of God. Basically, Jesus was out there in that wilderness facing everything that we face every day of our life.
Immediately after the heavens opened and the Spirit of God descended on him like a dove and a voice proclaimed, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” That same spirit not only encouraged Jesus to face our demons, that Spirit compelled or drove Jesus out there. This is the very same word for an exorcism as well as Jesus later sending out the disciples. Jesus was compelled to go out to face our demon, to fight our monsters. He went out like David to fight that Philistine giant Goliath. Jesus went out to face head on everything that opposed the ways of God, for us and with us.
I want us to let that sink in for a moment. What is our largest struggle? What is the greatest monster hiding under our bed? What has us so frightened that we are unable to move? That very thing Jesus looked at in the wilderness, he looked it directly in the eye and calmly yet firmly told it to back off. And like the demon in the synagogue, like legion in the man from the region of Decapolis, and every other monster Jesus faced, faces, and will face they back off.
He was with the wild beast and the angel waited on him. Even in the wild wilderness surrounded by the monsters of life Jesus was not alone, and neither are we. We occasionally sing a song by Chris Tomlin called Whom Shall I Fear. In that song we sing:
You hear me when I call, you are my morning song, though darkness fills the night it cannot hide the light: Whom shall I fear?
You crush the enemy, underneath my feet, you are my sword and shield though troubles linger still: Whom shall I fear?
I know who goes before me, I know who stand behind, the God of angel armies is always by my side. The one who reigns forever He is a friend of mine; the God of angel armies is always by my side.
It goes on to say:
Nothing formed against me shall stand, you hold the whole world in your hands, I’m holding on to your promises: you are faithful, you are faithful, you are faithful.
I know who goes before me, I know who stands behind, the God of angel armies is always by my side. The one who reigns forever He is a friend of mine; the God of angel armies is always by my side.
Jesus was compelled to go into that wilderness, he was driven to that place filled with wild beast and he went there to face our demons for us and with us. He goes there before us, he stays by our side as the battle wages one, and he covers our back as we walk through that dark valley to the place of victory. So why do we fear?
We fear because we do not believe that Christ is greater than our struggle. We fear because we are too afraid to let Christ fight for us. We fear because if we let go of our struggle we might be seen as weak or unrighteous, unable to conquer our demons. But why do we continue to hold onto and hold up the vanquished foe? Jesus fought the battle for us in that wilderness and he pushed them back, they began their retreat until the ultimate victory was won when Jesus died on that cross, was buried and rose again from the grave. Goliath fell and so will the monsters that we face. If we face them with the incarnate God with us.
Jesus left that wilderness, coming back into the community and proclaimed, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Do we believe, or do we look at our world in fear? Do we believe, or do we cower in the corner in the shadow of lifeless and powerless enemies? Do we believe that time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near?
As we enter into this time of open worship I encourage us to consider not only the beasts we face but also the season of the year we are in. The season of lent which began on Wednesday is the time of year where we walk with Christ through his struggles, or in actuality where he walks with us through our struggles. We consider the sacrifices he made for us, the main one being the sacrifice he made when he was compelled out of his great love to take on our struggles for us and with us. And during this time many find it encouraging to make sacrifices as well, not out of duty but as a sign of solidarity with Christ and with each other. We each struggle, at times we can see the struggle and at other times that battle we fight is hidden. Do we believe? If so let us repent and believe that Christ has conquered our foe for us and nothing formed against us will stand to keep us from the promise of God, which are forgiveness, mercy, everlasting love, reconciliation, and life without end.