Listen to my entire sermon: http://www.trinitycleveland.net/podcasts/sermons/Lind02262011-1115.mp3″
Have you ever noticed how much we try to domesticate God? We want a God who is comforting, reassuring, dependable and not too demanding – a God who will ease our burdens and grant us rest from our labors. As that beloved prayer in the order for Compline says, “We who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life want to rest in [God’s] eternal changelessness.”
We also want a church that contains our domesticated God – a church that is comforting, reassuring, dependable, and not too demanding. We who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life want to worship in the church’s eternal changelessness, unless of course, we want something to change.
But guess what folks? That’s not the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition, it’s not the God of Jesus Christ, and it’s definitely not the God of Jesus Christ according to the Gospel of Mark. While comforting, reassuring and dependable, our God is also unpredictable, changeable, sometimes confusing and often challenging, speaking to us through the wind and leading us into a whirlwind.
In the oldest gospel account, God breaks into humanity through Jesus’ baptism, drives this beloved son into the wilderness, appoints the satan to test him, sends the wild beasts to accompany him, ordains angels to minister to him, and then sends him out into the world to do the work that he was given to do. That’s what happened to Jesus when he showed up at church. That’s the good news according to Mark.
This story of Jesus’ baptism and adventure in the wilderness stands as a tollbooth on our Lenten highway to Easter. It is a tale of what happens God comes close – when God breaks through the heavens and enters the human realm.
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. This is a powerful event! Jesus joined the line of people waiting to have their sins washed away by John the Baptizer. He was submerged in the muddy water. He saw the heavens tear apart. He felt the Spirit land as enormous bird upon his shoulder. He heard a voice from heaven name him as beloved son. And then, he surfaced from the deep, gasped for breath, and was immediately sent to the wilderness.
This was no ordinary baptism. But I wonder: is there ever an ordinary baptism, or do we just refuse to acknowledge the cosmic, divine power of baptism? Is it possible that we have so domesticated the sacrament of baptism with a gentle sprinkling of warm water that we don’t see the heavens tearing open, feel the Spirit landing upon our shoulders, or hear the voice saying: you are my beloved child.
Jesus saw, felt and heard all of that cosmic, divine power when was baptized. But did he get to relax in the afterglow or relish the joy and warmth of his newfound identity? No, he wasn’t able to go to the reception, the brunch or the party. He didn’t even get to take a nap. God had other things in mind for him. Jesus immediately was forced out, cast out, and thrown into the wilderness – the barren, frightening, chaotic and dangerous wild land of the unknown.
The newly baptized Son of God didn’t just wander into the Judean desert because he lost his map, his compass or his sense of direction. Jesus’ internal GPS wasn’t broken. No, after his baptism, the Spirit of God, the same Spirit that landed as a dove upon his shoulder in the River Jordan, immediately drove Jesus into the wilderness. The very same Spirit that swept over the face of the earth at the beginning of creation and blew life into the nostrils of the first humans forced Jesus into the unknown. The same Spirit that was given to Moses as he stood before a burning bush threw Jesus into the untamed wilds. The same Spirit that anointed Samuel, Saul, David, and Solomon cast Jesus into the rough lands. The same Spirit that spoke and acted through Elijah, and was given in double portion to Elisha tossed Jesus into the wilderness. The same Spirit that breathed upon Job and rested upon Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the rest of the prophets drove him into that desolate, uncharted place. The very same Spirit that came upon Mary, his mother, threw Jesus out of his comfort zone into a barren wasteland of limestone hills and deep ravines.
It reminds me of the movie adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s famous children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are, in which the little boy, Max, went to the land of the wild things, whose ways were both a temptation and a test for him. At first he had a great time leading these great beasts on a wild rumpus of fort building and dirt fights, but he learned that it is not enough to just be filled with the spirit, one has to develop and apply some skill and substance to create a world that is filled with love.
I think this is what Jesus also learned on his wilderness adventure. Sure, he was God’s beloved Son and God’s chosen messenger of salvation. But what did he know about the work that was before him? What did he know about the job of being God’s anointed one? What did he know about building the kingdom of God or leading people into it? What did he know about confronting the powers and principalities of the world? After all, he was a thirty-year old carpenter. This was his testing ground for the days ahead.
During his forty days sojourn in the wilderness, the gospel of Mark (as distinct from Matthew and Luke) tells us Jesus was tempted by not by the devil, but by Satan. There is debate among scholars about the identity of this character called Satan. Is it Satan with a capital “S” or the satan? As Richard Swanson suggests, if the tempter is Satan, this was “an ambush set up to destroy Jesus…by a deadly enemy, the representative of everything evil in the world.”[i] But if the tempter was actually the satan (or in Hebrew, ha-satan) then Swanson says, “the scene is different.” “The satan is an agent of God, and is given the task of testing all parts of creation to ensure that all things are as solid and sound as they appear to be.”
This satan (ha-satan) is an adversary or accuser used by God to test the fidelity and righteousness of the created order, especially humanity. This is the satan that was asked by God to assess by trial the character of Job. This is the satan that stood at the right hand of Joshua to judge the righteousness of Jerusalem.
In some Jewish wisdom literature, the Satan (ha-satan) is actually an agent of God whose job it is to tempt one into sin, and then turn around and accuse the sinner from on high. That’s why the satan (ha-satan) is often referred to as the slanderer, the accuser, or the provoker. But according to the rabbinic tradition, the satan deep down inside hopes that we will resist his temptations. It makes you wonder if God sent the serpent to test Adam and Eve hoping that they would resist the temptation and thus remain forever in the Garden of Eden.
Just as I have suggested that John the Baptist was the demolition contractor in the restoration of God’s creation, Richard Swanson posits the satan as “the building inspector charged by God with testing every structure, every person, to be sure that nothing shady slips by.”[ii] And as much of a pain as inspectors can be, I wouldn’t want to live in a building, drive a car, or fly in a plane that had not passed inspection.
If Jesus met the satan (ha-satan) in the wilderness, then he met not the devil – the personification of evil – but rather an agent of God who was appointed to test the sum and substance of God’s beloved son. This testing was an essential part of Jesus’ preparation to serve as God’s anointed one.
Think about it this way. Can you imagine shipping soldiers off battle without first putting them through basic training, sending fire fighters into a burning building without first teaching them how to use fire hoses or climb ladders, or allowing a surgeon into the operating room without first equipping her in medical school?
This was Jesus’ boot camp, his student teaching, and his residency. It was designed to prepare him for dealing with the powers and principalities of the world into which he was being sent. As time would tell, Jesus’ wilderness journey would be a minor test compared to his confrontations and struggles with his hometown friends and family, his disciples, all those hurting and needy people, and most especially, the political and religious authorities of his day who wanted a domesticated God made in their own image and contained in a well-constructed box.
While Matthew and Luke are fairly specific in describing the temptations, Mark’s account is ambiguous, leaving us to wonder about the nature of the testing. But based on the rest of the gospel story, we can assume that the testing had something to do with power – real and perceived, human and divine, raw and refined, good and evil, guided and misdirected, pastoral and prophetic, individual and collective – a 40-day training program in power dynamics.
Jesus was not alone in the wilderness. Mark tells us that he was with the wild beasts. Traditionally, we have thought of those wild beasts as threatening enemies, dangerous bedfellows aggravating predators, or at best, bothersome nuisances – a perspective consistent with our understanding of nature as something to be conquered and subdued. If you were a first-century Christian hearing this story, you might be reminded of the real threat of being fed to the lions in a Roman arena and be assured that you would not be asked to suffer anything that Jesus had not already faced.
Perhaps however, the wild beasts were not foes, but rather, Jesus’ companions in the wilderness. One of the temptations might have been to destroy the wild beasts in order to survive, but instead Jesus, like Max in Where the Wild Things Are, might have discovered them to be his teachers, helpmates and even friends and followers. Perhaps, they called for the angels to minister to their brother Jesus.
After those forty days and forty nights were over, Jesus emerged ready to take on the world. Mark tells us that the appointed time had arrived. Jesus came back to Galilee proclaiming, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” The power of God in Christ had been born, baptized, tested, and now loosed on the world.
Remember that desire for a domesticated God. Well guess what? God in Jesus did not and will not become domesticated. No, the good news is that God’s spirit broke free into Jesus, and despite over 2000 years of effort to contain, constrain, imprison and even kill it, that powerful, divine Spirit is still running free and unfettered in our world. The good news is that God wants this very same Spirit to baptize, test and loose you and me on the world as well.
[i] Richard Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of Mark (The Pilgrim Press, 2005), p. 134