MARK 1:12-13

MARCH 1, 2009

Play Audio


            Lent is not normally thought of as an occasion for levity, nonetheless I’ll begin with a story about a Catholic priest working in the inner city who was walking down an alley one evening on his way home when a young man came down the alley behind him and poked a knife against his back.  “Give me your money,” the young man said.

            The priest opened his jacket and reached into his inner pocket to remove his wallet, exposing his clerical collar.  “Oh, I’m sorry, Father,” said the young man.  “I didn’t see your collar.  I don’t want your money,

            Trembling from the scare, the priest removed a cigar from his shirt pocket and offered to the young man.  “Here,” he said.  “Have a cigar.”

            “Oh, no, I can’t do that,” the young man replied.  “I gave them up for Lent.”

            We have arrived at the season of Lent, that period of the church year in which people believe they are supposed to make themselves miserable. Four days ago we observed Ash Wednesday.  On Ash Wednesday the fun is supposed to stop.  The day before, Fat Tuesday, is a time of joy and revelry, but on Ash Wednesday all that stops.  Ash Wednesday marks that miserable time of the year known as “Lent.”

            That’s a little strange given the origin of the word “lent.”  The word “lent” originally meant “springtime,” not misery.  It was associated with the joy of moving from the dead of winter to the green and warmth of spring.  In the early days of Christianity, when you heard the word “lent” you thought of “butterflies” and “bunnies” and “spring showers” and getting outside, enjoying nature once again.  But because springtime came around the time of Easter, the Church borrowed the word “lent” for this season of the church year.  Overtime, the word became to be associated less with spring and more about seriousness, preparation, self-denial, and sacrifice.

            At first the early church celebrated Lent only for a few days before Easter, not at all like what we have now.  Over time, the length of the season grew until it was several weeks long.  In the seventh century, the church set the period of Lent at forty days (excluding Sundays) in order to remind people of the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness.  As Jesus time in the wilderness prepared him for his ministry, so the season of Lent prepares us for Easter and the power of the resurrection.

            This morning I want us to go back to the roots of Lent.  I want us to go back to Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, and I want to use Mark’s account of it.  I chose Mark’s Gospel because it was the first written gospel.  It’s the first written account of Jesus time in the wilderness.  Now remember, Mark’s gospel is the Reader’s Digest  gospel.  It’s the Clint Eastwood gospel, that is to say, Mark does not waste any words.  He gets right to the point.  He takes brevity to an art form.  He also wears track shoes as he writes.  It seems like he’s in a hurry.  His favorite word is “immediately.”  He uses that word again and again in his gospel, and of course, he uses it here.  Listen to his description of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness.


            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.


            I want us to note four things in Mark’s description.  First, note what’s missing.  Note Mark does not mention the nature of the temptation.  Matthew and Luke do.  They talk about turning stones into bread, and jumping from tall buildings and ruling all the kingdoms of the world, but not Mark.  Either Mark didn’t know about the specifics of the temptations, which was highly unlikely since Peter was Mark’s primary source material, and Peter sure liked to talk, or Mark did not think the specific temptations were all that important, which is more likely.  For Mark temptation is temptation.  What tempts one person may not tempt another, so no need to mention specific temptations.  Mark lets us fill in the blanks for ourselves.  We know what tempts us.  We know how hard it is to resist those temptations.  Jesus had to withstand temptation while in the wilderness.

            Second, note the reference to the wilderness ... “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”  If you haven’t seen it, let me recommend a movie to you when it comes out on DVD.  I don’t think it’s playing anymore in movie theaters, and the movie did not receive universally good reviews, but Trudy and I both gave it two thumbs up.  It’s the movie Australia starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. 

            If you have seen it, you know that one of the points of conflict between Nicole Kidman’s character and Hugh Jackman’s character is the issue of the little boy they have taken under their wing going on “a walkabout.”  The little boy is a “creamy” in Australian jargon, that is he is a mulatto, a mixture of white and aboriginal blood, and Jackman’s character wants the boy to go on his “walkabout” and Kidman’s character doesn’t want him to go because she deems it too dangerous. 

            In case your are not aware a “walkabout” is a rite of passage from boyhood to manhood for many aboriginal tribes in the South Seas.  A boy coming into puberty is sent into the jungle or wilderness, depending where he lives, for a long period of time, often six weeks, without food, shelter or weapons.  During this time, he must test all his survival skills he has learned in childhood.  He must be creative in meeting the challenges of the wilderness, and it’s dangerous.  One mistake and he may die.  If, however, he survives the walkabout, he returns to a celebration that honors him as a man, a hunter and a warrior.

            This, in a sense, is Jesus’ spiritual “walkabout.”   Right after his baptism, the Holy Spirit immediately sends him into the wilderness to test his character, to toughen him up for his public ministry.

            Third, note here how “angels waited on him.”  Only one other time in Jesus’ life does he need angels.  The other time took place on the night of his arrest.  Luke mentions it in his gospel.  After Jesus sweat drops of blood in the agony of the Garden of Gethsemane, an angel came to strengthen him.  In other words, do not think that the experience of being tempted in the wilderness was easy for Jesus because he was the Son of God.  It was not.  He was also the Son of Man, subject to the temptations, the stresses, the loneliness of all humans.  And think about what has just happened to him.  Emotionally, he has gone from a great high to a great low.  He has been driven from the cheers of his baptism to the loneliness of the desert.  Physically, he has been weakened by hunger until he is dangerously open to any temptation.  So, the angels wait on him.  The angels come alongside to help him through, just as an angel waited on him on the night of his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. 

            Fourth, and finally, note how “he was with the wild beasts.”  I am reminded of the group of clergy, both men and women, who while on a tour of Israel were given the opportunity to spend one night in the wilderness, close to where Jesus would have spent time.  They were given tents and a sleeping bag, and then they got a taste of the danger of wild beasts.

            One participant described it as follows ...


            It was very hot inside the tent and the sound of my colleagues’ snoring was not conducive to sleep, at least for me.  In the middle of the night, one of the women clergy screamed that someone had been licking her feet.  It looked like we might have a scandal in our midst, just what the church needed - a foot-licking clergyman - a new scandal in the Judean wilderness.  Who would the foot-licker be?  After the tent settled down, it happened again, only this time we discovered that wolves had come into the tent.  The wolves were the foot lickers. 


            He man concludes with these words ...


            In just one, very long night, we were raided by wolves in the Judean wilderness.  The danger was real, and one can only imagine what our Lord faced during his forty days as he fasted and prayed and faced far greater dangers than we touched upon during our short visit.


            As a quick aside, there may have been another reason, other than the danger, as to why Mark goes out of his way to mention “wild beasts.”  Remember he was writing to Roman Christians whose unswerving faith is marching them straight into lions’ mouths.  One can almost hear the hushed reading of Mark’s Gospel among a fear-filled band of Christians huddled together around a candle in a catacomb.  The phrase “he was with wild beasts” which seemed so little to us would flicker in their imagination.  If they have to stand before the bared fangs of snarling lions in the Roman Coliseum, they know Jesus will be with them.  Jesus has been there.  Jesus, himself, had to face down wild beasts.

            So, Lent has it’s roots in this story of angels, wild beasts, temptations, and spiritual walkabouts.  As Jesus’ gave up his earthly comforts going into the wilderness, the season of Lent has traditionally become a time in spring when we give up an earthly comfort or two to strengthen our character in preparation for the death and resurrection of Jesus. 

            Have you given up anything for Lent?  Maybe chocolate, or caffeine, or desserts or alcohol or like the thief in the beginning of the message, cigars?  Those are all fine and good things to give up, but let me offer something else.  Let me offer some very significant things we might choose to give up this year.

            Number one, how about deciding to give up grumbling for Lent!  Constructive criticism is OK, but as surprising as this may sound moaning, groaning and complaining are not Christian disciplines.

            Number two, why not give up ten or fifteen minutes in bed.  Instead, use that time in prayer, Bible study, and personal devotion.

            Number three, this Lent why not our giving up looking at people’s worst points.  Instead, concentrate on their best points.   As the Apostle Paul said, “Whatever is good, whatever is pure, whatever is honorable,” focus on that.

            Number four, how about speaking unkindly to and of others.  Instead, let our speech be generous and understanding.  Let’s check our sharp tongues at the door.

            Suggestion number five, how about giving up worries and anxieties as we prepare for Easter.  Instead, trust God with them.  Anxiety is spending emotional energy on something we can do nothing about.  Live for today and let God’s grace be sufficient.

            Number six, why not give up television one evening a week.  Instead, visit some lonely or sick person.  There are those who are isolated by illness or age.  Why isolate ourselves in front of the tube?

            Number seven, how about give up buying anything but essentials for yourself.  Instead, give the money to God.  The money we spend on luxuries could help someone meet their basic needs.  We are called to be stewards of God’s riches, not consumers.

            One thing not to give up, however, is our joining together at the Lord’s table.  Let’s do that now.  Let’s stand and sing.