Lent 1 / Year B
Every day on his way home from school little Billy passed a porta potty and every day he wrestled with the temptation to tip it over. And every day Billy managed to fight off the urge and resisted giving in to an action he knew to be wrong and might land him in deep… trouble. Then one day he learned the story of George Washington and cherry tree; about how George avoided being punished by telling the truth. Well, that very afternoon, as he approached the porta potty, the temptation became overwhelming and, reasoning if he got caught all he had to do was tell the truth, Billy gave the thing a shove and over it went. Later in the afternoon, when Billy got home, his father confronted him, “Do you know anything about a porta potty being pushed over?” “I cannot tell a lie,” Billy responded, “I did it.” And with that confession Billy’s father gave him the trashing of a lifetime. When it was over, a sore and crying Billy wept, “I don’t understand. George Washington owned up to chopping down the cherry tree and nothing happened to him.” “That may be true,” Billy’s father replied, “But then again, George’s father was not in the cherry tree when it got chopped down!”
Just as the Last Sunday after the Epiphany always focuses on the Transfiguration, so too the First Sunday in Lent always tells the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke each contain an account of this event, with Matthew’s and Luke’s being very similar. They tell us Jesus fasts for forty days, after which he is famished. This is when the temptations begin. “If you are the Son of God…” Satan says, “Turn stone into bread… through yourself off the pinnacle of the Temple… bow down before me…” Jesus refutes each temptation by quoting Scripture; eventually telling Satan, “Hit the road Jack, and don’t you come back no more, no more, no more” (or something like that!).
Mark’s version, which is written before the other two, differs greatly. All three agree on the length of time Jesus is in the wilderness. All three agree the temptation takes place soon after Jesus is baptized. In fact, Mark says Holy Spirit possess Jesus and drives him out into the wilderness. The verb translated here as drives out is the same verb used to describe how Jesus commands an unclean spirit to leave a person. It implies force, as when a bouncier hurls a person out of a bar. But Mark does not mention fasting and hunger. Neither does he include any of the dialogue between Jesus and Satan nor does he describe any specific temptation. And rather than having the temptation begin at the end of the forty days, in Mark it is ongoing throughout the experience.
Two things stand out about Mark’s telling of the Temptation. The first is its brevity. Matthew needs eleven verses and 208 words to tell the story. Not to be outdone, Luke requires twelve verses and 264 words. Mark gets the job done in just two verses, using only 33 words.
The second is the curious mention of wild beasts and ministering angels. Scholars debate the meaning of the wild animals. One school of thought holds they foreshadow a restored creation, a new Eden, the promised peaceable kingdom to come. Another school states the beasts have not been made safe, but rather have been restricted; representing God’s promise of protection and safety in the midst of a very dangerous world. One view represents a complete transformation while the other suggests supernatural restraint. Either way, wherever Jesus goes shalom – peace – goes with him, as does nurture and care. The ministry of the angels is suggestive of the many and manifold ways God provides the succor we need to make it through difficult times.
So, as Mark tells the story, three things are constant throughout the forty days Jesus is in the wilderness: temptation, peace, and tender care. And, when Jesus leaves the wilderness, these three things go with him throughout his ministry. He will be tempted by those who misunderstand who he is and what the nature of his ministry is to be. Time and again he will bring peace to chaotic situations and tormented souls. And his heart will be moved to heal the sick, raise the dead, feed the hungry, and teach those desperate for a shepherd and guide.
As we enter Lent 2021 I am keenly aware how these three themes are prominent in our life and time. Ever-present temptation. I feel it in what over the last few weeks I have described as being freed from and being freed for. In these times, with its relative inactivity (at least in my case) or relative overload (what many parents experience as work and home and school have blended into one seamless environment, becoming something akin to an over-crowded goldfish bowl), it is easy to lose track of what we are freed for (our highest calling and deepest purpose) and to succumb to what we have been freed from (that which has the power to dominate and demean us and those we love).
And it is completely understandable why we live in fear and anxiety. We live and move and have our being in the midst of some very wild beasts: the Covid virus and its new variants, economic and employment uncertainty, increasing disruption and destruction brought on by “once in a life-time” weather events, a lingering darkness in our civic life… need I go on. Given all of this, how might we experience the shalom felt by so many from the past who have been steeped in our Christian tradition?
The 14th century figure Julian of Norwich came through a near-death experience, perhaps from being afflicted with the black plague. Paralyzed to the extend she could barely move her eyelids, her situation was so dire a priest administered last rites to her. During this time of extreme duress, she experienced a serious of sixteen visions which, once recovered, she published in a book titled Revelations of Divine Love. In one passage Julian writes this:
Is this the end? Where is the hope and peace in our particular trials and in the trials that entangle the world? And for the tender love that our good Lord has to all that shall be saved, He comforts readily and sweetly, signifying thus: …all shall be well, and all shall be well, in all manner of things all shall be well.
We began our covid journey last Lent and, in hindsight, would gladly have had it last forty days. We are now a little past 40 weeks, and it is possible we could be looking at something closer to 40 months. Still, I have a growing sense in all manner of things all will be well. The wild beasts are being held at bay.
And angels are ministering to us. How else can we even begin to describe all the things we did not need or even know existed a year ago now supporting and sustaining us during these times? We have a new appreciation for healthcare workers, grocery store employees, and teachers. We have become adept at technology unthinkable just a few years ago. We have found new ways to care for others and have received the grace to allow others to care for us. And we are finding the roots of our faith run deep enough to tap into spiritual resources we never drew on before. It is all so amazing and so completely beyond anything I would have imaged possible when this all began. Truly, angels (of all kinds) are ministering to us.
So once again we begin our Lenten journey reflecting on Jesus’ experience of temptation and see in it elements of our own experience. May God be with you to see you safely through and may you know the comfort God readily provides to each of us.