Wild Beasts and Angels
By The Rev. Lorraine Diaz
Sunday, February 21, 2021
Reading: Mark 1:9-15
We have here this morning, in the passage Nupur just read from the gospel of Mark, one of the traditional scripture readings for the first Sunday of Lent, and it’s the passage dealing with the baptism of Jesus and his time of temptation in the Judean wilderness. The reason the Lenten season is 40 days long, of course, is because we remember (among other biblical events) Jesus’ forty days in the desert, when he was tempted by Satan; and despite the many trials he dealt with, he clung to the Word of God in order to rise above and overcome those trials.
During Lent, then, we take time to reflect on how often we ourselves fail to rise above many of the temptations that we face, and instead - all too often - yield to our questionable impulses. We lean into our need for God’s forgiveness and guidance for our lives, and we renew our commitment to God’s call on our lives.
Mark’s particular version of this event lacks some of the more colourful details that you might be familiar with if you’ve read Matthew’s version. Here, there is no mention of fasting and near starvation; there is nothing about the content of the temptations – to turn stones into bread; to throw Himself off the pinnacle of the temple in order to publicly prove that He is the Messiah; or the temptation to inherit the Kingdoms of earth by bowing down to Satan. Mark doesn’t even give us anything about the final outcome of this time in the wilderness. We just have to assume it turned out well, or the remaining 15 chapters would never have been written and we’d have a very abrupt ending! What Mark’s account lacks in detail, though, it makes up for in its urgency to give us a sense of Jesus’ identity and mission.
The Gospel of Mark does not begin with a birth story; there are no shepherds or angels or wise men. The first 8 verses of the gospel are about John the Baptist preparing the way for the one who is to come. He announces that the Messiah is coming… and then Jesus is here… and God anoints him His Son, and calls him the Beloved One. There is no song and dance, as in Luke; there is no cryptic mysticism, as in John; there isn’t a long list of “begots,” as in Matthew…Mark is a straight-shootin’ kind of gospel writer, and he just gets to the point.
But, just because Mark is light on details doesn’t mean he is light on significance. Mark is a very rich gospel, in fact. The first few verses of Mark offer us a picture: it’s a picture of a man who goes from what seems like complete anonymity in one moment, to the height of glory in the next, and finally to the pain of total isolation and adversity at the end of the gospel. It’s the kind of plot that might make for a great Hollywood movie!
So, here we see a seemingly ordinary and unknown man, a “blue collar worker,” so to speak, from a small rural town far from the nation’s cultural and political hub. He doesn’t wear fine clothes, or expensive jewellery; in fact there is absolutely nothing that would set him apart from the crowds of ordinary people who were gathered there by the Jordan River, waiting to be baptized by John. Then this man rose from the water like all of the men before him - only this time something extraordinary happens. The heavens open, and the voice of the Holy Spirit sounds in his ears, and in one instant Jesus suddenly has a profound understanding that the time has come for Him to do what he came to earth to do.
With this revelation, though, the Holy Spirit sends him, not out into the community or back home or over to the synagogue. It’s not a comforting moment, or the moment of elation that we might expect. No, he’s driven out into the desert, with no other human beings, where he is alone and tormented.
It seems strange to us. We’re more used to stories where a dramatic moment like this would drive the hero to greater determination for achieving success and glory. But this isn’t the way it is with Jesus. There, in the wilderness, He finds himself – not basking in the glow of His incredible spiritual experience – but under attack, feeling alone, and struggling, with wild beasts who could devour him.
So, this is not like a Hollywood movie after all – in fact, it seems much more like our lives. There is no Hollywood ending to this narrative. Just like us, Jesus faces peaks and valleys, He faces adversity and uncertainty – “wild beasts,” so to speak – just at the very moment when he had experienced a new sense of the urgency about the purpose for his life.
For those who answer the call of God; for those who follow the way of Jesus, there will be temptations; there may be “wild beasts.” For Jesus, call and commission meant conflict, and “beloved son” meant struggle. There are blessings, but they come with responsibilities. After the high point of “You are my Son, whom I love,” comes the dark valley of “tempted by Satan in the desert.”
Although the details are unique in Jesus’ case, this passage presents a picture of a very common experience for people, especially for followers of Jesus. It is that “AHA!” moment, the beginning moment of a whole new understanding of life, where so much suddenly becomes clearer to us, and we feel a new energy, a new sense of purpose and a renewed excitement for life.
But these times of resolution, of acceptance and new-found purpose, of setting out on a great mission, are almost inevitably followed by times of testing. This is the reality of Christian discipleship. A life of true discipleship, when we dedicate our lives to following Christ, often begins with a lift, a sense of determination, and a rebirth into a new life.
But then, almost immediately, there can come a time of doubt and wonder. “Am I really on the right track, or have I just gone off the deep end?” Once the emotional high gives way to day-to-day life with all its problems, a nagging little thought inside our head says, “This Christian life isn’t quite what you expected it to be, is it?” We are tempted to abandon the course, and who can resist when it seems like the whole world sees things differently from the way God seems to see things; it seems we’re all alone in our Christian convictions. We can feel this kind of pressure especially if we work in a highly competitive work environment; young people experience this kind of pressure very strongly in high school or university settings.
Adversity is an unavoidable part of the Christian journey, and in the Bible it is actually shown to be a necessary part of our spiritual growth. We do not usually grow stronger in our faith during times of ease and rest, but during times of trial when we are forced to truly exercise our faith. All of Christ’s apostles faced tremendous challenges and had to decide whether to continue following Him or return to their old life. Our faith becomes stronger when we face trials and then experience for ourselves God’s promise of faithfulness; when we face the wild beasts and experience the angels coming to our aid. As the saying goes: in order to realize the worth of an anchor, you need to feel the stress of the storm.
There is a classic book in the Christian tradition called “The Imitation of Christ,” by Thomas a Kempis, a German monk who lived during the late Middle Ages or early Renaissance Era, depending on whose dating you follow; and when I read this book a few years ago, one of the greatest insights I gleaned was this: he writes, “Your tardiness in turning to prayer is the greatest obstacle to heavenly consolation, for before you pray earnestly to Me you first seek many comforts and take pleasure in outward things.” [Repeat] I can relate to that. Often when I have a problem, I think about solving it well before I think about praying about it.
Often, we turn to God in prayer as a last resort, when we have exhausted all of our other options. “All we can do now is pray.” Now, don’t get me wrong: it’s still a good idea to turn to God in prayer even then, but we are much farther ahead if we turn to God as our first resort. Even Jesus had God’s angels ministering to him when he was facing down wild beasts, so why wouldn’t we need that? God has promised to always help us in our times of adversity, and we make everything easier on ourselves if we make prayer our first resort instead of last.
Adversity in the wildernesses of our lives takes the shape of many different wild beasts: it may come in the form of colleagues, who may take offense at our Christian values, or ridicule them; it may be that when we identify ourselves as Christians, suddenly people think we’re crazy, at worst, or soft at best – definitely too soft to be competitive in a high-powered world!
Adversity may come from family members or friends who don’t want us to change, or who observe in us new behaviours, new attitudes, or a new ways of thinking, and mutter amongst themselves, “who does she think she is?”
Adversity may even come from within our own selves: because of self-consciousness or low self-esteem, we don’t recognize this dedicated, Christ-centred person as ourselves, when actually what we are when we’re living in the very centre of God’s will is the very best version of ourselves!
This morning’s passage captures the inevitability of adversity on the Christian journey. If Jesus Himself faced adversity, why wouldn’t we? But the text also shows us God’s promise to us when we face adversity. Although we have a sense of Jesus’ human feelings of isolation, it is very clear in this passage that Jesus is not, at any point, alone. Satan and the wild beasts are with him, but – more importantly - so are God’s angels, and they are ministering to him, caring for him, nurturing him, strengthening and encouraging him. And he knows they are there for him, and he draws on them for strength because theirs is the strength of the almighty God of the Universe.
God’s promise to us as Christians is not a life free of adversity. God’s promise is that we can turn to Him in our times of adversity, and trust in Him to give us strength and courage to get through them. We don’t have a life that is free of wild beasts, but we have angels to minister to us, to help us face the wild beasts with courage and faith.
Thomas a Kempis – who I referred to earlier – suggests that adversity is something we should welcome on our Christian journey (even though it’s counter-intuitive) because of the great spiritual benefits we receive in these times in our lives. I don’t think we need to muster up a false sense of joy about times of trial – that can often verge on living in an unhealthy state of denial. But I do agree that seeing our times of trial as helpful to our spiritual growth can help us to get through them; and so maybe we shouldn’t seek to avoid the discomfort of trials at all costs, but rather use them as opportunities to grow closer to God.
I want you to consider for a moment one of my favourite stories. I’ve shared it so many times with so many people, and I’m actually not convinced that all of the details hold water, but I love the story anyway, and it does sound plausible and it’s a great illustration.
The story goes that, while codfish are a big commercial business on the east coast, growth in public demand for codfish a few decades ago in places far from the eastern shoreline posed a problem for shippers. At first some tried to flash freeze the cod and then ship them elsewhere, but the freeze took away too much of the flavour.
So they experimented with shipping them alive, in big tanks of seawater, but that proved even worse. Not only was it way more expensive, the cod still lost its flavour, and in addition the texture became soft and mushy.
Finally, some creative person solved the problem in the most innovative manner: the codfish were placed in the tank of seawater, along with their natural enemy - a saltwater breed of catfish. And the story goes that from the time the cod left the coast until it arrived at its destination, those ornery catfish chased the cod all over the tank. And, as you can guess, when the cod arrived at the market, they were as fresh as when they were first caught…no loss of flavour, no mushy texture. If anything, it was even better than before!
On the Christian journey, we may feel sometimes like we’re a lonely cod in a tank full of catfish; but without adversity, we would become just soft and mushy Christians, with no flavour. There will be adversity on the Christian journey, and God will minister to us in the midst of it, and will use that adversity, so that we may become stronger in our faith, and that we may learn to trust God completely.
We can trust God because of his promises, and in this scripture passage we are shown a God who always fulfills his promises. Just as God sent angels to attend to Jesus in his time of trial, God cares for us and gives us strength when we are tempted to abandon our call to Christian living and mission. God has given us a community of fellow believers who share our faith, and who become angels to us, encouraging us and reminding us of God’s promises. God has promised to always be with us, and not only be with us, he has promised to give us all that we need to face our trials and come out even stronger than before. Thanks be to God. Amen.