Through the Wilderness


Text: Mark 1:9-15
Date: Lent I + 2/18/18
Today’s Gospel from Mark chapter one begins by summarizing the entire season of Epiphany in order to deliver us into the season of Lent. In Marks’ Gospel the Epiphany, manifestation or shining forth of Jesus as the promised Messiah began with His baptism. These words of the voice from heaven also closed the season at the Transfiguration of Our Lord, “This is my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.” We even heard the final part of today’s Gospel describing the beginning of Jesus active ministry of preaching, teaching and healing. What was skipped over in Epiphany, however, were these short words of verses 12 and 13 recalling our Lord’s first work, His temptation by the devil.
Recall that we have said Mark assumes that you have heard or read the many details he leaves out recorded by the other evangelists Matthew and Luke. Not that those details are unimportant. But St. Mark and St. Peter looking over his shoulder draw a deeper significance. He emphasizes the wilderness, the forty days, the temptation by Satan and then adds the seemingly strange detail of being with the wild animals. This makes us ask how was Jesus “with the wild animals”? Was He in danger from them also?
In the account of the temptation of our Lord we today are to consider the reality of our own temptations by the devil and the hope and even victory we have because of Jesus.
Mark begins, “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” It was the will of God that Jesus’ first battle be directly against the devil, “the old evil foe” as Martin Luther calls him in his famous hymn. For having first won authority over the devil, from then on, though he will stalk Jesus all the way to the cross, he will not be allowed to thwart our Lord’s purpose, plan and goal.
In Matthew and Luke Jesus’ temptation demonstrates the power of God’s Word. Each temptation is countered by reference to the holy scriptures, saying, “It is written….” Mark’s gospel, on the other hand pictures this as Jesus being the new Israel. The wilderness of Jesus’ temptation recalls the wilderness wandering of Israel on their way to the promised land. The forty days of Jesus’ temptation recall the forty years of Israel’s trials and their temptations.
Time and again the people of Israel were tempted to give up and not only that but also to gripe, whine and complain against God and Moses. Recall just a few of their words from Exodus chapters 15 through 17. Three days into the wilderness called Shur and finding no water, “the people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’” (Ex 15:24). They blamed Moses for their thirst.
Again in the wilderness called Sin, “the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and the people of Israel said to them, ‘Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger’” (Ex 16:1-2). They blamed Moses and Aaron for their hunger.
And again, when they moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, they camped at Rephidim, “but there was no water for the people to drink.” So, once again “the people quarreled with Moses and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’” Now they really began to get on Moses’ nerves and drew even him into their temptation of grumbling and complaining. “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” “But the people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?’ So Moses cried to the Lord, ‘What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me’” (Ex 17:1-4).
“Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’” writes James in today’s Epistle. Yet how often do you hear the question, “What have I done to deserve this?” implying some retaliation or punishment from God. “God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.” God cannot be tempted with evil? Yet the Bible clearly says Jesus was tempted by Satan. And Jesus is God.
But what of the temptations of our Lord? Could Jesus have sinned? We heard James suggest three stages which we confess as sin by thought, word and deed. First is the tempting thought or desire. Then when put into action it gives birth to actual sin. And sin finally brings forth death. Jesus was tempted. However, being the beloved Son of the Father, being God Himself, Jesus could not sin. Nevertheless, He would die the death of our sins for us. So if Jesus could not have sinned the temptation only shows the ignorance and madness of the devil.
Now, as for the wild animals and the angels, St. Mark could have had in mind how the Old Testament refers to even the animals and nature reflecting both the fall into sin and the hope of redemption.
Isaiah speaks of the wild beasts and the hope of salvation, saying, “No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on [the highway]; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there” (Is 35:9). Again, the promise “will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild beasts will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches” (Is 43:19-20). It was after the temptation, says Mark, that “he was with the wild animals,” “with them” much as Jesus has come to be Emmanuel, God with us for our deliverance and salvation.
Matthew and Luke tell us that the devil even tried to use God’s Word from Psalm 91 as part of his temptation, craftily leaving out certain words, “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways” (Ps 91:11). Even in that Psalm wild animals are mentioned, “You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.”
Finally, Psalm 91 even points to the ultimate triumph of those who take refuge in God and trust in Him, saying, “Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name. When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him. With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation” (Ps 91:14-16).
On this day, therefore, we thank God for our Lord’s victory and deliverance of the world demonstrated in His triumph over temptation. Now He comes to us enabling us to resist temptation and live with the hope of our final deliverance through Jesus Christ our Lord.