February 21, 2021, Three Companions, Mark 1:9-13 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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In the Ash Wednesday service, just four days ago now, I read from the Book of Common Prayer, an invitation to the holy season of Lent. We know that the word “Lent” isn’t in the Bible, just like the words “Easter” and “Christmas” aren’t in the Bible. Actually, the word Lent comes from a word in Old English that just means “spring”. There’s no biblical mandate for observing Lent. There’s no Law hidden in the gospels commanding us to give up desserts. Paul didn’t write to Corinth or Ephesus to order them to make the Stations of the Cross every Friday. These are all practices established by the Church centuries after the death and resurrection of Jesus.
On the other hand, the Church didn’t just come up with the idea of Lent out of thin air, or in a brainstorming session in some early Church committee meeting. Like most other disciplines of the Church, Lent is rooted in the very life of our Lord. The model for Lent is the forty day period Jesus spent in the wilderness following his baptism by John. When Jesus came up out of the waters of the Jordan River, the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit rested on him, and the voice of the Father named him Beloved Son. That glorious event happened in full view of a multitude of people, and then Jesus was led out into the wilderness, where he fasted and prayed, and was put to the test, before he began his ministry. And the season of Lent, in its most basic sense, is our way of going along with him, of following Jesus out into the wilderness of testing and self-denial, and preparing ourselves for the work God has for us to do.
We’re in the second year of the three-year cycle of the Lectionary, and that means that this year we read about Jesus’ time in the wilderness as it was written down by Mark. And that means we get the “news in brief” version of the story, because Mark tends to be pretty concise. Matthew and Luke describe all three different temptations: what the devil said, and what he did, and what Jesus said in reply. Matthew and Luke tell us that Jesus didn’t eat or drink anything during his long time of testing, and that after forty days without food he was hungry. But Mark simply tells us this: “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”
When we read about Jesus’ time in the wilderness in Matthew and Luke, we can learn a lot from studying the wiles of the Devil in putting Jesus to the test, challenging him to doubt his identity, to doubt the goodness and faithfulness of God, tempting him to take things into his own hands. When I have preached about this time of testing, when I’ve heard sermons by other preachers about it, that’s generally what the focus is. But Mark, in all his simplicity, offers us a new perspective. Mark tells us that the Spirit brought Jesus out into the wilderness, where he had three companions: Satan, and the wild beasts, and the angels. And as we follow Jesus out into the wilderness this Lent, it seems to me we might expect to meet these same companions in the course of our time in the desert, as well.
The world’s conception of Satan is a little bit schizophrenic. Either we’re supposed to think of Satan as a being who wields immense, super-human power to terrify us, and to harm us, like the Devil of The Exorcist or Rosemary’s Baby. Or, on the other hand, we’re to imagine Satan as a sort of cartoon version of the Devil, with horns and hoofs and a tail, perched on somebody’s shoulder trying to make him do naughty things. He is either a being of paralyzing, unendurable fear, or he’s just kind of silly and vulgar. But the world misses the mark either way. In his testing, Jesus wrestles with serious temptation, with genuine self-doubt, not naughty thoughts. Even more, when Satan returns at an “opportune time” much later, as Jesus prays in the garden of Gethsemane, he sweats drops of blood in his wrestling against temptation. Temptation is serious, and it is hard. Satan deceives and Satan lies. But Satan is not an object of terror.
Jesus shows us that we have what we need to stand up to Satan’s attacks. In his time of testing, Jesus is not terrified, and he is not harmed. But he does face a real challenge, and he is in need of real weapons. The Word of God is his sword. His identity as the Son of God is his full-body armor. Patience is his shield. Jesus’s temptations are specific to his weaknesses and needs and desires. He is tempted to use his divine power for his own glorification. He is tempted to test the promises of the Father. He is tempted to grasp now what is rightfully his, instead of waiting on the Father’s timing.
Our temptations belong to our own individual weaknesses and needs and desires. Each of us faces our own challenges and trials. And in the quiet of the desert, as we take time away to be with God, the whispers of temptation sound so much louder. In the hunger of our fasting they attract us so much more forcefully. In our solitude, we are tempted to doubt the things we know for sure: the love of our friends, God’s promises, our identity as his child, as a person of value. But Jesus shows us that we have what we need to silence those voices. “Resist the devil,” James, the brother of Jesus wrote for us, “Resist him and he will turn tail and run away from you.”
The second companion of Jesus in the wilderness was actually a host of companions. In the wilderness of the ancient Near East, Jesus was in the company of lions and bears and wild pigs, among others. Near the rivers there would have been crocodiles. But Mark only mentions all these in passing. The temptations of the Devil were a matter of intense struggle, but the fierce beasts of the wilderness are barely mentioned. It seems like Jesus had no fear of them, that he didn’t have a reason to fear them. We have a host of wild beasts that accompany us in our Lenten journey this year as well: the pandemic, obviously, which has brought suffering and so many kinds of loss; financial insecurity and isolation; racial unrest; political division; increasingly erratic weather, like this strange severe cold in Texas. We are surrounded by all sorts of fearsome beasts in this Lent of 2021. But like Jesus, we have no need to fear these things.
And that is because our third companion is the company of God’s angels, his ministering spirits. They attended Jesus in his time in the wilderness. They watched over him. They ministered to his needs when he had come to the end of his struggles. They were the Presence of God with him even when he was alone in the wilderness. And that is true for us as well. We don’t begin this journey of Lent on our own strength; we don’t travel unprotected; we are not alone. The love of God is our companion in the way, as we pray in the collect for Evening Prayer. And the writer to the Hebrews tells us: “What are the angels, then? They are spirits who serve God and are sent by him to help those who are to receive salvation.”
When King David had to flee into the wilderness because his own son Absolom was out to kill him, he wrote this: “You, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head.
I lay down and sleep; I wake again, for the Lord sustains me. I will not be afraid of many thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around.” David was in the wilderness surrounded by wild beasts of all kinds, human and otherwise. But he knew that the angels of God were on every side, to keep him safe. And he understood the truth of what the apostle Paul wrote a thousand years later: “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” And that is our great comfort as well.
We don’t often think of Lent as a dangerous journey, or a journey at all, except in a vaguely metaphorical sense. We don’t generally consider our Lenten observances as especially momentous or important things. We try to faithfully observe our small acts of self-denial and our devotions, and mostly the world seems to continue on around us pretty much unchanged. But the truth is that our small wrestling, or what seems small to us, our daily wrestling with our impatience or our greed or our unforgiveness: these are battles with eternal consequences, because we are created for eternity.
Satan doesn’t tempt you to turn stones into bread. He doesn’t offer to give you all the kingdoms of the world. He takes a personalized approach. He gently reminds you of your old resentments. He inflames an old wound. He provides distractions when you try to read or pray. Or he suggests, just whispers, maybe, that you are unworthy or unimportant, that you are unforgiveable or unloveable or hopeless. He is the father of lies, after all. The hard work of Lent is not to avoid chocolate; it is to stop your ears and resist the whispers of the enemy with all your might. If you resist, he will flee. And the angels of God will be with you at all times to minister to you in your need.
Let us pray. Lord Jesus Christ, you call each one of us by name. You know our needs, and you know us better than we know ourselves. Strengthen us as we wrestle with our temptations. Guard us from all dangers. And surround us with your loving presence. Guide each of us in our Lenten pilgrimage this year, that we might listen for your voice and faithfully follow
where you lead. Amen.
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