Lent Week 1: Jesus in the Wilderness

lent04During this year’s Lenten season we are going to look at some key scenes from the Gospel of Mark that are part of Jesus’ journey to the cross.  Last week we started with Peter’s confession of Jesus as Christ.  This is the halfway point in Mark’s Gospel, and it marks a shift in emphasis where Mark is trying to bring out the fact that Jesus is headed to Jerusalem to die.

But before we can go forward, we must go back.

Today we look at Jesus’ journey into the wilderness at the beginning of his public ministry.  Here is how Mark renders it:

At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert, and he was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan.  He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.  (Mark 1:12-13)

For a more detailed rendering, we turn to Matthew:

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.  After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.  The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”

Then the devil took him to the holy city, and had him stand on the highest point of the temple.  “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down.  For it is written:

‘He will command his angels
concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their
hands,
so that you will not strike your foot
against a stone.’ ”

Jesus answered him, “It is also written: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.  “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan!  For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’ ”

Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.  (Matthew 4:1-11)

And to Luke:

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.  He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.

The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone.’ ”

The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.  And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to.  So if you worship me, it will all be yours.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’ ”

The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple.  “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here.  For it is written:

‘He will command his angels
concerning you
to guard you carefully;
they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot
against a stone.’ ”

Jesus answered, “It says: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”

When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.  (Luke 4:1-13)

This scene is the heart of what the Lenten season is all about.  In it we have Jesus in the desert for forty days.  During this time he fasted and was tempted by the devil.  The forty days of Lent correspond to the forty days of Jesus’ time in the desert.  While we don’t do an all-out fast for forty days, we identify with Jesus during this time by engaging in intentional spiritual practice which includes repentance, reflection, and in some Christian traditions, fasting on certain days.

There is a connection between the forty days Jesus spent in the desert, and the forty years Israel spent in the desert.  God provided bread for them throughout their time in the desert, but still they grumbled on numerous occasions, even wanting to go back to Egypt under the mistaken belief that they were better off as slaves there.  Contrast this with Jesus, who ate nothing during his forty days in the desert, and at no point grumbled against his Father.  When the devil first appeared to him, he tempted Jesus to turn stones into bread, in a sort-of reproduction of God’s providing bread for the Israelites in the desert.  But he wouldn’t do it.  He did not budge at any point in the process, though the temptations grew progressively more intense.

John Milton sees a contrast between Jesus and Adam.  Paradise was lost when Adam and Eve yielded to the devil’s temptation and ate the forbidden fruit.  Paradise Regained, the lesser known follow-up to Paradise Lost, looks at Jesus’ temptation in the desert.  This regained Paradise, because Jesus, the new Adam, succeeded where the old Adam failed by resisting the devil’s temptations.

Mark is very minimalist in his depiction of Jesus’ time in the desert, compared to Matthew and Luke.  The announcement of the kingdom of God is the decisive theme in the first half of Mark’s Gospel, and Mark wanted to get right to it.

In his brief account of Jesus’ time in the desert, Mark hits on the fact that he spent forty days there, he was tempted by Satan, he was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.  Mark’s Gospel was written to a community of believers who were undergoing heavy persecution.  As such, the fact that Jesus was with the wild animals, who were much more numerous in first-century Israel than today (Mark is the only Gospel writer who points this out), and that angels attended him and kept him safe, would have been highly significant.

One more point about the wild animals:  The Christian community Mark was writing to is believed to be in Rome and the surrounding area.  This observation would have had significance to a community that was seeing many of its number taken by Rome and fed to the lions.  Knowing that Jesus also spent time among the wild animals would have been huge for them.

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