Life is full of contrasts sometimes you feel lifted up and sometimes you feel letdown. Sometimes you feel good and sometimes not so much. There are days of joy and days of grief. It is something we all know because it is something we’ve all been through. Our readings for this first Sunday in Lent are full of contrasts too: the spirit of Good versus the spirit of evil, blessings in the face of trials, being tested to receive the crown of life, good news only after bad, the gift of a son and the need to give him up, a public endorsement on the banks of the Jordan followed by lonely temptations in the harsh wilderness. It is the truth of life in this world.
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” 12The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.
Jesus’ Baptism is something we have already covered at the beginning of Epiphany, but it is important in this context to hear it again. This is as much for Jesus as it is for us. In Mark’s own graphically sparse way, he shows us the power of this event. Seemingly out of nowhere a man comes to John, and like teeming masses before Him is baptized. But no sooner has He stepped up out of the river, water still streaming down His sides, than the very Heavens are torn apart and the Holy Spirit descends!
Mark gives us no words from the crowds, no dialogue between Jesus and John, just the powerful visuals which tell the important story. This man is marked by God. This one bears the Spirit of God, the authority and favour of God. This man, out of all other men, is set apart by God for mighty things. He is lifted up before the world, even as He comes up out of the waters.
It is much like what happens to us in our own Baptisms. What words can suffice to describe the opening of heaven to a sinner washed clean. The Holy Spirit flowing into the heart even as the water flows over the brow. The exchange of our life for His, our sin for His glory. It is that time and that place where God singles each one out of all the others and says to the world “This one … this one is mine! This one will do mighty things by my Spirit in them. This one stands before me as one set apart and approved!”
And being set apart by the Holy Spirit is what literally next happens to Jesus. Again, in no-nonsense language we are told that before His clothes have even had time to dry that Holy Spirit is driving Jesus, compelling Him, to leave the crowds and the hub-bub of the river behind and make His lonely way into the wilderness. It is not that Jesus was forced against His will, or that he was reluctant to go. Rather the opposite, no reluctance, no hesitation, no procrastination. He not only wants to do this so He can save us … He can’t wait to save us! As one who is baptized, He has important work to do. Work that will not wait! And what is that mighty and important work?
13And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.
Again, in a beautiful economy of words Mark paints a vivid picture of what it means for Jesus to be our Saviour. And it is a real letdown compared to the uplifting event only moments before. His wilderness situation is a three-fold trial. Continual temptation by the devil. Alone with the wild animals. And only when all is said and done, ministered to by the angels.
Were the wild animals a danger to Jesus in His solitude? Are they meant simply to show how far removed from people and earthly support He is? Or are they meant to show the beginning of the undoing of all that sin has separated? In that wilderness is the second Adam restoring the paradise that one belonged to the first? Man and animal no longer the hunter and hunted, the predator and the prey. No one was there with Him so no one but Him knows for sure. One thing is for sure … there is one dangerous beast lying in wait to ambush Jesus in His vulnerable state. The old poisonous serpent.
Mark doesn’t tell us what the temptations of the devil are. He doesn’t need to. All temptation is basically the same … a desire to take short-cuts. To find the fast and easy way instead of the painful and disgraceful way of the cross. And even though Jesus is God in Human flesh the temptation is real, and the danger actual. The angels were not sent to help Jesus in His temptation, only after it. Jesus could have asked the Father for the help of legions of angels. But He did not. He was tempted and suffered all alone, in our stead. The temptation you know is what He knew. But this one, lifted up by God His Father did not let us down. The Temptation of Jesus is a great comfort for us. He was tempted IN ALL THINGS JUST AS WE ARE TEMPTED but He didn’t give in. He was without sin. What a comfort!
It is the only news Good News for those facing temptation as each of us is so often driven into unrelenting wildernesses by our own weak spirit. Every one of us is more than willing to take that promised easy path. All the temptation you face in this life is basically the same desire to take short-cuts. To find the fast and easy way instead of the painful and disgraceful way of the cross – the way laid out for you in your Baptism.
And you know it is true because the number one complaint of very single person who ever lived – you and me included – is that God won’t take the difficulties away. That He won’t keep the beasts at bay. That He won’t make it easy and safe. He does something much better instead, He sent His Son to walk through the wilderness haunts by our side, helping us face every temptation and trial in our every time of need. He will lift us up for the letdown, granting us faith in His ever-present help to face each and every bleak and terrible day before us, until only good and glorious days remain.
14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
As our reading began on a high note, so does it end. There is glory for Jesus (and us) but first must come the suffering and pain and humiliation. Consider that The Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness to face the tempter and the angels are standing ready to minister to Him when His task is done … this all has God’s full knowledge and approval. It is what will bring us salvation and Him all glory.
The sinless Son of God took your place when He was actually and severely tempted by satan for forty days. The sinless Son of God took your place when He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. The sinless Son of God took your place when He laid down His life and took it again. He suffered for our salvation. He was tempted for our triumph. He was baptized for our eternal blessing. According to the plan of the Father, the urging of the Spirit and the dictates of His own heart He was letdown so that we can be lifted up.
And that is our victory in Jesus. The spirit of Good will always defeat the spirit of evil. God’s greatest blessings are regularly found in the face of even the worst of trials. Even as we are being tested, even to the point of death, we have already been promised to receive the crown of life. Good news comes after bad, for the kingdom of God always rises with the Son. For the gift of God’s Son was given us to be given up on the cross. The Lamb of God waiting in the wilderness thicket to give up His life for the children of the promise. May this truth drive you to God as His love drove Jesus out there for you. And in this knowledge may you be lifted up to face every letdown life will throw at you.