First Sunday in Lent

Mark 1:9-15

I know some superstitious people. If we don’t want it to rain, you throw salt out the back door of your house. I know folks who won’t step on cracks in the sidewalk; I am not sure why. They will cross to the other side rather than step on a crack. It has been said that baseball players are some of the most superstitious people and will often go weeks, maybe months, doing things a certain way rather than breaking the streak. People believe in all sorts of strange things that have no explanation.

I am not a big believer in demons and all those other evil things we hear about in Scripture and from Evangelicals trying to get your money. Is there evil in the world? Yes. Is there a prime mover of that evil? I am not so sure. However, if there is a prime mover, the best candidate would be religion itself and its ability to frighten people with fantasy stories. We often make excuses like the devil made me do it rather than face reality.

Today, there is a much better understanding of mental illness than there ever was before, and what previously seemed like a possession of a spiritual nature turned out to be a mental illness of one kind or another. So no, I don’t believe in demonic possession and all that other rubbish. I don’t find that sort of talk helpful; I find it harmful.

We will be strolling through Mark’s Gospel for much of this liturgical year. Mark is the second of the four Gospels and is part of the synoptic tradition, meaning that much of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are shared and believed to have come from a common source. Mark follows the story of Jesus from His baptism by John, which we heard this morning, to his death, burial, and the discovery of the empty tomb.

Mark portrays Jesus as a teacher, healer, and miracle worker, although no mention of a miraculous birth or Jesus’ existence before time began. Mark refers to Jesus as the “Son of Man” and the “Son of God” but keeps the talk of Jesus being the Messiah a secret and even portrays the Apostles as not understanding the true nature of Jesus. Mark is just about the facts with very few embellishments.

Most scholars believe the Gospel was written by John Mark, a companion of Peter, and was written to a predominantly Gentile audience. Mark was written from Rome around 70 CE. It is held that Mark is the teaching and theology of Jesus as seen through the eyes of Peter, so in essence, this is Peter’s theological understanding.

Interestingly, the Gospels were not intended to be evangelical tools used to convert people to the faith. By and large, the intended audience of the Gospels was those who were already believers and were meant to strengthen their faith. The Gospels were considered too advanced for newbies who needed to start slowly and work up to the Gospels. The four Gospels, along with the others that did not make the cut, were written to different groups of people.

Mark’s Gospel is just about the facts with very few embellishments, and we see that clearly in the two stories we heard this morning.

We begin in the middle of things, “In those days,” what days? If we go back to the verses we skipped, we find an answer: Mark links John to the Prophets and their announcement of a messenger soon to come. Again, sticking just with the facts, we hear what John was wearing and what he ate, but we skip over the bit that he is related to Jesus. Maybe Mark did not know. Maybe Mark knew that Luke included it, so he did not have to. Maybe Mark did not know. Or perhaps he just did not care.

There is also no dialogue between Jesus and John. We read that Jesus came from Nazareth to be baptized by John, and that is it. No explanation as to why, just that he did. John’s words are not recorded, but we know that Jesus went under the water because Mark notes, “immediately, coming up from the water…” Again, just the facts.

But then Mark says the heaven parted, and the Spirit descends on Jesus as a dove. Hold on, what Spirit? Where did this Spirit come from? What is this Spirit deal? Mark assumes that those hearing this would already understand the Spirit and the Spirit’s role in all of this.

And here is the connection: today’s first reading from Genesis and my all-time favorite fairytale, Noah and his Ark. I am rather hard on ole Noah, and today’s bit of the story is an important one for this is the bit about covenant and the relationship between God and creation and God’s promise not to wipe out creation again no matter how many liberals are in a particular place when the hurricane comes.

Although God is cheesed off at humanity and decides to wipe it all away and start again, God promises never to do this again. Covenant is essential. At our baptism, specific promises were made by those bringing us and the community. Baptism is more than a ceremony we have so we can have a party. Baptism is an act of the community, so the community needs to be present.

The parents, or God’s parents, depending on the tradition, promise to bring the child up in the knowledge and love of God. We do not specify what that knowledge is, but it is assumed to be communal. Baptism is the sign of the covenant relationship and the public declaration that this child belongs to God. It is not a washing away of anything but rather an entrance into the community. As such, baptism can only be performed once, and any baptism using the words father, son, and Holy Spirit is considered valid. Baptism is one of two sacraments practiced by the churches in the reformed tradition.

In the Noah story, the dove is sent out to find land and eventually returns with an olive branch, a symbol of peace. At creation itself, the Spirit hovers over the water to bring calm to a place usually associated with death, but now, through baptism, brings new life in Christ. The Spirit is the third person of our Trinitarian theology and plays a significant, albeit quiet, role in everything. The Spirit is the most talked about and least understood part of Christian theology.

But the story does not end there.

Mark writes that after the Spirit descends, a voice is heard; we assume it is God because it says, “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” There is an important comparison to be made here. Last Sunday, we read Mark’s rendition of Transfiguration. After Jesus’ garments became sparkling clean, Mark writes that a voice came from heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son….” At the baptism, God was speaking directly to Jesus and for only Jesus to hear, “You are…” But at the Transfiguration, God directs his pronouncement to everyone, “This is…” It’s almost as if God is giving Jesus a little bit of encouragement before he starts his ministry.

But wait, there’s more!

Mark jammed a lot into a few verses, and we shifted from the scene of the Baptism to Jesus’ exile in the desert for 40 days. In contrast to the other Gospel writers, Mark says that the Spirit “immediately drove him into the desert.” The word “immediately appears more than 40 times in Mark’s Gospel, nearly all before Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Mark has a sense of urgency in his Gospel in the push toward Jerusalem and his mission to redeem the world.

Mark has very few facts about Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. Mark mentions the number of days he was there, who tempted him, Satan, that he was with the wild beats, and that the Angels ministered to him. There is nothing about stones into bread or Satan giving Jesus the whole world. Jesus briefly mentions Satan and then moves on.

So, let’s back up a little. “The Spirit drove him…” I think this is a bad translation that has led to much misunderstanding. Rather than “driving” Jesus to the wilderness, I prefer “compelled.” There is the same sense of urgency, but it portrays the Spirit as a gentle shepherd rather than an ogre forcing Jesus to do things.

God does not force us to do anything. God gave us the freedom to choose the direction we wish to go. Is there a divine plan, yes but only in broad strokes and not in detail, God let us fill in the detail. God calls us, but it is up to us to listen, and the Spirit helps guide us toward that decision.

When the Angel visited Mary to tell her that she was to be the mother of Jesus, Mary had a choice. God did not force the decision upon her; God asked. When Jesus called his Apostles, he did not force them. He called them and asked them to follow him. When Jesus sent them out, he told them to present the message, but if they did not listen, they should walk away. It was only when missionaries were sent to indigenous populations that Christians forced people to convert.

The other point is that God does NOT put temptations in our way. One of the worst translations is found in the Lord’s Prayer and the words, “lead us not into temptation…” A better understanding would be “protect us in the time of trial.” God does NOT “lead us into temptation.” God is always with us, including those times we find ourselves put to the test. Mark says that the Angels “ministered to him” during his time in the wilderness; the angels walked with Jesus just as God walks with us.

So, what is Satan, simply put us. We wrestle with our demons, whatever those might be. Some of those demons are external, and some are internal, but they are ours. Perhaps we inherited them through genetics; maybe they are caused by the environment, but they are ours to deal with. We deal with them with God’s help, but sometimes, we need help from others. Remember, the angels ministered to Jesus; Jesus did not go it alone, and neither did you.

Lent is a spiritual time in the wilderness. Jesus went to the wilderness to prepare himself for what was coming. Jesus knew the result, but I am not sure he knew the nitty gritty details of each day; things unfolded as they unfolded, and only the end was inevitable.

Lent is a time of spiritual preparation. We know the end of the story, but we still need to prepare. It is my hope that we spend more time in prayer and meditating on Scripture. Use this time to discern the big questions in your own life, or maybe you could be an angel that ministers to another who is wrestling with their demons. Whatever it is, take some time to slow down and just be, be still, and know God.


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