“Where the Wild Things Are”

Fred Craddock observes, “It is difficult to listen to a text when there are other texts in the room talking about the same subject matter, often in ways more elaborate and more familiar.”[1]

So, on this first Sunday of Lent, I invite you to try to block out Matthew and Luke’s elaborate accounts of Jesus’ temptation; to set aside the blow by blow accounts of his exchanges with Satan; to ignore stones that look like round loaves of bread and views from high places.


The disciples examine the fresh wounds on Jesus's body after the resurrection

Mark 1:12-15

February 21, 2021

Dr. Todd R. Wright


Fred Craddock observes, “It is difficult to listen to a text when there are other texts in the room talking about the same subject matter, often in ways more elaborate and more familiar.”[1]


So, on this first Sunday of Lent, I invite you to try to block out Matthew and Luke’s elaborate accounts of Jesus’ temptation; to set aside the blow by blow accounts of his exchanges with Satan; to ignore stones that look like round loaves of bread and views from high places.


Listen to Mark instead. His tale is just as confrontational, but in his version words are more scarce, descriptions are more sparse, and he includes far more space and silence.


In fact, you could convey his message with just a handful of words:


driven, wilderness, tempted, wild beasts, and angels.

 

To start, Jesus was driven by the Spirit from the River Jordan to where the wild things are. This same Spirit that had swooped down at his baptism, now shoves him away from the crowds, away from the comforts of home, away from any sense of safety.


As we enter this season of Lent, we have first-hand experience with being driven away from crowds and comfort and any sense of safety. But the idea that any of this is the Spirit’s doing would come as a surprise. Jesus might have been surprised too.


The Spirit dives Jesus to a spot well known to Israel – the wilderness. It is a place where God’s voice could be heard, a place where he could be tested, a place where he would have to rely on God’s protection, a place where God would provide


Do you need 40 days of quiet to heat whispers of the divine; a few weeks to be tested and refined; a stretch of time to nestle into God’s strong arms; a season to eat and drink what God offers and celebrate that it is enough and more than enough? Lent is such a time.


Every Lent begins with an account of Jesus’ temptation, but Mark is remarkably tight lipped about the nature of the test. Maybe because the devil’s blueprint for tempting and testing is unique to each of us. Or maybe because the whole rest of Mark’s gospel will show how Jesus responded. He refused to stray from the holy path or forget his calling, he stood up to spiritual and earthly powers; he defeated Satan’s flashiest weapons: demons and death.


And perhaps Mark does not need to spell out the details of Jesus’ temptation because we know the fine print of our own temptations so well. And so, each of us can sing the old hymn with feeling, “I want Jesus to walk with me … all along my pilgrim journey; in my trials; when my heart is almost breaking; when my head is bowed in sorrow … I want Jesus to walk with me.”[2] We can sing, but it offers only temporary relief. We can sing, but we still seem to be fighting the good fight with a solo. We can sing, but we seem to have brought a spork to a gunfight.


Which brings us to the end of his account: If you are going to enter a battle, you want the best weapons available, or at least the best allies. Mark mentions no weapons, but he does mention that Jesus was “with the wild beasts and the angels waited on him.” Neither are expected.


Angels seldom show up in Mark’s gospel. He mentions no angelic messenger service briefing Mary or Joseph, or inviting shepherds to the manger, or warning Magi to go home by another way. So when he says angels served Jesus for 40 days, we should pay attention.


Their presence did not speed the dragging time along or shield Jesus from the worst of the trials and temptations, but he did not go through them alone.


Apparently Mark thought that was important for his community to hear. They needed to know that when they were tired and hungry and surrounded by the equivalent of thorns and

scorpions, angels will show up, just as they did for Jesus.


One preacher mused “our angels probably [won’t] look like we think angels should. No white robes, no rustling wings. Instead they may resemble the middle-school teacher who believed in us when we couldn’t believe in ourselves; the coach who gave us the chance to play; the colleague who had your back during a rough time at work; or the friend who listened to your fears and grief after a relationship ended.”[3]


There were wild animals were there too. What role do they play?


I found myself thinking of Barry Lopez who passed away recently and his book Of Wolves and Men, which details his time with the wild beasts that occupy cautionary children’s tales. It begins, “I am in a small cabin outside Fairbanks, Alaska, as I write these words. The cold sits down like iron here, and the long hours of winter darkness cause us to leave a light on most of the day …. Traveling for hours cross-country you see only a few animal tracks. Perhaps a single hare. Once in a while the tracks of a moose. In the dead of winter hardly anything moves. It is hard to make a living. Yet the wolf eats, He hunts in darkness. And stays warm.”


One reviewer reflects, “In coming to terms with the difference between what we know and what we imagine about the wolf, Lopez has shed light on some painful truths about the human experience. By laying no blame, while facing the tragedy for what it is, he has made what we have done to the wolf, a source of new knowledge about man.”[4]


Maybe living with wild beasts like wolves[5] for 40 days taught Jesus about something about adapting to harsh environments and being misunderstood, about being celebrated and feared!


Mark does not gush for 300 pages on his subject like Lopez, but he does tell us what we need to know about Jesus: He was driven into the wilderness by the Spirit; he was tempted by Satan, he was with the wild beasts and angels waited on him.


That is enough for us to ponder; enough to reveal Jesus; enough to give us hope. Amen


[1] from his sermon “Test Run” in Christian Century, 2/22/03
[2] lyrics from the hymn “I want Jesus to walk with me”, number 775 in the Glory to God hymnal U
[3] from “Angels in the Wilderness” by Talitha Arnold 2/22/15
[4] from Whitley Strieber for the Washington Post, quoted in Lopez’s NY Times obituary, 12/26/20
[5] wolves do exist in Israel, see Making peace in the Golan Heights—between humans and wolves (nationalgeographic.com) from 4/11/19
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