The gospel writer Mark uses his initial words to move the reader very quickly into the story of Jesus. In 11 brief verses, we see Jesus in three critical settings. First, his baptism, revealing him as the anointed one of God, is the starting point of all. The third setting is the beginning of the rest of the story – Jesus emerging among the people to begin his ministry of proclaiming the Good News, living out and bringing to human kind the salvation of God.
But between these, Mark describes a second setting, one that flowed from the first and provided empowerment for the third. Immediately after his baptism, “the spirit drove him into the wilderness” – a separate place, far away from the hungry crowds that would follow him in the months ahead. This was the only place and the only sustained time he would have to wrestle with the forces that work against the will of God.
It wasn’t a choice for him to go there; it was a godly necessity. The Spirit drove him into the wilderness, not like a chauffeur in a limousine, but drove him like a cowboy prodding a steer. Before he could begin work as God’s beloved, Jesus had to face hard realities – he had to prepare for the test that would eventually ensure his obedience to God, even unto death.
The test involved beating down temptations to follow the ways of the world instead of the pathway to God, temptations to give in to the seductive powers that work against love and grace. Though alone, Jesus was comforted, in the form of angels, by the same Spirit that announced him as God’s beloved and that required his 40-day test in a dark place of ultimate danger.
And then there is this passage in today’s reading from Mark: “He was with the wild beasts.” This amplifies the difficulty of Jesus’ time in the wilderness and serves as a symbol of the strength of the temptations that confronted him. The Greek word used for “beasts” refers to animals with a brutal nature – not Isaiah’s image of lambs lying down with lions. Being tempted by Satan was as demanding as wild animals threatening to devour him.
St. Mark reveals a vivid scene, but with briefest description, leaving us to flesh out the details. Perhaps the image of the beasts can help us understand the lonely ordeal of Jesus’ experience. He had to face down the powers that would seek to prevent him from doing God’s will in his coming ministry.
Proof that Jesus defeated those powers – totally, completely and decisively – is found in the way he conducted himself after he left the place of temptation. Afterward, Jesus moved out among God’s people, loving them as God loves, teaching them about God, and finally proving that we are loved by God without condition, by his making us all worth dying for.
In responding to that gracious love, we find ourselves once more in Lent. As today’s collect reminds us, we, too, are “assaulted by many temptations.” We are called to dedicate ourselves in our “weaknesses” to face the same tests that Jesus confronted in his wilderness – but not alone, for we each can find God “mighty to save” us.
In our various kinds of wilderness experiences, we, too, struggle against the wild beasts of our times and our lives. When doing so, we can learn from Jesus. In the wilderness, he encountered all the evil that there is – because he found it in himself, in his own humanity. For in every human being lies the best of God and the worst of evil.
In the wilderness, the aim of the tempter was to move Jesus from faith in God to doubt. The forces that work against God also press us toward selfishness and away from love. Jesus resisted temptation by keeping himself connected to God. And that is exactly how we can resist the beasts of our lives, how we can overcome the evil that lurks within us and the sin that is a part of us, all that lingers in the midst of our humanity.
We resist, as Jesus did, by staying connected to God through the power of the scriptures and prayer and the sacraments, and through regular self-examination and confession, through repenting of our sin, accepting God’s forgiveness and leading renewed lives. By these means we defeat evil and overcome temptation.
Yes, we can defeat these beasts, as Jesus did, by staying connected to God. And we don’t do it alone. As the angels waited on Jesus in his wilderness experience, we are sustained by the Holy Spirit of God and through the aid of God’s beloved disciples in our midst, our brothers and sisters in Christ, who minister to us and help us face down the beasts of our lives as they face down theirs.
Just as Jesus’ time in the wilderness came after his baptism, so does ours, as our Christian formation continues to flow from that foundation.
Self-examination during Lent comes as essential reappraisal in the midst of our journeys in faith and takes form in our baptismal renunciations. As we promise at baptism, we commit to turning away from “all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God” that “corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.”
The beasts that we encounter in our wilderness reflect the power of evil that is real and active in our lives. If we dare become self-aware, we see it, hear it, feel it. It is a power that gets inside us and an influence that comes from outside of us – a force that draws us toward what is wrong. It is personal, because it deals with each of us as a person; deals with each of us individually in our darkest and most trying moments.
Evil can enter our lives when hard decisions need to be made, and we encounter it most strongly in those areas where we are weakest, in our desire to serve ourselves first, through greed, excessive pride, divisiveness and prejudice, gluttony of food and material possessions, the desire to control others, cowardice, faithlessness and many other forms of selfishness that draw us from the way of God.
Above all, the temptations we fight are destructive. Satan’s beasts find a way to poison and harm what is good and loving in the world and in our lives. The evil that works in us is our enemy, seeking to grab hold of us to work against God and against our brothers and sisters whom we hurt when we give in to such powers. The evil also works against us individually, eating us from the inside out, like a cancer.
The temptations that Jesus met in the wilderness are also our temptations, drawing us to a selfishness that prevents us from showing love and respect to others, pressing us to manipulate the world into the form that we want rather than that which God intends.
But the power of God’s love can help us resist the temptations and defeat the beasts that dwell among us. From our baptism, we gain the sign that marks us Christ’s own forever. Our success in resisting evil, turning from our sins into lives renewed in love, moves us beyond our time in the wilderness. And as recipients of the Good News Jesus proclaims, we are empowered by the reality of God’s kingdom that has come near, and can become a people, who, with God’s love, can transform the world.