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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Lent 02/18/2018

It’s taken us six weeks to move from Mark, chapter one, verse 11 to Mark, chapter one, verse 12. Verse 11 and the preceding verses that are repeated today are about Jesus’ baptism and Mark, along with Matthew and Luke, immediately follows that story with the story of Jesus’ forty day temptation in the wilderness. The lectionary however, takes care of other business for awhile, saving the temptation story until today, the First Sunday in Lent as Lent is a time for us to consider the ways that we are tempted…plus there’s the forty day connection.

Mark’s account is the shortest of the three temptation stories; it’s Matthew and Luke who build some drama, having Satan present three specific temptations, each of which Jesus resists with a quotation from Scripture. Mark chooses to simply identify the location of the temptations, the wilderness, the length of the temptations, forty days, and the identity of the tempter, Satan.

For all of them though, the point isn’t to provide a blow by blow account of what happened. The truth of the story is that Jesus was tempted. Did he actually undertake a forty day wilderness retreat following his baptism and before the formal beginning of his ministry? It’s quite possible; there are many biblical references to Jesus going off by himself to pray, so he did that kind of thing. On the other hand, rather than describing one such event it could be more of a literary composite of several events with the wilderness being understood as the kind of desolate place where one might go and also a place where evil spirits like Satan would be present. Either way, as a single event or as a composite the point the gospel writers want to make clear is that in his humanity, emptied of his divinity, all along the way, Jesus was tempted, tempted to stray from the path God had chosen for him and instead to be the kind of messiah that others wanted him to be.

Mark’s telling of the temptation story does lack the details of Matthew and Luke. However, we do well to pay attention to the details he does include, in this case the odd detail that Jesus was with the wild beasts and also that the angels ministered to him. It seems kind of strange that those details were included but there may be a reason. At the time Mark was written there were other Jewish legends circulating, specifically one called The Life of Adam and Eve. In it, Adam is said to have been tempted in the garden where he lived in harmony with the animals and the angels. He resisted, but Eve is said to have been tempted while the angels were away and without their support, she did give in. Adam then did penance standing in the Jordan River for forty days while the angels interceded for him: “All the angels and all the creatures of God surrounded Adam as a wall around him, weeping and praying to God on behalf of Adam.”

The similarity of the animal and angel imagery at least raises the possibility that Mark was influenced by this other text as he too mentions wild beasts and angels, thus conjuring up images of Eden and Paradise and also portraying Christ as a new Adam, a stronger Adam. The apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans which was written earlier than Mark, makes a similar Adam/Christ comparison so he too might have been familiar with other writings that were out there. There’s also a reminder here of Isaiah’s vision of the coming of one who will bring about a return to the peace of paradise: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid.”

It would seem that Mark is intentional in placing Jesus in the wilderness, overcoming the evil forces that reside there, resisting temptation and restoring a garden like quality to life; Jesus is at peace with nature, surrounded by animals with angels at his service. So while the story is about Jesus being tempted, Mark uses it to make a larger theological statement of the gospel being about of all creation being restored in and through Jesus.

Placed as it is at the beginning of Lent though, besides any larger theological statements, at a more basic level Jesus’ temptation is intended to call us to think about the ways we are tempted. Ash Wednesday marked the beginning of that kind of reflection but it’s not just a one day thing. The theme continues, especially on this First Sunday in Lent. What we find of course, is that even if we’re brave enough to identify that which tempts us, we know we are not as successful as Jesus in resisting such temptation.

At that point though, our Lutheran theology kicks in and we remember that such honesty about ourselves ought not be a source of despair so that we give up the fight to resist, but instead it reminds us of God’s grace and forgiveness. It’s grace and forgiveness that encourages and enables us to continue the fight, to get up and try again when we fail. That was Luther’s greatest insight and it’s one that can’t be proclaimed too often: even at those times when we honestly acknowledge that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves, it’s not a God of wrath that we encounter, it’s a God of grace, a God we see through Jesus.

Today’s psalm, Psalm 25 is a reminder that we aren’t the first ones to engage this struggle. It’s another good psalm for Lent. “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. My God, I put my trust in you; let me not be put to shame, nor let my enemies triumph over me.” In the original context of the psalm it may well have been human enemies that the psalmist was concerned about but enemies can also be those temptations that afflict us and get the best of us.

Either way, like us, the psalmist knows that help is needed, that he or she alone does not have the resources to defeat these enemies but is dependent on the grace and intervention of God. Those words we have encountered before show up again: mercy, steadfast love, faithfulness. “Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love…all the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness.”

These are the words that ancient Israel most often used to describe God. They are words they depended on, and they are all words of grace, words that reminded them not only that God was able to help, but wanted to help. For them, grace, along with trust that divine help was available, was their starting point especially when there was the feeling that sinfulness and a broken relationship with God was the cause of distress, making them feel like their enemies were winning. All of that is reflected in Psalm 25.

Especially as Lutherans, grace is also the starting point for us. We too trust in the divine help of God’s grace and Lent then is about our response, our cooperation with that grace making Psalm 25 is a good Lenten prayer for us too. It’s a reminder that we’re not alone in the struggle against the enemies that tempt us. In faith, we trust that God can and will help us. That is the faith of Psalm 25.

It also brings me back to Mark’s detail about the angels being with Jesus in the wilderness. I checked and found out it was six years ago on the First Sunday in Lent that I preached about angels; some of you might remember. What I found then was that most of you believed in angels and even if you weren’t so sure, you wanted to believe. That’s good; but in a post-Enlightenment, rational, scientific world, the mention of angels can still provoke skepticism. Consider though, that for ancient people, angels represented and evoked the mystery and wonder of God’s presence in the world. They figure prominently in the stories and songs of the early church and in addition to evoking God’s presence they were also seen agents of stability and purpose at times that seemed to be lacking stability and purpose.

But angels don’t fit in our rational world even though the issues of stability and purpose are no better now, worse if anything. As a culture though, we’re dismissive of anything that seems irrational or unreasonable, thus leaving human intellect as the pinnacle of creation and that would mean that we’re on our own thinking we can answer the ultimate questions ourselves. I would say that there’s a lot of evidence that says we’re not doing a very good job. The stories that could lead us to truth are being rejected and forgotten.

To those who are skeptical, I say let the angels back into your world. Let the wonder of God’s presence back into your world. Let the witness of those who have been filled with God’s presence back into your world. Like Jesus, we are tempted, by many things. Like the psalmist, we have enemies that threaten to overwhelm us. So let the angels and the divine power they represent back in. They waited on Jesus and they will wait on us.

Rev. Warren Geier
 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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