Author: Kersten, Phyllis
Date published: February 22, 2012
Sunday, February 26
I'VE BEEN TRYING to imagine how Jesus felt right after his baptism. The heavens were torn open, the Spirit of God alighted on him in the form of a dove, and that voice from heaven declared, "You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased."
Whatever Jesus was feeling, he didn't have long to enjoy it. "And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness," Mark says. The Spirit didn't drive him in an SUV, we suspect, or even in a Prius. Matthew and Luke soften the verb; they say the Spirit of God "led" Jesus into the wilderness. There is no such gentleness in Mark. Jesus is expelled into the wilderness- so much for being God's beloved son.
While Matthew and Luke tell us about three tempting offers that Satan dangles before Jesus' eyes, Mark sums up Jesus' entire experience in one sentence: "He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him." What can we possibly find in Mark's terse temptation account to help us in our wilderness wanderings, those times we have trouble hearing or trusting that baptismal voice that calls us God's "beloved"?
First, we can take some comfort in Mark's honesty about how Jesus ended up in the wilderness. We don't generally enter the wilderness on our own volition either. Nor do we feel gently led there by God's Holy Spirit. We are thrown into the wilderness. Most of us know that experience at some point in our lives. A shattering of a relationship, the sudden loss of job or health or home, a fault line opening up in our ground of being- any of those things can land us in a desolate place, or land a desolate place within us. Mark does not tell us much about Jesus' inner struggles until we get to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus agonizes over his impending death and over the inability of his closest disciples to share his struggle. Instead, Mark's Gospel primarily focuses on an external conflict: Jesus' ongoing battle royal with Satan and the forces of evil. In the wilderness, the bell rings for round one of this cosmic bout.
In the Old Testament, Abraham was tested with what seems like too much to ask of anyone: the sacrifice of his son Isaac. For 40 years in the wilderness God provided daily bread for the children of Israel, but they still came up short in their struggle to trust their future to God.
In Mark, we are given the impression that Jesus' testing by Satan is ongoing throughout the 40-day period. Like the cell phone technician in the TV ad who keeps going into remote and secluded areas to test reception, God kept asking Jesus, "Can you hear me now? Can you hear me say that you are my beloved son now, when you see that this struggle with Satan isn't a one-time event, but of long duration? Can you hear me now that you know that unlike Isaac you will not be spared, that you will be offered up for the sin of the world? Can you hear me in the angels I send to wait on you? Can you see and hear in them the assurance that I will sustain you?"
"Can you hear me now?" God also asks us. Can we hear that the one who was with Jesus is also with us for the long haul, even when we're in the wilderness? Can we recognize the "angels" God sends to "wait table" for us? Can we hear God's call to us to be the angels who accompany others in their lonely and desolate places, including illegal immigrants who are afraid they'll be arrested, children dying from famine in Africa or homeless families living in their cars in our towns?
What are we to make of the wild beasts that were with Jesus in the wilderness? They represented the real dangers of survival in that setting, with their beady eyes staring at Jesus out of the darkness as he warmed himself by the fire. There's another possibility. Theologian Eduard Schweizer says that in "Jewish tradition the battle with the wild animals began with the Fall . . . but, unlike Adam, Jesus withstood his temptations and thereby restored paradise" (The Good News According to Mark). In his faithfulness, Jesus is already seen as the one who ushers in the "peaceable kingdom" that Isaiah foretold as a sign of the Messianic age.
God's Spirit drove Jesus to continued encounters with Satan that finally culminated on the cross. In Mark's Gospel, Jesus utters only one word from the cross, a cry born out of complete desolation. "My God, my God," Jesus asks, "why have you forsaken me?" His words come from Psalm 22, where the psalmist twice speaks of being encircled by wild animals. Jesus enters the worst wilderness of them all, a sense of abandonment by God. We sometimes know that feeling too. "Can you hear me now?" God the Father asks. For a moment Jesus can't. He bears the silence of God as he bears our sins, so that for us forsakenness and abandonment will not be the last word.
Jesus' first stop after his resurrection is revealed in 1 Peter: he descends to hell's gates and rips them open. It is his victory speech over Satan and sin and death, proclaiming release to the captives held prisoner there from days of old and release to us as well.
"Beloved, can you hear me now?" Jesus asks us, sounding just like his father. Yes, we can!
Sunday, March 4
IN THE GOSPEL lesson for the second Sunday in Lent, Jesus is no longer in the wilderness. But he is being tempted nonetheless.
This time one of his own- his disciple Peter- is doing the tempting. Peter hears Jesus' teaching and responds: "No, Jesus. No suffering and death. What are you thinking of? You are the Messiah- the promised deliverer of God's people, Israel!" Jesus rebukes Peter: "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."
A friend of mine suggested that I should have no trouble understanding where Peter is coming from in this text because I have the same need to "overcontrol" pretty much everything in life, even God.
So I began to think about what it is that I most often Hset my mind on."
When I look back at myself in the parish where I served, I think I mostly set my mind on being successful and loved. (Peter is alive and well in me.) Then, after my retirement four years ago, I set my heart and mind on being the chaplain for the Chicago Cubs. God knows they need spiritual help- 103 years without a World Series. I thought that serving as chaplain of these perpetual losers would be a perfect way to deny myself and "take up my cross."
Instead, I've served as an interim pastor: first at a city congregation on the north side of Chicago and then at a university chapel in Indiana. To a certain extent, being an interim pastor involves "denying oneself and taking up one's cross." If you are following a much beloved pastor, for example, you may experience rejection. Because you are only temporary- a substitute- you may be only tolerated as you help the congregation prepare to receive a permanent pastor. It takes a little denying of one's self
But 1 can't fool myself into believing that I've gotten close to the kind of costly discipleship that Jesus is speaking of in Mark 8.
In Preaching the Gospel of Mark, Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm fills in the contours of this cruciform-shaped life: "To deny oneself is to place Jesus' priorities, purposes, and path ahead of our own; to take up the cross is to be willing to suffer the consequences of faithful living; to follow him is to travel to unknown destinations that promise to be both dangerous and life-giving."
I catch the best glimpse of what it means to follow Jesus from other followers. I think, for example, of the courage of ordinary Danish Christians who saw their Jewish neighbors being rounded up and sent to concentration camps and responded by ferrying many of them by night to safety in Sweden. I think of U.S. citizens who go to the Holy Land to accompany Palestinian farmers to their olive fields during harvest or who put themselves in the path of Israeli bulldozers to help prevent house demolitions in East Jerusalem.
Closer to home, I learn about what it means to deny oneself and follow Jesus from ordinary Christians who are busy with out-of-town travel and family care but who nonetheless manage to attend to "the least of these" in my former congregation. There is Chris, the Stephen minister who became the courtappointed guardian for a developmentally disabled member named Monte. Along with other parish volunteers, Chris visits Monte regularly and watches over his care in the nursing home and through periodic hospitalizations
Lauren helps support Mary, a former special-ed teacher who is in a care facility because of multiple sclerosis. When Mary was hospitalized and couldn't attend her mother's funeral, Lauren offered to go in Mary's stead and reported back to her on every detail of the service.
At the Lutheran campus where I was an interim chaplain, I saw students becoming addicted- not to obtaining the highestpaying jobs right out of college but to a lifetime of helping people change their circumstances for the better through spring break service projects in low-income communities in the U.S., Engineers without Borders projects in Tanzania and nursing students' service in medical clinics in Costa Rica. If these young people don't transform the world, they may transform older folks like me to their vision of denying themselves for the sake of the world.
How does that desire "to travel to unknown destinations that promise to be both dangerous and life-giving" take root in people's hearts and minds?
As Peter learned, it doesn't come so much from knowing that Jesus is the Messiah as it does from knowing what kind of Messiah Jesus was- one who was willing to suffer and die and rise again, to restore to us both a life worth living and a life worth giving away, or "losing," for others.
It comes from learning that from the beginning of time God our Creator and Redeemer has been mindful of us mortals, setting God's own heart and mind on us (Ps. 8).
The author is Pñyüis Kersten, a Lutheran pastor in Forest Park, Illinois.