Today is the first Sunday in Lent, and today’s Gospel is our official kickoff of the season: the Spirit sends Jesus out into the wilderness, and he is in the wilderness forty days, being tempted. Is it any wonder, then, that so many of us begin our own Lenten journey in that same way: in the wilderness . . . being tempted . . . alone . . . confronting doubt.
As I look out my window at my daylily beds, where I spend countless hours every spring, summer and fall, I see nothing but barrenness and desolation right now. The earth turns another rotation, the sun travels south and the lush garden I have come to love turns into a lonely wilderness, with no signs of life. And so it is with us. It doesn’t take much to turn the most fruitful, lush life into one that is suddenly very lonely and barren. We are, all of us, just a rotation of the earth away from experiencing testing and temptation and desolation.
The temptation of Christ has generated a ridiculous amount of dissertations and theological debates. Even playwrights and producers have had their turn at portraying this story, and why not? In a sense, this is the story of all of us. We’ve all been tempted to compromise our values, to take shortcuts at the expense of others, to make choices that bring others pain. And the moment we face such choices it’s like the earth has turned again, and we’re back in the wilderness.
The writer we know as Mark, on the other hand, doesn’t spend to much time on this story: it comes and goes in a blink, as you noticed in what has to be the shortest Gospel reading ever! While Matthew requires 220 words to tell this story and Luke uses 240 words, Mark gets by with only 32 words. It makes me think of Woody Allen, who said that, thanks to a speed reading course he had taken, he was able to read War and Peace in just over 15 minutes. His critique of Tolstoy’s tome? When asked to comment on the novel, he said, “It’s all about war.” That’s just like Mark! He just skims over the wilderness, does a fly-by past the three temptations, sprints past Jesus’ powerful rebuttals hurled against the devil and completes his story in 32 words. “It’s all about temptation,” he seems to be saying.
But sometimes less is more, and Mark knows this very well. With brevity, Mark creates a world of meaning that listeners can access very easily.
What does Mark want us to know? He says that the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by Satan. To us the number forty is just a number, but to Mark’s early listeners, the number forty was magical. It wasn’t a precise measure of anything, but it did mean “a very long time”. Forty is the number of years Israel wandered in the wilderness; forty is the number of days that Elijah fasted. Forty is often related to some wilderness and is almost always a time of testing.
For Israel, time in the wilderness was learning to trust God for their very existence. That was the test-to trust God’s abundance, or to whine about their perceived lack. Their wilderness sojourn is one of failing the test repeatedly: even Moses failed the test–so much so that he was kept from entering the Promised Land, dying just outside the city limits.
So here in Mark’s gospel, the number forty and the wilderness turn up again. No one ever passes this test. Not Israel. Not Moses. Not us. And yet, Mark tells us that the Spirit drove Jesus out away from the lush garden into the wilderness. Mark also mentions that there are wild animals about, which seems strange at first, until we remember the story of Adam in the Garden of Eden. It is quite possible that Mark’s audience made a comparison between Adam in the garden and Christ in the wilderness.
Adam’s garden story had an unfortunate ending, as we know. There too the garden had seemed to predictably serene and abundant with life and then comes temptation and, poof! Suddenly their eyes are opened. They had thought they were in a garden, but it turned out they were in the wilderness. They had sinned, they had failed the trust test, and they became alienated from God and from each other.
Adam failed the test. Israel failed the test. We fail the test often enough. But along comes Jesus, and something new happens: he turns the wilderness into a garden! A wilderness transformed into a paradise! Out there in the desert, a new garden is created. A new Israel emerges. A new Adam arises. A new possibility is born.
God is saying to each of us this Lent: “As I walked with my beloved Son as he encountered fear and temptation in the wilderness; as I raised him up even in the darkest hour, so will I walk with you through the wilderness. I have a land of promise for you. I have a mission for you. I will raise you up and bring you through every wilderness completely unharmed.”
In the cold of an Indiana winter, we are reminded that on the flipside of every lush garden is barren wilderness. In the barrenness of our inner wilderness, we confront the reality of who we are, how we have failed to bring forth the person we are called to become, and we repent. Mark reminds us that, with God at our side, our wilderness will again become a garden of life and growth and abundance. The season changes, the earth makes another rotation, and we are made new in the light of another spring.