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The First Temptation of Christ
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
February 18, 2018
A reading from the Gospel of Mark
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
There is a scene in Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of The Last Temptation of Christ, the mid-century novel by Nikos Kazantzakis that depicts Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness, our scripture lesson for this morning. Jesus, looking remarkably like Willem Dafoe, finds himself in the middle of what transparently looks like your stereotypical desert: rolling hills of desolate sand, not a watering-hole or a spot of green anywhere in sight. Lawrence of Arabia is filming just around the corner. Jesus is wearing the torn and dirty robes worn by every actor who has ever played him onscreen. He finds a clear spot — though, in truth, every spot in this desert looks like a clear spot — he draws a circular line in the sand around himself, he sits cross-legged in the middle of it, and then he waits. He waits without water. He waits without food. He waits without shelter. He waits without any of the basic comforts that you or I would certainly take with us if we were heading out to the desert for a long weekend. And the symbology is clear: inside this circle is God and God’s holiness, and on the other side of it Satan and all of Satan’s trickster ways, and Jesus needs nothing to combat them except time and will, and he has more than enough of both.
If I am honest, I think this image of Jesus cross-legged in the wilderness has become what I picture when I hear the brief verses from Mark’s Gospel that we read this morning, that, after his baptism, “the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” And that’s all we know. You have heard elsewhere the long version of the temptation of Jesus, taken from Matthew’s Gospel, where Satan offers him riches and earthly power and dominion and it all has a kind of mythic quality to it, but Mark has none of that. As you have probably noticed by now, Mark tells an efficient story, but it does leave some things up to the imagination, and so when I have imagined Jesus tempted in this wilderness, forty days in this desert, I have seen Willem Dafoe, sitting cross-legged in the middle of his hand-drawn circle, no food, no water, no shelter, just patience, just waiting for Satan to strike.
The problem is that even despite his brevity, Mark’s take on this story has a few amenities that my imagination hasn’t quite accounted for. First of all, we have angels waiting on Jesus. And it’s not like they’re waiting for him to do something; they’re waiting on him hand and foot. Mark uses a word for waiting here that eventually becomes our word for Deacon, it’s somebody who serves, particularly somebody who takes care of somebody else’s material needs, so Jesus literally has angels bringing him food and water and hopefully a blanket. Which, if you have to be in the wilderness, is a pretty nice deal. But then Mark also says that the wild beasts were with him, which at first sounds a little scary, except that there’s no sense of Jesus being threatened by these animals; quite to the contrary, scholars have pointed out that this wilderness sounds a lot more like Eden the further we go along: Jesus, like Adam and Eve once upon a time, gone back to nature, surrounded by God’s creatures, attending by God’s angels.
It starts to sound a little bit less like sitting in the middle of the desert by yourself. It starts to sound a little bit more like a weekend getaway. And actually the early church that first heard Mark’s Gospel would be entirely familiar with thinking about the wilderness as a place of safety and refuge; early Christians, driven away from major urban centers by the threat of Roman imperial violence, would often hole up in the desert and wait for the time to change; moreover, in addition to the long history of Israel wandering through the wilderness and exiled through the wilderness we have by the time of Mark’s Gospel a sense that Israel’s own messianic hopes begin in the wilderness; saviors start their work in the wilderness; rebel armies stir up trouble in the wilderness; the wilderness is where hope lives and where safety lives and where comfort lives.
All of which presses the question. It is the central question I have this morning and I think without staring this question in the eye we can’t get very far with this text, and the question is: if the desert is so nice, what’s Satan up to? What’s so Satanic about this wilderness? So Jesus gets baptized in the River Jordan and immediately the Spirit sends him off to some kind of retreat center in Palm Springs and Satan shows up and offers, what exactly? What do you bring to the Messiah who’s already having all his needs taken care of? What do you give a Savior who has everything? A slightly nicer kind of mineral water? Fresh linens with Egyptian cotton? If having angels wait on you hand and foot and having all of God’s creatures hang out with you for company is supposed to be some kind of satanic test, sign me up. I think I could pass that with flying colors. I think I could survive that test for a long time.
And maybe that’s the problem. Maybe that’s the test. Maybe Satan wants Jesus to stay on vacation for as long as possible. Maybe you know the feeling. That last-day-of-vacation-feeling. Like, you’re sitting there staring at the water. Or staring at the mountains. Or staring at the water from the mountains. Or staring at the mountains from the water, or whatever thing feels like vacation for you, and then you realize that a day from now you will be getting up in the morning and going back to the routine and getting back on your commute and heading back to the office and there will be as there always are all the emails that you did not respond to while you were on vacation and they all have to be responded to by lunchtime tomorrow and if you are anything like me there is a temptation. A temptation to stay there, for as long as possible. Like if you stay there, staring at the water and the mountains in some order, like if you can see the mountains or the water somehow the work just doesn’t exist. I find that moment very tempting. I would fail that test every time.
But of course Jesus isn’t just coming back from vacation. He’s starting the very beginning of his ministry. At this point in the story he hasn’t healed anyone or preached at anyone or cast out any demons; all that’s coming, but before any of it can happen he has to get up out of this wilderness and set himself to work. So this is about something bigger than coming back to the office; it’s about Jesus choosing to begin the very ministry that God has carved out for him to do. That’s the test, that’s the temptation: the temptation not to do the work that God called him to do, not to be the thing that God has called him to be. It’s the same temptation in the Kazantzakis novel, in the Scorsese film, the last temptation, when film imagines Jesus at the end of his ministry tempted off of the cross by a sweet-talking young child. The child, of course, is Satan, in disguise who convinces Jesus that he doesn’t have to die, that he can live out his days in comfortable pleasure and ease. Only at the very end does he realize the way in which he missed the moment to which God called him, and begs God to let him back on the cross. Now, that story’s not in the Gospel, but it’s not far from the text we have today, the temptation to stay in the wilderness, to duck the call, to play hooky from work, to avoid the moment.
It’s first temptation of Christ, and the first temptation of Christians. I mean, Christians love the wilderness. I will sign up for anything that starts with some kind of organizational retreat, and I know I’m not alone. Some getaway weekend where angels serve you food and drink and you get to cuddle up with all the cute animals and you can leave your worries behind and you can leave your cares behind and you can leave the world behind and sign me up, I’m there. And you know if we’re honest I think Sunday morning can feel a little bit like that, too, like, we’ve all had a long week, our batteries are low, our spirits are low, so come here, retreat here, recharge here. This is a safe place; the world can’t reach you here; and, as a bonus, somebody will serve you coffee and a little breakfast snack and you can just unwind. But in this story God doesn’t call us into the wilderness; God calls us out of it. When the time is right. When the moment comes. John the Baptist is arrested; that’s what interrupts Jesus’s sojourn out there in the desert; John the Baptist, the most important political revolutionary of his time; John the Baptist is arrested; the moment comes, and Jesus springs to action.
This morning at UPC, on this first Sunday of Lent, we began a season-long conversation about racial justice and racial reconciliation; actually, several seasons long, a conversation that will take us past Easter and well towards Pentecost. And if you have been in church over the past several weeks you will know that your pastors have taken some time from the pulpit to advocate for this series, to say what it means for a mostly-white congregation in a mostly-white denomination to take some time to talk honestly about this racial moment in which we find ourselves. But if you’ll let me be honest with you for a moment, I’ll confess this. I don’t want to get up here and preach about race. I don’t want to get up here and preach about gender politics, either; I don’t want to get up here and preach about immigration, or economic justice, or any of those hot-button landmines. I’d much rather stand here and say something easy. I’d much rather stand here and preach about puppies, or tacos, or baseball — you know spring training is right around the corner. But that’s not the moment. The moment is a visible outbreak of white supremacy unmatched in my lifetime. The moment is thousands of women coming forward with stories of sexual abuse and misconduct. The moment is yet another young man walking into a public space with an assault rifle and opening fire.
The moment is calling us. God is calling us. God is calling us into the places we don’t want to go. God is calling us out of the wilderness we don’t want to leave. But what else is the first Sunday of Lent except a time for beginning work we don’t necessarily want to begin. I would rather stay in Epiphany. I’d rather keep looking at those baptismal waters. I’d rather keep staring at that transfiguration mountaintop. But the moment is at hand. The time is at hand. God is at hand. God is calling us to be the people that God is calling us to be, a people who cry out for justice, a people who speak out for the voiceless, a people who sing out for peace, and people who seek out the lost and the forgotten and the hard road. A people who hear the deep movement of the spirit. A people who follow Jesus out of this wilderness even into a violent, broken, and terrifying world. A people who follow with the faith that Jesus already knows the way.
I want to close this morning with a poem by the South African writer Alan Paton. Paton was a white anti-Apartheid activist even going back to the early days of Apartheid, a troublemaker in a moment that did not value troublemakers. But to hear him talk about it, he never sought out trouble. He just couldn’t figure out how to be faithful any other way. Or so the poem goes.
Could you not write otherwise, this woman said to me,
Could you not write of things really poetical?
Of many-colored birds dipping their beaks
Into many-coloured flowers?
Of mine machinery standing up, you know,
Gaunt, full of meaning, against the sky?
Must you write always of black men and Indians,
Of half-castes and Jews, Englishmen and Afrikaners,
Of problems insoluble and secret fears
That are best forgotten?
You read the paper, you post your letters,
You buy at the store like any normal being,
Why then must you write such things?
Madam, really, since you ask the question,
Really, Madam, I do not like to mention it
But there is a voice that I cannot silence.
It seems I have lived for this, to obey it
To pour out the life-long accumulation
Of a thousand sorrowful songs.
I did not ask for this destination
I did not ask to write these same particular songs.
Simple I was, I wished to write words,
And melodies that had no meanings but their music
And songs that had no meaning but their song.
But the deep notes and the undertones
Kept sounding themselves, kept insistently
Intruding themselves, like a prisoned tide
That under the shining and the sunlit sea
In caverns and corridors goes underground thundering.
Madam, I have no wish to be cut off from you
I have no wish to hurt you with the meanings
Of the land where you were born.
It was with unbelieving ears I heard
My artless songs become the grounds and cries of men.
And you, why you may pity me also,
For what I do when such voice is speaking,
What can I speak but what it wishes spoken?