Seward United Methodist Church
Monday, December 17, 2018
Search this site.View the site map.

Testing

Mark 1:9-15

Sometimes I feel like Mark is ripping us off. Everything is so short in his Gospel. Everything moves at this breathless pace. He tosses the word “immediately” around left and right. Matthew and Luke both give us about 10 verses of this “cat and mouse game” between Jesus and Satan, and Mark gives us two verses. But Mark is really just focusing on other things than the manner of Jesus’ temptation.

It happens immediately after his baptism. At his baptism, God claims Jesus as his own. “You are my beloved Son.”

One of the enduring mysteries of the Gospels is, “What was Jesus’ life like before his baptism?” Of course, we have two accounts of his birth. But only Luke gives us any information about Jesus’ life between his birth and baptism, and in that case it’s only one little story about 12 year old Jesus in the Temple. We learn that even at a young age, Jesus was hungry for the things of God. But that’s about all we get out of it.

What about everything else before his baptism? We don’t know anything. All we can do is guess. Jesus was the son of a “carpenter.” The word really means more like “builder,” and considering how few trees there were in Galilee, it could just as likely mean “stonemason.” We assume he followed in the family trade.

Did Jesus know his unique identity and purpose all along? Or did that only become apparent at his baptism? In other words, when he was 20, did he know he was the Son of God and that he would one day die for the sins of the world?

Many years ago I read someone who claimed that “There was a time in Jesus’ life when he did not know his identity or God’s purpose for his life.” It was about 20 years ago that I read that. At the time, my immediate reaction was, “No way. Jesus always knew who he was and what he was supposed to do.” Now I’ve come around full circle and I agree with that statement. I think there was a time when Jesus did not know that he was the Son of God or that he would die for the sins of the world.

Why? Because if Jesus was “fully human,” then he experienced the human condition, and part of the human condition is to experience doubt and uncertainty about your identity and your purpose. Those of you who are old enough to remember the 1992 Presidential election might remember Ross Perot’s running mate, James Stockdale, who opened his remarks at a debate by saying, “Who am I? Why am I here?” Well, that’s the human condition. To be human is to ask, “Who am I? Why am I here?”

There’s no way to know for sure, but perhaps Jesus didn’t know the answers to those questions until his baptism. He had laid aside the full use of his divine power and “emptied himself” when he took on flesh, and perhaps part of that is that he did not know who he was or what he was to do. And then it was revealed to him at his baptism. We have no way of knowing for sure, but I think it’s compelling.

Jesus was sent out to the wilderness by the Holy Spirit for forty days. Of course, the number forty is significant in Scripture. It’s a number of “fullness” or “completeness.” It mirrors Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness and the 40 days Moses spent on the mountain with God at Sinai. That’s the reason we have 40 days of Lent.

Why the wilderness? Why didn’t the Spirit send Jesus to the Temple, a good religious place? Or to a nice beachside resort? Well, in Scripture, wilderness is primarily a place of preparation. People go to the wilderness to be prepared for some task.

Israel spent forty years in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land. They had been slaves for generations in a land with many gods. Now they were being prepared to live as free people in the land of Canaan and to worship only one God. The wilderness prepared them for a new life.

David spent about ten years of his life in the wilderness of Judea on the run from King Saul. There he was prepared to be king. In the wilderness, David learned powerful lessons about loyalty, patience, self-control, and mercy; lessons that would help him as king.

When God called Saul, the ultra-orthodox Pharisee, to be the apostle to the Gentiles, Saul went to the desert of Arabia first for three years. He needed to be prepared with a new understanding of God and a new perspective on what it meant to be a child of God.

So Jesus went to the wilderness of Judea, called Jeshimmon, to be prepared for his public ministry. How was Jesus being prepared? Two things come to my mind:

First, it was only by being tested in the wilderness that Jesus could be prepared for the greater tests to come. Refusing to make stones into bread when he was hungry was a simple test compared to choosing the agony of the cross.

To be human is to be tested. All of us are tested. And the purpose of testing is not that we would fail, but that we would learn to overcome. God doesn’t want us to fail. Testing is meant to strengthen us, not break us. If Jesus was truly fully human, then he also had to be tested so that he could grow through it.

I think the second reason Jesus was tested is so that he would truly know the experience of being tested. Hebrews chapter 4 says that “Our high priest,” Jesus, “understands our weakness, for he faced the same temptations we do. So let us come boldly before the throne.” Jesus understands our weakness. He was tested as we are, but he did not sin. And yet he does not condemn us. So we come before him boldly, knowing he loves us in spite of our failures.

The big difference between Mark’s Gospel and Matthew and Luke is that those two focus on the exchange between Jesus and Satan. Mark just mentions it, but then he goes on to say that “Jesus was with the wild animals, and angels took care of him.” Matthew only mentions the angels at the very end of the temptation, and neither of the other Gospels mention the wild beasts.

The wild animals of Jeshimmon in the first century included lions, brown bears, wolves, and leopards. But there doesn’t seem to be any sense of danger here. The story of Daniel in the lions’ den makes it clear that God can protect a person from wild animals. More than that, there were prophecies about the desert becoming a paradise. The prophet Isaiah foretold of the Messianic age saying, “The wolf and the lamb will live together. The leopard will lie down with the baby goat. The calf will be safe with the lion, and a little child will lead them. The cow will graze with the bear. The baby will play near the hole of the cobra. Nothing will hurt or destroy. The wilderness will become a fertile field.” (Isaiah 11, 32).

One of the consequences of sin entering the world and the creation “falling away” from its original goodness is that there is hostility between human beings and wild animals. There was none of that in the Garden of Eden, and there will be none in the New Creation. And there is no sense of it here. Jesus is at peace with the wild beasts of Jeshimmon.

“And angels took care of him.” The wilderness was often seen as a place of danger. There were wild animals. And deserts were seen as the haunt of demons. Jesus is, in effect, doing battle with Satan on Satan’s home turf.

But Jesus, through his obedience to God, experiences peace with creation and peace with God in the wilderness. The wild beasts do not harm him, and the angels take care of him.

Testing will come, but we are never alone in the midst of testing. Jesus was not alone in his wilderness testing. The angels cared for him, and the wild beasts were his companions. We are never alone in our testing. Jesus is with us through the Holy Spirit in our time of testing.

Verse of the Day...