With the Wild Beasts

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Sermon for Sunday, February, 25, 2015 (First Sunday in Lent) by the Rev. Martha Kirkpatrick, Rector.  Please see PDF version for attributions. 

The gospel lesson for the first Sunday in Lent is always the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. So apparently someone deemed it important that we begin our Lenten journey with Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. This year is the story of Jesus’ temptation from the gospel of Mark. It’s so short it’s like crib notes. It contains, in as few words as possible, 4 movements:

  1. First movement: Jesus is baptized
  2. Second movement: The heavens are ripped open, and the holy spirit descends in Jesus. (The NRSV misspeaks here, translating “in” as “on.” The Spirit possesses Jesus.)
  3. Third movement: Jesus is then driven, driven by the holy spirit into the wilderness. This is not Jesus deciding to go on retreat.

Within this third movement there are some key details:

  • Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days. This is important symbolically.
  • Jesus is tested by Satan. Mark doesn’t elaborate. He says nothing about what those tests were, so we conclude that for Mark the nature of those tests were beside the point. Mark does mention the word “wilderness” twice. This is worth noting, especially in such a spare telling.
  • Jesus was with the wild beasts. An interesting detail.
  • The angels waited on him.
  • Fourth movement: And then Jesus goes out proclaiming the good news.

So the overall structure is: divine affirmation, driven into the wilderness, testing, and the initiation of a calling.

So what do we know about Jesus’ time in the wilderness?

The wilderness held a lot of meaning for Jews. It was the 40 years after they had come up from slavery in Egypt and before they got to the promised land. It was a time and place where God was with them, steadfastly, even though they themselves were unfaithful many times. It is a threshold place, a place where something happens, and God is present.

“[A]nd he was with the wild beasts,” the text says. Now this is an interesting detail in a very sparse account. What does it suggest to you? There are a couple of conventional – and biblically supported – ways of interpreting this inclusion.  First we might understand it as a sign that Jesus has God’s protection from beasts that would otherwise be dangerous to Jesus. The wild beasts stand in for the people – perhaps more accurately the human power structures – that Jesus would confront.  The wild animals are kept at bay. In the book of Hosea, for example, we find this: “I will make for you a covenant on that day with the wild animals, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety.” (Hosea 2:18).

Another common understanding is that Mark is giving us a glimpse of a restored creation, where all is made whole. There are other passages in scripture that resonate, such as the famous passage in Isaiah Chapter 65, which states at verse 17: “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice for ever in what I am creating, for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people a delight.” and later in verse 25: “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox… They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.” Old rules and expectations no longer apply when Jesus is present. Jesus is ushering in a new creation.

There may be yet another reading of this curious detail. Being in the presence of wild animals and remaining unharmed is an ancient symbol for an awakened consciousness. It shows up in literature. In contemporary fiction there is The Life of Pi,  wherein Pi forms a kind of truce with his dangerous companion in the small marooned boat, the tiger Richard Parker. In classical literature, recall that at the end of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Ishmael is floating on Ahab’s coffin in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by sharks who do not harm him. (And on the third day he is picked up by a passing ship, rescued and lived to tell about it …).  Ishmael has lived through his ordeal to become a person who is fully “awake.” He sees through the illusive forms of perceived reality. He is in a kind of sacred circle, the calm at the center of every commotion, a place of deep truth. Wild animals are ancient symbols of primal consciousness and the energies of life, something that the initiated one, the one who is awake can see clearly in him/herself, or even befriend, like Frances of Assisi.

While we’re on the subject of animals, let’s make sure not to miss something important from our Genesis account of God’s covenant after the flood. First, because it’s important, scripture is clear that the sin that caused God to cover the earth in a flood wasn’t some popularized image of Sodom and Gomorrah – slithery behavior in dark streets sort of thing – but the sin of violence. “And the earth was filled with violence.” Violence, the starkest indicator of broken relationship. Note that the covenant God makes after the flood is made with Noah and “with every living creature … the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth that is with you.” In this short text, creatures other than humans are mentioned seven times. The covenant is not simply with humankind, it is with all creation. What distinguishes humans from the rest of creation in this covenant is not that we are singled out for protection, for we are not. However, we are singled out for responsibility to care for the earth as God does.

So in Mark’s picture of Jesus, the awake one, tested by Satan in the wilderness, surrounded by wild beasts, I think Mark is suggesting this calm center, a place where the deep truth is held and where the awake person is not giving in to the illusory world represented by the satan’s tests. Such tests are only seductive to the false self, the egoic need for separateness and power and security for oneself alone.

Testing in the wilderness for Mark is the third movement in this passage, the four movements being, again, divine affirmation, driven into the wilderness, test, and the beginning of a call. Along with Mark’s silence about the nature of the temptations this makes it clear that the text’s focus is on the presence of God. God is with Jesus, the spirit of God is in Jesus, and in the face of that center the temptations fall away. And in case there was any remaining doubt about that, the text says “and the angels were with him.”

This is what I think can help us as we begin our journey into Lent.

The Temptations we face are always going to be the particular ones that arise out of our own “false self.” Sometimes those temptations can really screw up our lives and hurt others. Those we can usually spot. The harder ones are those that are good on some level, especially in the eyes of the world. Doing things to win praise or awards or elevate our position. Or simply settling for the things that are within easy reach.  We can usually self-justify. When we succumb to these temptations we get used for lesser purposes than God intends for us.

The false, egoic self is vulnerable to temptations. The centered, true self is not fooled by them. Our baptism reminds us that we belong to God and the spirit that dwells within us is our true self.

Richard Rohr said this in his blog post this morning: “There is no authentic God experience that does not situate you in the world in a different way. After an encounter with Presence you see things differently, and it gives you the security to be free from your usual loyalties: the system that you have lived in, your economics, and your tribe. Your screen of life expands exponentially.”

Our response to tests and temptations, and the discipline of Lent, is not so much to steel our will against them but to develop the capacity to see through them and beyond them so that they no longer have power over us. To recognize them for what they are, temptations of the false, separate self. We see with the eyes of the heart enlightened and then can do the work God has given us to do, to engage the suffering of the world with compassion. So we either get used for lesser things, our smaller self, egoic things, or we get used mightily and well for God.

AMEN.