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This will be the third time the regular church attenders will hear at least part of these verses. Verses 4-11 were read on the Baptism of our Lord B and verses 14-20 were read on 3 Epiphany B.
The theme on the First Sunday in Lent in all three years is Jesus' testing -- the parallel passages are used in Years A and C. I will concentrate on verses 12-13, which deal specifically with the testing in Mark.
While there are sufficient differences between Mark's testing story and those in Matthew (4:1-11) and Luke (4:1-13) to suggest different sources, there are also a number of similar elements.
All three (in different ways) have a reference to what happened before -- namely, Jesus' baptism. Mark says, "And immediately." Matthew says, "Then." Luke has the genealogy between the baptism and the temptation, but he states that Jesus is "returning from the Jordan," which is where he was baptized.
A possible theme could be "Life after Baptism" -- it's a life full of testing.
In Mark, the Spirit is "casting out" or "throwing out" (ekballo) Jesus into the wilderness. (Matthew and Luke are a bit less graphic with the Spirit "leading" [anago & ago] Jesus.) In the wilderness Jesus is to be tested (peirazo) by Satan (Mk) or the Devil (Mt & Lk). I wonder how many people really want to be led by the Spirit -- if this is where the Spirit leads!
Another possible theme is "Life in the Real World."
The complaint is sometimes made about clergy or parochial school children that they don't live in the "real" world. Often there is the attempt to protect people from the "real" world -- the world of evil and temptation, gangs and death, alcoholics and addicts. I had a 20-something lady tell me, "My mother raised me in the sixteenth century and then kicked me out in the 20th -- and I wasn't ready for it." Jesus knows this "real" world of temptations, and undeserved suffering and death.
Another way of understanding the phrase "real world" is that the universe is made up of unseen beings who influence our lives. Our text mentions a Voice/God, the Spirit, Satan, and angels. From our faith perspective, these are part of the "real" world. The world we live in involves more than just what the eyes can see.
All three indicate that it took place in the "wilderness" or "deserted place" (eremos). All three use the word "40". Mark and Luke have the testing lasting 40 days. Matthew has Jesus fasting for 40 days and the testing following. Both these words are used in the LXX in reference to Israel's 40-year wandering in the wilderness (Dt 2:7; 29:5; see also 8:1-4).
All three use the word peirazo. Translators have to decide if the word means "to test" or "to tempt". It has both meanings. In a "test" the tester is not trying to make the testees fail, but to determine what they know or what they can do. In a "temptation" the tempter is trying to make the temptees fail.
Lowe and Nida give these definitions for this word.
to try to learn the nature of character of someone or something by submitting such to thorough and extensive testing
to obtain information to be used against such a person by trying to cause someone to make a mistake
to endeavor or attempt to cause someone to sin
The word is often used in the LXX of God testing people:
God tested Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son (Gn 22:1).
When God rained bread from heaven, God asked that they gather only enough for that day. "In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not" (Ex 16:4).
A purpose of God's testing is given in Dt 13:3b: "for the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you indeed love the LORD your God with all your heart and soul"
A closely related word, ekpeirazo, is used in Dt 8:2: "Remember the long way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years [the LXX does not have "40 years"] in the wilderness [eremos -- same word in temptation stories], in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments."
I think that the purpose of Jesus' "testing" in the wilderness is closely related to Dt 8:1-10. As I mentioned above, the same Greek words for "wilderness" (v. 2) and "40" (v. 4) occur in the LXX in this section. In the accounts of Matthew and Luke, Jesus quotes Dt 8:3 in response to turning stones into bread.
Generally when teachers or driving instructors give tests, they are not trying to flunk the testees, but to help discover what they know and what they can do -- their ability to do what is required of them. Doctors and lawyers and accountants among other professions have to pass tests so that the public can be assured that these people know what they are doing.
Recently I was looking at some of my many files under the "quotes" folder. One such quote is called, "The Road to Holiness."
A seeker after truth came to a saint for guidance.
"Tell me, wise one, how did you become holy?"
"And what are they, please?"
The seeker was fascinated. "How does one learn to choose rightly?"
"One word! May I have it, please?" the seeker asked.
The seeker was thrilled. "How does one grow?"
"What are they, pray tell?"
I believe that this is God's purpose in times of testing -- to help us grow -- to show us that we have the faith and ability to stand up to the testing -- that we will trust God in difficult times -- to strengthen our faith and Christian character. At the same time, Satan has his own purpose -- to turn the testees away from God -- to "tempt" them to sin.
Every other time peirazo is used in Mark, the "testers" are human beings (always Pharisees): asking for a sign from heaven (8:11); asking about the legality of divorce (10:2); and with the Herodians, asking about paying taxes (12:15).
I don't think that most of the "testings" of our faith come from Satan or demonic beings, but from other people.
From whomever it comes, the tempter/tester does not have the power to make someone do something. Temptation is not coercion. The serpent in the garden didn't make Eve and Adam eat the apple. Satan in our text can't make Jesus turn against God. "To tempt" means to try and convince someone to do something. It means enticing someone to want to do something. Tempters can't make someone do something bad, but try to make the temptee want to do something bad. They don't take away the will. Rather, they try to change one's will.
In my own experience, often when I sin, it is not a problem of knowledge. I usually know what is good and bad -- we've known that since the time of Adam and Eve. It is a problem of the will. I just want to do the bad. Or there are times I just don't want to do the good. More often than not, it is not a question of ignorance -- of not knowing the difference between good and bad. It is a question of one's will or conviction -- what do I want to do and what will I do.
It is the responsibility of the parents and of the church not only to teach its baptized members the difference between right and wrong; but also to help motivate them to want to do the right thing. Satan (and much of human society) is still around trying to make us want to do the wrong thing.
I will look at the "characters" in Mark's story (the Spirit, Satan, wild beasts, and angels) and indicate their roles through the rest of Mark.
pneuma ("S/spirit") occurs 23 times in Mark: 6 refer to the (Holy) Spirit, 3 to an inner human spirit, 14 to evil/unclean spirit.
Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit (1:8)
The Spirit descends on Jesus at his baptism (1:10)
The Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness (1:12)
Blaspheming against the Holy Spirit is unforgivable (3:29) (which may be calling the Holy Spirit the evil spirit, see 3:30)
David spoke by the Holy Spirit (12:36)
The Holy Spirit will speak through disciples who've been arrested (13:11)
The Spirit's role in our text can lead us back to Deuteronomy where it is God who tests in order to know the people's hearts, whether or not they loved God with all their heart and soul. Is this the purpose of Jesus' testing before he begins his public ministry? Is this the purpose of seminary training (and the ability to pass some tests) before we are ordained into the public ministry? Should there be a period of testing -- to learn the character of one's faith and abilities -- before one is entrusted with important ministries of the congregation? We certainly want to know something about the abilities of an organist before s/he leads the congregation in worship or a treasurer before handing the checkbook over to him/her. We tend not to be so choosy about selecting readers or ushers or greeter or committee chairs, but should we be?
The only other activity of the Holy Spirit in Mark, besides casting Jesus into the wilderness, is speaking through David and speaking through disciples who have been arrested. In the first instance, the Holy Spirit gives authority to what David says. The second instance, which we might relate to the "testing" text, is that the Holy Spirit can make good come out of a bad situation. While we don't seek to be arrested or to be tested in the wilderness (or at work or at school or wherever), when such things happen, the Spirit can use them for good -- strengthening one's faith, creating an opportunity to witness, etc.
"Satan" comes from the Hebrew verb STN meaning "to be hostile, to oppose". The noun means "adversary," who usually is an earthling in the OT, but in 1 Chr 21:1; Job 1 & 2; Zech 3:1, 2 it refers to a heavenly being and is transliterated "Satan".
In the LXX, the Hebrew satan was always translated by the Greek diabolos ("the slanderer, the devil") -- a word that doesn't occur in Mark.
"Satan" occurs in 5 verses in Mark.
Jesus asks, "How can Satan drive out Satan?" (3:23)
And answers: "If Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come." (3:26)
In the explanation of the parable of the sower, Satan comes takes away the word that has been sown on the path (4:15)
Jesus rebukes Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things" (8:33)
Starting with the last occurrence, "Satan" seems to be anyone whose mind is not set on divine things -- who seeks to stand in the way of Jesus (or us?) fulfilling God's purpose in our lives. "Satan" knows enough not to be divided against himself -- which may mean that Satan is clear about his purpose and role in the universe, which is to seek to take away the Word of God, which is easily done with people who are too "hard-hearted" for the Word to take root. If God's Word is not well rooted in our lives, then we can't know God's purpose for us. Thus it will be easy for Satan or other people to steer us away from that purpose.
I've known too many congregations that could learn a lesson from Satan -- a house that is divided against itself cannot stand. How many congregations are falling because they are not clear about their God-given role and purpose in the world?
In a sermon, Martin Luther said:
God uses the devil and the evil angels. They, or course, desire to ruin everything; but God blocks them, unless a well-earned scourging is in order. God allows pestilence, war, or some other plague to come, that we may humble ourselves before Him, fear Him, hold to Him, and call upon Him. When God has accomplished all these purposes through the scourge, then the good angels come again to perform their office. They bid the devil stop the pestilence, war, and famine. So the devil must serve us with the very thing with which he plans to injure us; for God is such a great Master that He is able to turn even the wickedness of the devil into good. [What Luther Says, Vol. 1, pages 401-402]
I've heard Luther's thought summarized by saying that God uses the devil to test people. God's purpose in the testing is to strengthen faith, but the devil has his purpose in the testing -- to destroy faith. I think that Jesus' time with Satan resulted in a stronger faith that could have only happened by going through the 40 days of testing.
A short story from A Treasury of Jewish Folklore: Stories, Traditions, Legends, Humor, Wisdom and Folk Songs of the Jewish People, Edited by Nathan Ausubel, Copyright, 1948, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York
The Evil Spirit once came dejected before God and wailed, "Almighty God -- I want you to know that I am bored -- bored to tears! I go around doing nothing all day long. There isn't a stitch of work for me to do!"
"I can't understand you," replied God. There's plenty of work to be done only you've got to have more initiative. Why don't you try to lead people into sin? That's your job!"
"Lead people into sin!" muttered the Evil Spirit contemptuously. "Why Lord, even before I can get a chance to say a blessed word to anyone he has already gone and sinned!"
therion occurs only here in all of the gospels. It is unique in Mark's account of the testing. It is a word that refers to any wild animal or beast. It is used in Acts 28:4-5 for the viper who bites Paul. It is used in Revelation to refer to the "beast" (representing the Roman Empire) who is worshiped rather than God.
There are two general ways of understanding the "wild beasts".
We might understand them as further dangers to Jesus in the wilderness. They are beings that would seek to prevent Jesus from carrying out his ministry in the world. In congregations they may be called "alligators" or "sharks". In a broader sense, we might also understand them allegorically as anything that might hinder the ministry of clergy, individuals, or congregations. Could we consider "We've never done that before," or "This is the way we've always done it," as wild beasts? Could we consider ignorance and apathy as wild beasts? (Answer: "I don't know and I don't care!") I'm certain that every clergy could come up with a list of "wild beasts" that are present in his/her congregation. Whether or not s/he wants to name them in a sermon is another question.
[NOTE: in ancient Greek, therion especially referred to animals that were hunted -- those beasts we would like to kill! <g>]
Another understanding of Jesus being with the "wild beasts" is as an image of the fulfillment of Isaiah 11:6-9. "The wolf shall live with the lamb," etc. Jesus being the wild beasts and not being harmed could be seen as a sign of the coming kingdom.
Both the Greek (aggelos) and Hebrew (mal'ak) words translated "angel" have the basic meaning "messenger." Just as earthly rulers needed messengers to carry messages to others before there was the post office and faxes and e-mail, so it was thought that God needed heavenly messengers to carry the divine word to earth.
Besides our text, this word occurs five times in Mark.
Quoting Malachi 3:1, it is the messenger who goes ahead of you, preparing your way (1:2).
They will be part of the entourage when the Son of Man comes in his Father's glory (8:38) and then they will gather the elect (13:27); but they do not know when that time will be (13:32).
The risen dead will be like angels -- unmarried (12:25).
The eschatological emphasis on angels could indicate that Jesus with the wild beast is a picture of the peaceful kingdom that is coming. However, I would more likely present a contrast between "wild beasts" and "angels". The wild beasts are those who would "devour" Jesus. Angels are those who "serve" or "minister" (diakoneo) him.
Here, I don't think it's too important to try and define "angels," except as those who serve. Even that word can lead to a little confusion. Even though Jesus said, "For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" (10:45), every other instance of the word, he is being served! Angels serve him in our text. After he heals Peter's mother-in-law, "she serves them" (1:31). A group of women served ("provided" in NRSV) him when he was in Galilee (15:41).
Twice Jesus uses a related word to entreat his disciples that they need to be servants (9:35; 10:43).
Our Lutheran communion liturgy ends with the dismissal, "Go in peace. Serve the Lord." One might explore ways that we "serve the Lord." When we are serving, then we are functioning as angels.
As I think about times when my faith has been tested/strengthen, often the best service that others can do for me, is to let me share the experience. Perhaps that is why this event is followed with Jesus' first public announcement. Maybe there is a connection between the Holy Spirit leading into times of testing and the Holy Spirit speaking through us. This text might lead to some autobiographical sermons.
Just as one can name the "wild beasts" in a congregation, one can also name the "angels" -- those who are godly servants. It would probably be safer in a sermon to name the "angels" in a congregation than the "wild beasts."
Lent is the season where we watch Jesus take his God-given path to the cross. Along the way there will be those who would try to steer him down a different path -- Satan and "wild beasts". As Jesus passes these "tests" his faith and resolve grows stronger to carry out his mission in Jerusalem. Also along the way there are those who will minister to him and help him in his needs. So may it be for each of us during our Lenten journey.
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901