Mark’s Gospel thus swiftly moves from the baptism of Jesus – the declaration of his, and our, divine belovedness – to the wilderness. That too is our reality, isn’t it? When we hear the message of our belovedness, we are not usually able to enjoy it alone for too long, are we? We too soon find ourselves tested in many different ways. How does this testing work for you, I wonder? Mark’s Gospel is typically economical in its account of Jesus’ time in the wilderness, much more so than Matthew and Luke’s Gospels which have elaborated stylised dialogues between Jesus and his tempter. Perhaps part of us might miss those highly symbolic narratives on this first Sunday in Lent. They certainly express powerful experiences which we, like Jesus have: such as the conflicts we feel in ourselves and among ourselves, regarding how to use power, success and other gifts. Yet I wonder whether Mark’s account of the wilderness is not more helpful and inclusive. For our own testing comes in many forms, doesn’t it? Many of these are less spectacular than those recounted as faced by Jesus in the other Gospels, but they are no less real. Indeed, it is perhaps by little moments of betrayal of love, of faith and hope that we first unravel and our world is harmed. It is not so much always powerful temptations we often face as small acts of unfaithfulness to our belovedness: a tiny worm of hurt, hate, selfishness or self-doubt creeping into our heart rather than a mighty satanic snake.
What comforts you in times of wilderness, I wonder? We might like to reflect upon that a little. For spiritually speaking, the experience of wilderness is very real. There is good reason why such times have been spoken of as ‘the dark night of the soul’. This is much more than mere sadness, or straightforward pain, but includes moments when God in Godself seems wholly absent and where there is no obvious way out of our agony or perplexity. Where then do we go? Mark says simply, Jesus was ‘with the wild beasts: and the angels waited on him.’ We can take that different ways. Perhaps the wild beasts consolidate the feelings of fear and being outcast. The angels may be heavenly but also seem to be of little earthly use? Or perhaps it might also remind us that other wild beasts than ourselves can also comfort the wild beasts raging in our own hearts? Perhaps all we can do is to hold on at such times and let ourselves be carried, though we know it not, by others – by the invisible angels, or by the angels of our lives whom we so often feel to be invisible but wait on us none the less. Sometimes when we emerge from our testing times, our wildernesses, it is only to discover that God has been with us all along, in the prayers and faces of others we can so easily take for granted but who wait on us none the less.
For the wilderness times may recur but they have a fixed limit. Unlike the ringing of ‘belovedness’ in our ears, they are not for ever. Instead, Mark’s Gospel symbolises this with the use of the word ‘forty’. For ‘forty’ in the Bible is used again and again, not only to mark ‘a really long time’, but to signify key points of transformation in our lives and world. There are said to be forty days and nights during the Great Flood in Genesis; forty years in key periods of Moses and other great prophets’ lives; forty years of the people of Israel in Exile; and, perhaps most sigbificant of all, forty years of the Israelites travelling out of oppression in the wilderness. Mark’s Gospel is telling us that Jesus’ – 40 days and 40 nights - time in the wilderness is just as momentous: opening up a new creation, a new return from exile, a new liberation from oppression.
So what will this time of Lent – our forty days and forty nights = be for us? How too do we handle our times of wilderness and moving on from them? Do we see all of this as part of our own, and our world’s new creation, our own liberation from oppression, our own return from exile to fresh knowledge and sharing of belovedness? Do we? That is God’s invitation in Jesus, and the conclusion of our Gospel passage today. Note how when Jesus leaves the wilderness, there is a new beginning not just for him, but for others too. It is not a comfortable thing. John, Jesus’ baptiser, has just been executed. Jesus however is not discouraged. He has faced his inner demons and testing times and triumphed in God’s belovedness and angels. He can move on and share that belovedeness with others. So, he says, as the forty times symbolise, we are offered a new beginning: ‘the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near: repent (turn round, wake up), and believe the good news.’ Can we receive this reality?
We gather this day in this eucharist which is itself both a kind of wilderness space for us to face and name our demons and testing times and yet also a renewing space to be rekindled in our belovedness and angelic communion with others. Today we also have a striking art work to draw us deeper into these truths: of our belovedness, even in darkness, from which new life springs. So may we make this real: in our hearts, minds, bodies, and in all we do and share.
In the name of the face of love who faced the fears of wilderness, Jesus Christ, Amen.
by Jo Inkpin for Lent 1 Year B, Sunday 11 February 2018