We can get so used to hearing the longer versions of this story in the other gospels that we forget how very brief, but fulsome, this version is. It is the paucity of words that this story of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness that opens it up to us to make it our own. We can at times so easily get caught up in the frantic performance and goal-directed activity of 21st century life. And then, perhaps, we have created a soothing routine that runs along automatically so that we avoid the need for decisions. Only the secure knowledge that on Monday there is chicken for dinner, friends to call in the afternoon, or news to watch at 6:00. On Tuesday it might be book club or classes. On Wednesday, maybe it’s the weekly shopping. We could rely so heavily on routine that it robs us of the times necessary for reflecting on our own journey – for spending our forty days in the wilderness.
When do we create space and time enough to clear our minds and hearts of the demons that we contend with on the journey to Jerusalem with Jesus? Recent research has shown that our unconscious mind almost always wins when there is a conflict with our conscious mind. Put simply, deeply embedded beliefs, experiences and memories swamp our best intentions for change. Personal experience and training in pastoral care backs that up. Scientifically speaking, our unconscious mind that stores memories of experiences, beliefs and worldviews, works as an ultra fast information processor at a speed of approximately 11 million bits per second. That compares with our conscious mind processes information at just 50 bits per second.
In that case it is, therefore, not surprising that conscious willpower and self discipline by themselves do not work well for most of us – not unless we attempt to completely shut out the unconscious mind. Because our unconscious mind is so powerful, we need to take time to open it up and confront our demons. We need to name them and expose them as the destructive forces that they can be so that we can be set free from them.
These two, very short verses from Mark’s Gospel are usually offered on first Sunday of Lent, the period of our own wandering in the wilderness: “And the Spirit immediately sent Jesus out into the wilderness. Jesus was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by the Accuser; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to Jesus.”
First: If we are to have what it takes to stand at the foot of the cross and look Jesus in the face on Good Friday, giving up chocolate or our favorite libation for Lent is not enough. We need to turn our lives around and upside-down. We need to faithfully take the lid off the simmering kettle of fear, resentment, anger, bitterness, grief, or hurt that fuels our culture’s negative reaction to the world around us.
Second: it is a false assumption that the past predetermines who we are. To live out of that belief is to choose debilitation, atrophy, rigidness and giving up. As followers of Jesus and believers in the resurrection, we can not allow our freedom to be restricted or predetermined by being captive to our past. We need to unpack the past to free ourselves from the parts that restrict forward movement, but concentrating too heavily on the past could hold us back from reaching out and from taking risks. The truth is that when we are set free from being bound to past shortfalls or failures, we are defined by our hope and expectation of what is to come.
Third: in the wilderness Jesus witnesses to us the struggles with the issue of power and what to do with it. And so we struggle with the issue of what we do with the power that we have. In a novel called Random Acts of Heroic Love by Danny Scheinmann, a wise hermit says that the only really important thing to realize is this: “The only power I have is the power I exert over myself. The world will bend round the person who knows their own power, for they are like a star who cannot be dimmed or a rock that cannot be moved. But use that power over others and the world will eventually crush you, for this is weakness disguised as strength.”
It took a whole lifetime for Jesus to show this to the leaders of that culture. Surely we need to confront the truth about ourselves and the games we play if we are to resist abusing whatever power we have.
Today we have another temptation in our midst. As Christians, we tend to put the emphasis on the cross. That’s the price Jesus paid for our sins and that’s how we got our salvation – Christ paid the cost. It seems that the worse we imagine Jesus’ price to be – the less our salvation costs us.
But our hope is founded in the resurrection – not the crucifixion. We are an Easter people. It may seem comforting to think we’re forgiven with no expense whatsoever. But that leads us to shallow self-centeredness. Then we might be tempted to deny ourselves the expectation, the freedom to change – to become new people in Christ. It means we have to work at it. There is a cost – and it’s a big one. The cost to be disciples and apostles.
And then we remember what the words of the Gospel of John: “The darkness did not overcome the light.”
And the words from the Gospel of Mark: “The reign of God has drawn upon us.”
The cross is the darkness that did not win, that does not reign. Remember Jesus’s experience of overcoming temptations of self-importance and mis-use of power. Rather than celebrating the cross as Jesus’ ultimate destiny, as Jesus’ quest, see beyond the cross to the light and the Christ of our new life – the resurrected Jesus. See the living presence of Jesus Christ in your family, in your neighbor, in your community. Feel and reflect God’s love in faith to all around you.
We can remember how God has blessed us, so we can distribute our blessings. We can live into the abundance we have, and share it, without giving in to the demonic temptation to covet what we don’t have.
I would like to acknowledge that this sermon was helped a great deal by the work of Lance Stone in Cambridge.