First Sunday of Lent

Mark 1:12-15

The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him. After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

There’s a lot going on in this brief Gospel reading. Jesus is driven out into the desert, where he remains for forty days. He is tempted by Satan, lives among beasts, and is ministered to by angels. John the Baptist is arrested and Jesus begins His preaching about the Kingdom of God.

I am struck by the language of Jesus being driven out into the desert by the Holy Spirit. The verb “drive out,” ekballein, that Mark uses is the same verb he uses to describe Jesus driving out demons from those possessed by them (1:34, 39; 3:15, 22, 23; 6:13; 7:26; 9:18, 28, 38). It has the connotation of being ordered or coerced, with little choice in the matter on the part of the one being “driven.” The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert.

The Spirit is a driving force in the life of Jesus. Yes, of course, He has a choice in His mission. Yet, this is what He came for, to redeem every part of what it means to be truly human. As such, Jesus came to experience every aspect of what it means to be human, including those times when we feel, human as we are, that we have no real choice in a matter. We are driven. Whether it is by a sense of duty, or by circumstances, or by the expectations of others, we have all experienced those times when we are driven to act.

Here is Jesus, driven by the Spirit into the desert. The desert is a dry place, scorching hot during the day and bitter cold at night, where there is little shelter from either hot or cold, or from the wild beasts that live there (symbolic of evil powers). It’s something of a composite of the human struggle, of those times we feel exposed with no place to hide. It’s no surprise that the Spirit drove Jesus into the desert, then. To understand the human experience, one must experience the human struggle. The desert is the place to do just that.

It’s no surprise, either, that Satan chose the desert as the place to tempt Jesus. It’s during our struggles, those times we feel exposed with no place to hide, that we feel most vulnerable, especially weak, not so much in control, and not as much ourselves as we would like to be. Satan hopes to exploit this weakness. It’s interesting that Mark, unlike Matthew and Luke, has little to say about Jesus’ encounter with Satan in the desert. He simply says that Jesus was tempted (or tested) and among the wild beasts. Could it be because it’s here, in the desert, that Jesus faces Himself at His most vulnerable? That’s the real test, isn’t it? It’s not so much the devil or evil powers with whom we struggle. It’s more with ourselves. That’s where we really feel the heat and the freeze. Thanks be to God for His ministering angels!

It is out of this desert experience that Jesus is strengthened to begin His ministry of proclaiming the gospel. John is forced (driven!) off the stage just as Jesus enters, invigorated and fearless in His preaching. There’s no compromise here, no time to be wishy-washy about where one stands, no time to hesitate. It’s the time of fulfillment. It’s the time to make bold choices. The kingdom is at hand. Repent! Believe! This is the heart of Mark’s Gospel and of the preaching of Jesus. This isn’t good news for the sake of making us feel better. It’s for the sake of challenging us to do better, to live better, to choose Jesus and to live for the kingdom. Just as Jesus did, we come out of the desert strengthened by grace to live the life of the kingdom of God.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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