Lesson: Mark 1:9-13
As we enter this season of Lent, and seek to follow Jesus in these 40 days before Easter, I will be the first to admit that this reading from St. Mark can be a little confusing because it presents some challenging questions. First, we know that Jesus was the spotless Lamb of God, who lived a sinless life, and so why would He need to be baptized in John’s baptism which was a baptism of repentance? Second we know that Jesus is God in the flesh and so why would He be driven into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil? And since He was God in the flesh how could the temptations have any real impact upon Him? Thirdly what does all of this have to do with us and what we need to understand about this season of Lent?
To answer those questions I think it is important for us to understand that there are two pictures being painted in this story. The first is the big picture and I call it the big picture because it is larger than us. Jesus refusing to turn the stones into bread is not a proof text for why we need to be on a gluten free diet. Something more important and greater is going on here than that.
But second there is the smaller picture and it is smaller because it is in fact about us. Jesus’ statement that He would not to put the Lord our God to the test is as true for us today as it was for Him.
What is particularly noteworthy is how the big picture impacts the smaller one, how the greater story impacts our story. If I haven’t entirely confused you at this point allow me to press on.
Let’s begin with the big picture and the big picture is that Jesus did what He did to fulfill all righteousness. He was baptized to fulfill all righteousness and He was tempted of the devil and He overcame temptation to fulfill all righteousness. But what do we mean by that?
The big picture is that God considered Israel to be His son. When God told Moses to speak to Pharaoh this is what God told Moses to say. “Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, ‘Let my son go that he may serve me.’” (Exodus 4:22,23). But as we know Israel as God’s son became a prodigal son. This is how the prophet Hosea put it. “When Israel was a child, I loved him and out of Egypt I called my son. The more they were called, the more they went away, they kept sacrificing to Baals and burning offerings to idols.” (Hosea 11:1,2).
But just like the father in Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son, the Lord did not give up on Israel. Listen to these tender words of a father as Hosea continues. “Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk: I took them up by their arms, but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of kindness and with bands of love, and I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws, and I bent down to them to feed them.” (Hosea 11:3,4).
Again and again through the prophets the LORD called Israel back to Himself and again and again Israel became the prodigal son. So to end this cycle, as St. Paul tells us in Galatians, “…when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” Galatians 4:4,5).
Jesus is the faithful Son that Israel could never be and part of His being faithful is to fulfill all righteousness. Israel had failed to repent and return to the Lord and so Jesus accepted John’s baptism of repentance to complete what Israel had failed to do. He did this even though He Himself was without sin.
What about the temptations? St. Mark does not give us a detailed account of Jesus’ temptations but the other gospels do and you may remember them. One was to turn rocks into bread after Jesus had fasted for 40 days. One was to throw Himself off of a height in order to force God to save him. The third temptation was to worship Satan so that Jesus would receive immeasurable power and wealth.
Before we look at them in detail we need to address the question if these temptations were true temptations for Jesus. The short answer to that question is that they were real because while He was God incarnate, He was also fully man. That is what we confess each week in the Creed. Hebrews 4:15 says “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
We can see that His temptations were real even apart from this time in the wilderness. He displayed anger when He took a whip and drove the moneychangers out of the temple. He displayed frustration in an episode that Mark records in chapter 3. “Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him…And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” (1-6).
I can see myself going too far and entering into sin in either of those circumstances but Jesus did not. Yet the temptation to go beyond anger and frustration had to be there, for He was truly man. So yes, His temptations were real. They were not bullets bouncing off of Superman’s chest; they were genuine appeals to the flesh that He resisted with the Word of God. The challenges were so great that the angels came and ministered to Him.
It is important to recognize that each time Jesus is tempted He quotes Scripture and it is significant which Scripture it is that He quotes. He quotes from Deuteronomy where we see the unfaithfulness of Israel as a son to keep the covenant that they made with God. Thus what we see is Jesus being faithful where Israel was not.
The first temptation was that of turning stones into bread. This temptation reflects the episode in Deuteronomy where God gave them manna and still they failed to trust Him, always calling out for more. They began to miss the garlic and leeks of Egypt. But Jesus as a faithful Son chose not to live by His appetites but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.
The second temptation, to throw Himself from the temple height, is to test the Lord. This reflects when Israel tested God by complaining that God had brought them out of Egypt only to have them die of thirst at Massah and Meribah. But Jesus as a faithful Son refuses to put God to the test.
The third temptation to worship Satan reflects the time when Israel were afraid that Moses was not going to return from the holy mountain and so they made a golden calf and began to worship it. But Jesus rebukes Satan and declares that He will worship God alone. Again, through these quotes from Deuteronomy, we see that where Israel as a son failed God’s tests, Jesus passes them all. He fulfills all righteousness.
The tests that Israel failed, and the tests that Jesus passed, can be summed up in one word. TRUST. And this is where the big picture impacts the smaller picture. This is where what Jesus did to fulfill all righteousness impacts our lives. His faithfulness as a Son beckons to us as sons and daughters by adoption. His acceptance of the baptism of repentance is the standard for us to accept the waters of baptism. We say ask the baptismal candidate, “Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love (BCP p.302)? In accepting the waters of baptism we declare our trust.
His temptations are also ours. We may not be tempted to turn stones into bread but the world around us is a world driven by its appetites and it calls out to us every day in every way. The temptation is to have these appetites guide us rather than the Word of God. The world even tells us that we “deserve it.” We deserve to be happy even if it means breaking a vow. Luther Ingram sang a song that could be the anthem of past and present generations who have placed emotions over truth. “If loving you is wrong, I don’t want to be right.” Jesus however said we are to live by the truth, by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.
We may not be tempted to test God by throwing ourselves off a height, but we do put God to the test when we live lives contrary to the Scriptures and then expect God to clean up the messes that we have made for ourselves. If we are engaged in activities that are destructive to our bodies, do we then come to God and ask Him to heal us so that we can continue in our destructive behavior? Or do we resist that temptation and pray for the grace to change so that we treat our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit? Temptation wants us to do our own thing and then hope for a quick fix. Jesus said we are not to put God to the test. God’s goal is to conform us to the image of Christ. Can we trust God for such a thing?
We may not be tempted to worship Satan in order to be given the nations of this world but the allure of power and wealth is all around us, especially quick gotten power and wealth. Just after the last Wall Street collapse, one of our parishioners said to me that he could summarize the whole financial mess in one word…GREED.
Greed is one of the universally recognized deadly sins because it makes us lose our entire perspective. I get tickled when the lottery gets up to around $200 million because people will stand in line for hours to get a ticket, but these are the same people who could not be bothered to get out of their car if it was only about $6 million, even if there was no one in line. Greed makes people stupid.
And greed also boils down to a lack of trust. It doubts that the Lord will provide so it always wants more and more is never enough. Hebrews 13 gives us the antidote for this insanity. It says, “Keep your life free from the love of money, and be content with what you have…,” and the next line tells us why we can do this. “…for he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.” It is trusting that He will never leave us or forsake us that makes us content and helps us avoid the temptations of greed and power. Giving to God what is rightfully His is one way to express that trust.
I asked the question at the beginning of what all of this has to do with our understanding of Lent. I hope at this point that you can see that Jesus’ fulfilling of all righteous and His victory over temptation during those 40 days has a direct impact on our lives. Because He did not sin, He is a perfect High Priest who prays for us in our temptations. Because He was tempted in every way that we are, He is able to sympathize with our weaknesses. We are not in this alone.
Yes Lent is a penitential time when we take a deeper look at our lives to conform them more closely to God’s will, but it is not a time for going off alone to lick our wounds. It is not a time for morbid introspection. It is a time to grow closer to Jesus as we symbolically join Him in these 40 days. His victory over Satan and temptation becomes our victory. It is a time to reach out for the grace that makes all things new and that strengthens our trust in Him. In this way we use these 40 days of Lent to prepare ourselves for the glories of Easter. Amen.