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March 9, 2002

The Spirit drove Jesus into the desert

(Mark 1: 12-15)

Every year on the first Sunday of Lent, we hear how Jesus goes into the desert. This year we have the short version, from the Gospel of Mark, which reads simply, "The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among the wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him." So I thought we could look at three things: the desert, the temptations, and the creatures Jesus meets.

First, why does Jesus go into the desert? He had just been baptized and heard God call him "My beloved," so I think he goes into the desert for forty days to seek God, to be with God, to figure out what it means to be God's beloved, and to find out God's will. If you think about it, Jesus could have done many different things, everything from retire to a comfortable lifestyle and be pleased with himself because he made it--to doing what Peter and the disciples wanted him to do, become a military messiah, take up arms, and overthrow the horrible dictator, the brutal tyrant who threatens us all. But Jesus does something completely different and strange. He goes into the desert. He fasts and prays for forty long days. He puts aside his own agenda, his own expectations, and the whole world--for one single purpose, for God. Jesus is the ultimate seeker, searching to do God's will, looking for truth, and the desert is the ultimate place of solitude, silence, emptiness, purification, truth and openness, the place to be with God alone, free of all distractions, the place where we can discover the compassion, love and nonviolence of God. That's why after the Roman empire coopted the chuch in 313 and announced that Christians could not fight in wars, thousands of early Christians in the fourth and fifth centuries fled to the desert, to pray, find God, and remain faithful to the Gospel. They became our desert fathers and mothers.

So what happens to Jesus in the desert? The world challenges him, saying, "There's no God. Don't believe in God. God cannot be trusted. You are not the beloved. You have to stand on your own two feet, and defend yourself. Or if you are the beloved, why don't you do something miraculous, and test God? Why don't you take over the world, become number one in the world, be god, dominate the world, decide who can live and die, and be the world's policeman? That what the book and the movie, " The Lord of the Rings" is all about. I've been reading the letters of Tolkien recently and he was trying to explore this temptation to power, violence, domination, the temptation to play God, and he wrote that his whole life and work was one long prayer, "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." Jesus is the only one who rejects the ways of the world. He resists the temptations of doubt, despair, violence, and global domination and decides instead to be human, powerless, humble, nonviolent, to be God's beloved son and to share that belovedness with everyone, to be the suffering servant of humanity.

Finally, Mark mentions the wild beasts and the angels. Maybe the wild beasts symbolize all the terrors of the world, all our fears, the forces of death, and Jesus is way out there alone in the wilderness and he must have been afraid, but learns to face his fears and death and trust in God. And God sends angels who minister to him.

The Gospel always presents all kinds of people around Jesus and invites us to see how we fit into the story. Where are we in his story? Are we like the disciples who deny Jesus, the Pharisees who condemn him, the soldiers who kill him, or the rich who walk away from him? The question is always, what is our response to Jesus? How do we react to him? How are we with Jesus in the desert?

Today, the Gospel invites us not to be like the wild, untamed, violent beasts who terrify, hurt or kill the Christ in others, not to be the voice of temptation, of doubt, despair and global domination to one another, but instead, to be like the angels who minister to the Christ in one another, to help each other reject the ways of the world, resist the world's wars, be God's beloved, and call for repentance of the sin of violence and war, announce God's kingdom of love and peace, and accompany Jesus as he walks the path of nonviolence to the cross.

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