Matthew and Luke let us in on the conversation between Jesus and Satan in the wilderness, but Mark simply shows us a picture: Jesus is in the wilderness, tempted by Satan, with the wild beasts, and being waited on by the angels. Here is a sermon on the gospel text for the first Sunday in Lent, Year B:
Wild Beasts and Angels
A Sermon on Mark 1:12-15 with allusions to 1 Kings 19:1-9 and 1 Peter 4:12-19
Some would have us believe that once you are in relationship with Jesus, life is inevitably going to be easier. It’s true that it will be better, because Jesus Christ gives us meaning for our lives. But it’s hardly ever true that life will be easier.
Life certainly got harder for Jesus after he accepted his mission. Mark says that after he was baptized, after he received wonderful words of assurance, the Holy Spirit himself drove—not nudged, not urged—DROVE Jesus out into the wilderness to face the enemy, Satan, who embodies everything evil.
It was a trial by fire, something like boot camp, where new military recruits are driven and tested to the limit because they may have to face what is even worse later: the horrors of war. The testing time strengthens them for hard work ahead.
Matthew and Luke tell us about the conversations Jesus had with the enemy, and the logic Satan tried to use on him in the wilderness to turn him away from God’s plans. But Mark simply gives us a vivid snapshot of the scene: wild beasts threatened Jesus, but angels ministered to him.
Many of Jesus’ early followers knew what it was like to be menaced by wild beasts, destructive forces beyond their control. For almost the first four hundred years of our history, it was not easy or safe to be a Christian. Soon after Jesus ascended into heaven, his followers fell victim to torture, imprisonment, and execution for bearing his name.
In Rome, wild, vicious rumors circulated about Christians, that they were cannibals, that they drank babies’ blood during communion. Neighbors accused them of being antisocial because they couldn’t participate in many of the popular—and immoral—amusements of the day. Those Christians were odd, second class. When Christian families moved into a Roman community, residents complained, “There goes this neighborhood!”
Misfortunes of all kinds were blamed on Christ’s people because they refused to worship the Roman deities. The Roman deities had to be placated, lest they send some horrible disaster. Some thirty-odd years after Jesus died and rose, the Emperor Nero even blamed the church for a fire that destroyed much of the city of Rome. Historians suspect that Nero set the fire himself.
Christians certainly made convenient scapegoats. The early Christian writer Tertullian commented, “If the Tiber (the river in Rome) floods the city, or the Nile refuses to rise, or the sky withholds its rain, if there is an earthquake, famine, or pestilence, at once the cry is raised: Christians to the lions!” (E.T. Thompson, Through the Ages, p. 23).
Christians to the lions. Christians suffered greatly because of Satan and his evil cohorts prowling around them like lions. And yes, some of our mothers and fathers in faith were literally thrown to the wild beasts.
Sometimes the whole world looks like a wilderness full of dreadful beasts, big and small. Oppressive rulers living high on the hog while their people starve. Big-time business executives bankrupting their companies, raking in millions for themselves while their employees’ retirement funds evaporate. All kinds of beastly behavior leaving people afraid and unable to trust.
What is all the violence, hatred, and selfishness of the world if it’s not a pack of wild beasts preying on God’s children, ripping the human family apart? White from black, Serb from Croat, Hutu from Tutsi, Israeli from Palestinian, Irish Catholic from Irish Protestant, male from female, brother from brother and sister from sister. Satan has slashed this world with his claws. Wild beasts are running loose in this world!
Wild beasts run loose in our lives. They even lurk within us. Illnesses and injuries can be every bit as frightening and life threatening as a tiger baring its teeth, as a lion lunging at its prey. Depression eats away people’s will to live. Cancer cells ravage the body. Pain gnaws on the body and the soul.
Jesus knows all about that! He knows! Jesus contended with the wild beasts in the wilderness. The forces of evil stalked him all his life. They nailed him to a cross.
But God was stronger than the beasts. God sent angels to care for Jesus in the wilderness, just as God had cared for many others over the centuries. In the book of Genesis, Abraham and Sarah threw Hagar and her son Ishmael out into the wilderness where they faced almost certain death. But God spoke to Hagar through an angel. God opened her eyes to find water. God provided for them in the wilderness.
When the prophet Elijah was in total despair in the wilderness, when he wanted to die, God sent an angel not once, but twice to urge him to eat and drink and take strength for his forty-day journey to the mountain of God.
In the book of Daniel, King Nebuchanezzar flew into a fit of rage when three of God’s faithful servants, Shadrach, Meshach and Abenego refused to worship the golden statue in the king’s image. The king had them thrown into a furnace blazing seven times hotter than normal. These servants of God were steadfast, and they survived. But they had decided to stick with God even if they didn’t survive. Witnesses reported seeing a fourth figure walking around in the middle of the fire with them. Someone was with them.
When Daniel himself was thrown by another king’s order into a den of lions, he recounted afterwards how God’s angel shut the lions’ mouths.
These wild beasts truly were horrible. They’re still horrible! They still have the power to frighten and to hurt and to kill. But they are not stronger than God! God’s love, God’s compassion, God’s providence are stronger than all the beasts. God sent angels to minister to Jesus in the wilderness, and some think the angels even fed him. Notice, though, that they didn’t snatch Jesus up out of the wilderness and make everything all right. They stayed with him and helped him through the wilderness.
Sometimes God’s help, his angels, come mysteriously, miraculously. Billy Graham recounts many examples in his book on angels. His father-in-law, Dr. L. Nelson Bell, who was a missionary to China, described one such incident that happened in 1942, after the Japanese had won the war with China. Japanese soldiers were going around to every bookstore and confiscating all the stock. One morning they arrived at the little bookshop where Dr. Bell bought Chinese gospel portions and tracts to give to his patients.
The shopkeeper was alone and very frightened. But just before the soldiers could enter, a neatly dressed Chinese gentleman entered the shop ahead of them. Though the shop assistant knew practically all the Chinese customers who traded there, this man was a complete stranger. For some unknown reason the soldiers seemed unable to follow him, and loitered about outside.
The stranger asked the assistant what was going on, and he explained. Then the two prayed together, and the stranger encouraged him for two hours. At last the soldiers got back into their truck and drove off. The stranger also left, and no one ever knew who he was. Dr. Bell and his Chinese friends believed it must have been an angel. (In Angels: God’s Secret Agents, pp. 89-90.)
In the wilderness it’s natural to cry out, “Lord, get me out of here!” And it’s easy to get so focused on wanting one particular answer to our prayers that we can’t see God’s help when it comes.
There’s a humorous story about that. The tale goes like this: Once there was a town that needed to be evacuated because a flood was on the way. A police officer stopped at this one man’s house and offered to drive him to safety in the car. The man said, “No, I’m staying. God’s going to rescue me.”
Later, as the water rose higher and higher, two more people offered to help: first a man in a boat, and then two men in a helicopter. Each time the man replied, “No thanks. God has promised to save me.”
A little while later, the man drowned. And when he met the Lord, he chided him, “Lord, why didn’t you keep your promise to rescue me?”
The Lord’s reply was, “I sent you a car, a boat, and a helicopter. What more could you ask for?” What a silly, but serious story!
Often God’s help does come in ordinary ways, dressed as ordinary people, and in ordinary events. We just need to open our eyes, and see his hands feeding a frail older person in the nursing home, or a malnourished child in the Sudan, and see his arms holding hurting people in the prayers of the church.
We just need to open our ears and hear God’s loving voice in the voices of those he sends to support and comfort, or to challenge how we see things, or to show us a new avenue of help, a new way to hope that never occurred to us.
God provides for people in the wilderness. That’s why Peter urged the suffering early church, “Cast your cares upon him, for he cares for you.”
The beasts in the wilderness are horrible, and we shed many tears because of it. But our God is stronger than any beast. Wild beasts plagued Jesus, but God sent his angels to help. Our God is stronger than death. That is the promise of Easter.
Those who share in Christ’s sufferings will share in his glory. Those who share in his death will share in his life. God provides. Those who die will live. God provides for his people in the wilderness.
Take heart, all you who are hurt, frightened, or bewildered. Cast all your anxieties on him, for just as he cared for his Son, Jesus, in the wilderness, our God cares for you, powerfully, tenderly, all the time.