Mark 1:12-13 “What If…”
What if…I have been thinking about Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness wrong all along? We hear this story at the start of Lent every year – a reminder that Jesus spent time in desolate isolation, being tempted by evil, for 40 days – so therefore we shouldn’t complain about giving up chocolate for 40 days during Lent (or whatever it is you do to mark this season of sacrifice). The Christian season of Lent is not meant to be one of joy, so we start with this stark story of Jesus alone in the wilderness.
The Gospel of Mark, which we are working with this liturgical year, doesn’t offer much detail of Jesus’ wilderness experience. In fact, just two verses are given to this story. Here is what we read immediately after Jesus was baptized, “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” That’s it. That is all Mark gives us. The Gospel of Mark is not one for fluff, but even this seems to be unusually lacking in detail, leaving us to fill in the gaps.
The wilderness is something to be avoided today as much as it was in the time of Jesus. No resources, no backup, living by wits, at the mercy of the elements. Sure, there are some who love it, but for the most part, people create lives that are meant to protect them from it. Indeed, the scripture makes it clear that Jesus was not heading out to the wilderness of his own volition. It clearly says, “the Spirit drove him out.” Therefore, most of us have decided, this was not a pleasant experience for Jesus. That is clearly what the writers of Matthew and Luke, the two other Gospels that have this wilderness story in it, decided. They took Mark’s account – the first to be written and therefore their source material – and fill in details of Jesus being hungry and tempted over and over again by Satan. At each temptation, they write, Jesus resists the easy path and continues to do the hard thing. It wasn’t until after the temptations ceased did the angels come to wait on Jesus. The writers of Matthew and Luke clearly also thought the wilderness is something to be avoided – and wrote stories to reinforce that. So, we head into Lent thinking this won’t be fun, just something we have to get through in order to arrive at Easter.
But, here’s the thing, Mark doesn’t describe torment. It doesn’t say that Jesus was hungry for forty days. It does say that he was tempted by Satan, but we are not given any details about what that means. And, it says that the angels waited on him, not after he overcame the temptations, but the entire time he was out there. And, Mark gives one final detail – one that is not included in any of the other Gospels – that Jesus was with the wild beasts.
And that is where my thinking about the 40 days in the wilderness began to come off the rails. You see, I became a bit obsessed about trying to understand the role these wild beasts played. The commentaries I read, the old sermons I could find, everything reinforced that these wild beasts were a part of the wilderness that is meant to be avoided. Wild beasts were dangerous and out for blood. Something Jesus was running from. More evil that had to be overcome. However, my study Bible, the one I used in seminary and the one I still use today – which offers analysis of every verse, and sometimes most of the words in each verse – pointed me somewhere else. Go read Genesis 1 and 2, it suggested – the creation story in which animals and humanity were created to live together in harmony by God. Spend some time reading the prophet Isaiah, it further suggested, particularly the 11th chapter in which we read: “The wolf shall lie down with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid…” on and on the prophet goes, describing the Kingdom of God – a Kingdom steeped in peace, where power is not held over, but rather held together. Finally, read Hosea it suggested – which says, “I will make for you a covenant on that day with the wild animals, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety.”
Now, my study Bible very clearly says in the notes that it was not sure what was meant by the inclusion of the ‘wild beasts’ in the Jesus’ wilderness story. And clearly the writers of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke didn’t know what to make of their addition either, since there are no mention of wild beasts in either of their accounts. But, I was directed to look at scripture in which humans were in the wilderness, and these stories were not ones of torment and fear. Rather, they are stories in which there is peace and tranquility on the earth. The scriptures I was directed to remind me of the Garden of Eden – the creation story that has been told over millennia in which we see God’s plan for Creation was one of peace, equality, and care. Maybe, just maybe, Jesus was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness to get a glimpse of what God hopes for God’s creation: people living in harmony with the natural world, predator and prey no longer in a power struggle, temptation by evil that is overcome with the aid of angels.
What if…Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness was not a trial, but a glimpse of the Kingdom of God? Where humanity and creation co-exist peacefully; angels care for those in need; temptation comes and goes, but never overpowers.
What if…Lent is not meant to be a season of sacrifice, but a glimpse about how humanity can live together in better relationship – a glimpse of living into the Kingdom of God?
What if…we give something up, not to punish ourselves for our sinful natures, but in order to remind ourselves that if we all give from our abundance, then everyone will have enough?
What if…we spend the season of Lent in prayer-filled introspection, not to confront all that is wrong with us, but rather so we can be waited on by angels – trying to see ourselves as God sees us – a beloved community created in God’s image, one meant to be cherished and tended to?
What if…we don’t view the temptations of evil as something to be avoided, but rather opportunities to actively live our faith? We are tempted to hoard, but instead we choose to give. We are tempted to fear, but instead we choose to offer love. We are tempted to keep silent in the face of injustice, but instead we choose to speak out.
What if…the season of Lent is not meant to be a time of dissonance, when our lives are intentionally made uncomfortable, but rather it is meant to be a time of consonance – when we live in beautiful harmony with God and one another?
What if…we have gotten Lent wrong this entire time? Rather than a season that needs to be ‘gotten through’, maybe it is a season to ‘dive into’ with anticipation and joy – a time when we can glimpse all that we are as part of God’s creation. The way we are held together, the way we are created to be, the way our earth is meant to hold us, not to over-power us, if we simply learn to live in peace with it.
What if…Lent is actually a glimpse of the promise of God, the Kingdom which we are all striving for?
I don’t know. I am not able to find any scholars who are asking the same questions I am. But here is what I do know: scripture is still speaking to us. And just because it seems that minds have been made up about something, doesn’t mean there are still not possibilities to explore. The Gospel of Mark leaves a lot of room for imagination. The writers of Matthew and Luke did just that – they imagined what Jesus experienced in the wilderness. And just because most of the Christian Church has come to one conclusion, namely that the wilderness experience was one of hardship and turmoil, and we have created the Lenten season to reflect that, doesn’t mean that we can’t keep using our imaginations. Maybe, just maybe, we have gotten it wrong all along. Lent is not meant to be gotten through in order to get to Easter. Maybe, just maybe, Lent is a glimpse of what we are all striving for – the Kingdom of God. And then the Easter miracle is not a reward for getting through the season, but rather a reminder that the promise is enduring, no matter what.
What if…? Amen.
Still-speaking God, it is by your grace that we live. And it is by your grace that we ask our questions. We thank you for your constant tug on our Spirits, urging us to imagine more and more. To use our questions to form your Kingdom around us. To use your voice to wonder aloud about what it is you desire from us.
In our practices of devotion to you we strive to find a balance between wonder, wondering, and awe – and keeping the everyday needs of the world in front of our eyes. So, even as we ask our questions, we hold in our hearts the troubles of the world.
We pray in particular this day for those who are suffering from weather hardships, those who are sick and caring for those who are sick, those who are grieving alone, and those who are feeling too empty. We turn over to you, God, these concerns and trust them into your care.
We also pray for those who are experiencing joy and gladness. We rejoice with them and fill ourselves up with their smiles and laughter. Your creation is vast and diverse, and our experiences in the midst of that creation are equality vast and diverse. For all of these experiences, we give thanks.
We pray all of this and so much more in the name of Jesus Christ, our teacher who encouraged questions and challenging of the status quo. And we pray now in the way he taught us by saying together…Our Father…
 HarperCollins Study Bible, 1989
 Isaiah 11:6-9
 Hosea 2:18