Wrestling with Wild Beasts

Mark 1: 9-15 / February 26, 2012 / First Sunday in Lent / Norman B. Bendroth

When I was in the Holy Land about five years ago, we took a ride out of Jerusalem to the east down into the Jericho Valley. We were headed into the Judean desert. I was excited because I had these romantic images of deserts like those in Lawrence of Arabia movies replete with camels, herds of sheep and goats and an oasis of palm trees and pools of cool water. Those images were quickly dashed when we arrived at some of the bleakest landscape I’ve ever seen. As far as the eye could see there were barren brown hills, almost mountains, as far as the eye could see. They were steep, craggy, rocky and windy. The only visible green was next to the leaks from an aqueduct bring water to Syria. It was stark, wild, and creepy. I can see why the desert father’s would hallucinate after spending weeks, months or years alone there.

This is where Mark’s gospel begins. He starts with a terse account of Jesus’ baptism (Mk 1:9-15). Jesus stands in the Jordan. A dove descends. There is voice.  And immediately after his baptism he is thrown or driven by the Spirit, according to Mark’s Gospel, into the wilderness. As Barbara Brown Taylor has noted, there is no sweet dove in Mark’s version of Jesus’ baptism. This Spirit thing seems to have claws and talons that drive him into the wilderness. And there he is confronted by “wild beasts.” You may recall that in other Gospels Jesus has a long discourse with “Satan” or the “tempter.” Satan is in a minor key here. There’s also “wild beasts.” It is a dark, fierce, enigmatic way to open a gospel.

For people who lived in that day, in that part of the world, huddled behind walls in their cities, the “wilderness” was a fierce place. They didn’t have our modern, romantic notions of nature and finding Transcendence there like Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Wilderness” and “wild beasts” were forces arrayed against civilization, against goodness and peace, against the humane. The “wild beasts” are the shadow side of reality, that deep, dark world of chaotic evil that bubble up from time to time and challenge us.

I think Mark was pretty smart to label what Jesus’ encounters in the wilderness as “wild beasts.” Is not temptation like this – some wild thing waiting to jump us? Back in Genesis, Cain is warned that, if he does well, fine. But, “Take care, sin is crouching at the door.” Sin is the wild beast crouching outside the door.

Jesus may be the Son of God, whom the heavenly voice announced at his baptism, but he is not immune from temptation. Jesus is immediately confronted by temptation in the terrify-ing form of these “wild beasts.” Jesus will show us, in the rest of Mark’s Gospel, his complete solidarity with us in our suffering, sickness, and pain. Today he demonstrates his shoulder-to-shoulder closeness with us in our temptations.

Temptation can mean “enticement to sin” or it can mean “put to the test” or “to go through a trial.”  The former usage is “I was tempted to cheat on my taxes.”  The latter usage is “I was so tempted to give up hope after being in the hospital for 50.”  This is how Mark uses the word “tempta­tion”– to stand firm in times of trial. We prayer this prayer every week, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Another, more accurate translation is “save us from the time or trial” or “do not let trials overwhelm us.”

Christian life, as the cross shows us, is participation in and not exemption from the trials and tempting opportu­nities of life.  This petition does not say, “Excuse us from life’s tempta-tions”; rather it is a plea that we will not be abandoned during our wrestling with deceiving powers and opportunities.

It’s not like God goes around putting banana peels in our paths to test us, like a teacher who gives pop quizzes. The text says the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness but Satan tempted him. Life has enough tough circumstances and temptations to cut corners without God having to put $50 bills on the grocery floor store to see whether we’ll keep it or turn it in.

Nevertheless, aren’t there those times when you feel that God has a lesson or an experience just for you? This is the incomprehensible mystery of God’s love and grace moving in our lives; the speechless certainty that the coinciden­ces that seem unexplainable have meaning and purpose; the stirring within that makes us know that the sudden bursts of insight, the “instant guidance,” the “falling into place” of misplaced and displaced experiences were no accidents.  When a power beyond us breaks in, when we are aware of mys­tery operating in our lives, that’s when we know that we are God’s beloved child.

Hebrews 12:6 says, “The Lord disciplines the one whom he loves.” What loving and earnest parent would not discipline a child either by correcting her when she’s wrong or pro-viding opportuni­ties that would stretch and grow her?  I know it’s a cliché, but the rose must be crushed if its full fragrance is to be released.  Gold must be heated in the furnace if it is to become pure.   And I know by faith and by experience that it is often through pain, suffering, trouble, adversity, trials and even temptation that we become refined and enriched human beings.  Malcolm Muggeridge once said that human beings would be horrible if they never had to suffer. The richest chords require some black keys.

One of the black keys, the “wild beasts” that Christians have to be especially aware of is self-deception. In his book, People of the Lie, Scott Peck says that, if one is looking for genuine evil, then look first within the synagogue or the church. It is of the nature of evil to “hide among the good.” Leaders of the church, especially clergy, can be particularly susceptible to self-deceit. If you’re feeding hungry people, visiting the sick, speaking out against injustice and intolerance, comforting the bereaved, it’s easy to begin to think that you’re special; none of the moral rules apply to you that apply to other mere mortals. That was where the Christian Right got into trouble, I think, when the Bakers, the Swaggerts, and the Haggards were caught in sexual and financial scandals. Ironically, they didn’t have a rigorous doctrine of sin—at least for themselves. When you’re on the side of righteousness, when you are always separating yourself from the other because they’re wrong or sinful, then you’re somehow immune.

And this is no less true for liberal or progressive Christians. Although sin appears to be a neglected aspect of much contemporary theology, we need a healthy appreciation for the ubiquity of sin in the church and its leaders. We can just as easily deceive ourselves. “I’m not all that well off,” we say. “Money, materialism is not a problem for me. It’s just a problem for the really rich.” Or, “I don’t claim to be a saint. But I’m not all that bad a person either. I try to do the best I can, and after all, isn’t that all God can expect?” “I am a person of God; I’m a church goer; I volunteer my time for the good of so many.” Beware, sin is crouching at the door.

In our denomination, we rightfully use the word “inclusive” to describe the gospel. The gospel is open, affirming, welcoming, and inclusive. All true. All good. Wonderful ideals. Yet today, as Jesus dwells out in the wilderness, exposed and vulnerable with the “wild beasts,” we are reminded that the Gospel is also exclusive, confrontive, and antagonistic. A move is being made upon the reign of terror under which we sometimes must live. Jesus is coming not only to love us, but also to resist and to defeat those powers that would defeat us. It is a sure sign of a compromised church – a church that has retired from the battle with the principalities and powers, a church without prophets – when one finds a church that has stopped dealing with sin.

This account of Jesus’ temptation challenges any sunny, superficial view of Jesus. Jesus is the one who, from the first is also the one who confronts and is confronted by the powers of sin and death. So today’s Gospel reminds us that Jesus has come, not only to be our friend, our comforter, and our guide but also our comrade in arms in those situations when we stand face-to-face and must go toe-to-toe with the enemy.

When you must walk in enemy territory – the cancer ward, the pain of injustice, the valley of the shadow of death, the places of hate and bigotry – know this, Jesus has invaded it before you. You walk not alone. The Catholic theologian, Monika Helwig, said some years ago, “If it won’t play in a cancer ward, or a shoddy nursing home for the elderly, whatever it is, it’s not the gospel.” If the church only has a word that is sunny, upbeat, bright, and cheerful, then we haven’t told the whole story of who Jesus is.

How does the story of Jesus’ temptation end? Mark doesn’t say, does he? He doesn’t say if this contest between Jesus and beasts ended in vocational triumph for Jesus. In Matthew and Luke Jesus shouted, “Be gone Satan!” But here we don’t know the end of the story. Of course, we assume that Jesus did triumph. But Mark doesn’t say for sure.

Maybe this lack of ending is meant to throw the thing back into our laps, to remind us that the story on temptation and ministry is never quite finished for any of us. You and I are still busy finishing this story and the voice that calls us “Beloved,” is also the voice that warns us about our beasts.

You and I are finishing up a short chapter of our story together today. For me, and unless you’ve been lying to me, it’s been a wonderful journey together. We’ve done some wonderful work together struggling to find the purpose and vision God has for you; we’ve done some creative experimenting in worship and how we share together in our meetings. We’ve had some great laughs, shed tears together, eaten some great food (the coffee? Not so much.), and had interminable meetings. But we’ve also prayed together, learned together, talked about God’s activity in our lives together, shared our struggles and our short-comings together. In short, we’ve been the people of God, the body of Christ for one another.

I would be remiss if I didn’t warn you about some “wild beasts” that may lie before you as a people and a church. Institutionalization. Mainline Protestants are very good at maintaining institutions. New England Congregationalists have been doing it for almost 400 years! But our history can become an anchor instead of a launching pad. If all of our energy and money goes into maintaining the institution (buildings, staff, programs) to the expense of ministry to the world, then we have lost our purpose. Ironically, evangelical churches are rigid in their theology and very flexible in their structures which has enabled them to grow. Mainline churches are flexible in their theology and rigid in their styles of worship and organizational structures which has contributed to their decline. The need to take risks and be bold has never been greater.

Perfectionism. Because you have a highly educated, financially secure, and high-achieving congregation (all good, wonderful things) you expect that in all areas of your lives, including church. But beware, a desire for excellence is not perfection. Don’t lose your humanity in your quest for excellence. Don’t be afraid to try and fail. Don’t ever think that the choir and the ministry team are here to “perform” for you. We all perform before God when we gather for worship. The ministers and the choir merely give the signals; you give the praise.

An aging congregation. FCCW’s average age is likely in the 50s. A bell-curve shows that the biggest gap in age representation is thirty-somethings followed by twenty-somethings. This demographic is beginning to move back into Winchester and is the church of tomorrow. Capturing the imagination of this age group is an opportunity. The threat may be making the changes necessary to attract and keep them. The other threat is that if age continues to trend upward, giving will fall off because people will be living on fixed-incomes or die. The current committed core of members is very generous and are carrying the work of the church, but it likely won’t continue. The challenge is to attract those who are under forty, while keeping those who are above sixty. Unless you’re willing to endure some chaos and turbulence, decline may well continue.

Lack of a center. Rightly so, mainline churches celebrate their diversity. Increasingly, congregations are welcoming gay and lesbian Christians, handicapped and mentally ill folks, and marginalized people. We are a big tent for a lot of theological variety and most of our congregations are multi-generational. If the glue that holds us together is friendliness, a shared history, or a progressive ideology, however, that diversity could quickly become a source of conflict. As FCCW lives into its purpose statement which includes being/becoming a Christ-centered community, that should be the glue, the identity that manages generational differences, tastes in music, styles of worship, and diversity in theology.

In the book My Name Is Asher Lev, there is a scene where Asher and his father are walking to synagogue when they happen across a dead bird. Asher wanted to know why it died. Everything must die, replied his father. Asher couldn’t wrap his head around it–everything? You, me, mama? Yes, everything. Why? Asher finally asks. “So life would be prec­ious, Asher.  Some­thing that is yours forever is never precious.” Today we say good­bye to a relationship that has been precious to each one of us­­.  If our friendship was not precious, it would not be hard to say goodbye.  Goodbyes also teach you that what was loved and what was learned in the past can never be lost, but is to be cherished.

The Apostle Paul told the Philippian church, “I thank my God every time I remember you.” With Paul, I say the same thing about the First Congregational Church in Winchester. I thank my God every time I remember you.





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