This week’s gospel reading is remarkably brief. It presents challenges to the preacher, because we have heard much of it in other contexts already in this liturgical year (vss 9-11 was included in the gospel for The Baptism of our Lord and vss 14-15 were included in the reading for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany). The key verses left out of those other readings were 12 and 13, Mark’s account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Compared to the accounts of the temptation in Matthew and Luke (there is no parallel in John), Mark’s version is astonishingly brief and puzzling.
“And immediately the Spirit drove him into the wilderness.” The word translated here as “drove” is used elsewhere in Mark to describe Jesus’ casting out demons or Satan. Mark also uses it when Jesus throws the moneychangers out of the temple. It’s an active verb, associated with violence and to use it here raises all sorts of questions. What is the gospel writer’s intent? To show that Jesus is utterly subject to the whim of the Spirit? Is Jesus a victim of the Spirit? Should we even capitalize the word “Spirit” assuming it refers to the Holy Spirit? And perhaps most importantly, what is the significance of the sequence: baptism, temptation, and beginning of public ministry?
These two verses (12-13) are full of allusion to a world we don’t inhabit, a world in which evil personified as Satan besets us, wild beasts surround us, and angels tend to our needs. But even if the symbolism is alien, the reality to which those symbols point is the same reality in which we live. We are tempted and struggle with sin and we do find solace in spiritual friendship and support. The terrors of the wilderness may be our despair and fear, our struggle with addictions, unemployment, even loss of faith. Jesus heard those amazing words, “You are my Son, my Beloved.” Those words must have sustained him throughout his trials in the desert, just as the words pronounced at our baptisms, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever,” should sustain us in our own wilderness sojourns.