Once upon a time, my fiancé and I were living in North Fitzroy; and we were married by Paul Turton at the North Carlton Baptist Church. We stood before the congregation, and made our promises, and were declared a wedded couple. Straightaway, I met a surprising number of interesting, intelligent, and attractive men. I began wondering if my own interesting, intelligent, and attractive man was really the best option, or whether I had made a colossal mistake; and I found myself wrestling with demons of pride, and doubt, and desire.
But then a wise old friend happened to mention that many people find their eyes wandering right after their wedding; and in the light of this new knowledge, the interesting, intelligent, and attractive men I had met began looking rather ordinary again. Lovely chaps, all of them, but none could hold a candle to the one I had chosen.
Many of us could tell similar stories. After marriage, struggle. After baptism, struggle. After any major turning point that involves a big step of faith, struggle. It even happened to Jesus. For in those days, Jesus came to be baptised by John in the Jordan River. As he was coming up from the waters, he saw the heavens torn apart. The Spirit descended like a dove, and a voice came from heaven, declaring, “You are my beloved Son; I am delighted in you.”
If Jesus had been only divine, he would have immediately gone on to great deeds of wonder and power. But Jesus was human. And so, having declared his allegiance to God, not Rome, through the act of baptism, he was affected in a very human way. For the Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness. For forty days he was tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and angels ministered to him.
It all sounds quite fantastic, so let’s look a little closer. Lots of us react to the word ‘Satan’, but it’s nothing to be afraid of. The word ‘Satan’ is from the Hebrew, and it means the voice of accusation, or the voice which undermines. It’s the voice which whispers, straight after marriage, “You could do better,” and raises doubts about our commitments. It feeds our envy of other people’s lives. It threatens laughter like a whip, and holds us to the status quo whenever we are called to risk the ridicule and the mockery that can come when we follow Jesus. Satan is present every time we judge someone or run them down. Satan tells us that churches are full of hypocrites, when in truth they are full of people fighting demons. Satan suggests that all our efforts are worthless and we may as well enjoy ourselves, when in fact all our efforts have meaning, and without meaning our lives turn to dust. This is the voice of Satan—and we all know the voice.
Wild beasts, meanwhile, may be lions and tigers and bears, oh my!, or may be, quite simply, everything which threatens to devour us: envy, pride, arrogance, lust, gossip, impatience, violence, feelings of hopelessness and meaninglessness, and many others—there’s a whole menagerie of wild beasts out there. And angels? Well, angels are messengers from God. And now this fantastic story begins to look a lot like ordinary life. For whenever a human takes a significant step of faith, a struggle begins. We begin to doubt ourselves and our calling. Our most destructive tendencies emerge, and others judge us harshly. Yet through it all God’s messengers continue to guide us.
Jesus’ story is our story, because Jesus became one of us to show us the path to freedom. That is why we follow him. And just as he spent forty days wrestling, during Lent we do likewise. It is not the only time that we struggle: we can be thrown into the wilderness at any time. And it is never contained: what we learn in the wilderness should shape our whole lives. But it is a focussed time in which we imitate Jesus by facing up to the accuser and the wild beasts: both those which lurk within, and those which come from outside. And, just as an old friend of mine offered words of wisdom right after my marriage, we are ministered to by angels. They won’t be chubby cherubs, nor will they be hyper-holy people. Instead, they will be the scruffy people or uncomfortable insights which turn up at inconvenient moments. In the whirlwind of convincing lies about who we are and what we are called to be, among the snarling beasts of arrogance and lust and anger and gossip and violence, these surprising voices will serve us and keep us on track.
So the path set before us is strange and difficult—and it leads of course to the cross. But we must remember: the cross is not the end. For when we learn to sit with Satan and the wild beasts, noticing them, naming them, and entrusting even these parts of ourselves to God, then the accuser will be silenced, and the wild beasts will put their tails between their legs and slink away.
And then we will know the fragrant breeze of an early-morning garden, the terror and the delight of new life, the sting of salt fish upon our lips, the expansive, hospitable, reckless freedom that will crack our hearts open to love and to joy. For the journey of Lent takes us right through the wilderness, through the cross, and explodes into Easter gladness.
So let us journey willingly into the darkness of the human heart. Let us face up to our doubts and our fears, our destructive desires and our demons, and let us offer them all to God. And let us keep our eyes peeled and our ears pricked, for wherever we go and whatever we encounter, there will be angels—and they will be pointing the way to life. Amen. Ω
A reflection on Mark 1:9-15 by Alison Sampson, 18 February 2018 (B18) (c) Sanctuary.
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