Every year the first Sunday of Lent tells the story of the temptation of Jesus. This year we hear St. Mark’s version. Those of us of a certain age will remember an early TV show, Dragnet Dum-de-dum-dum, where the main character, Sargent Friday, would start an interview with a witness by saying some version of “just the facts, ma’am.” St. Mark seems to have been a “just the facts” kind of writer when he told the story of Jesus. Matthew and Luke have an elaborate description of the temptation of Jesus with a “dueling banjos” type of Bible quoting contest between Jesus and Satan. Mark sums up the temptation in five short phrases. For Mark the temptation of Jesus was not a transition point, just a bump in the road. He wants to get onto the story of Jesus proclaiming the “gospel of God.” To understand what the gospel writer is doing we must do a little deep dive into this Biblical text. We don’t see the moves St. Mark is making until we include the scene just before the one described by the lesson for today — the baptism of the Lord in the Jordan. If you remember, at the baptism Jesus saw the Spirit descend upon him like a dove. One verse later the “Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert.” So the same Spirit who descended on Jesus at the moment he was pronounced the beloved Son, well-pleasing to God, that Spirit drove him — didn’t suggest, didn’t propose, didn’t nudge – drove him out into the desert. And it was in the desert that he was tempted by Satan while among the wild beasts. After the angels minister to him to end the temptation he came out of the experience proclaiming the good news. The temptation story in Mark’s gospel demonstrates that Jesus realized that he was on a battlefield. The battle with Satan in the desert was just the first round of the struggle against evil that would characterize his entire ministry. After that encounter he comes out swinging by proclaiming the kingdom of God is at hand.
We begin this Lent, therefore, realizing that we are in a battle as well. While our battle is not against Satan or the wild beasts – no wild beasts for us except for the occasional cockroach – it is nonetheless real. We have experienced the battle against disease and illness this past year in a very dramatic way. Our bodies are always susceptible to the latest round of bugs but this has been a year like no other. We can only hope that the doctors and scientists give us the tools we need in order to win our battle against the virus. Then there is the ongoing battle against the elements which goes back at least to the flood of Noah. In Chicago we battle against the ice and snow which can paralyze the city. Other places battle hurricanes or wild fires or earthquakes or mud slides or tornados or volcanos or tsunamis. Then there are the battles against social ills: poverty, racism, crime, economic injustice, unemployment, health care disparity, inadequate housing, family dysfunction, food deserts. You get the idea. Every day can feel like a struggle as we strive to make it in a world where so much seems to be going wrong so often.
But there is reason to hope. When Jesus came through his initial bout with Satan he announced that the kingdom of God is “at hand.” Not in the sweet by-and-by, not at some future date, not at a time to be announced later – “at hand.” You can reach out and there it is. Recall that it was the Holy Spirit that descended on Jesus at his baptism and who drove him into the desert. Jesus was empowered in his battle against sin, evil, demons, illness, death because he knew that the Spirit of God was with him. That is our story as well. In our ongoing battle with the troubles of the world the Holy Spirit is “at hand,” filling us with all the grace and power that we need to tell Satan, “get thee behind, victory today is mine.”
Well, yes, but it ain’t easy. It ain’t easy to keep on keeping on when the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune keep coming at you like bees after honey. It ain’t easy believing in good news in a world full of bad. That is why Jesus gives us the command, “Repent.” The Greek word translated as “repent” actually means something like “change your mind,” or better “get a new mind.” Jesus is telling us that what we need for the battle is a new way of thinking. The problem is that we don’t trust that the kingdom of God is at hand, there for the taking. We tend to imagine that we need something else in order to reach good news. We have to repent, to think anew, because our ordinary way of thinking prevents us from connecting with what God is doing right now. We have to repent of thinking we need something more. When we are young we think the bike will make us happy. A little later, a new Iphone will make us happy. Then, we believe having a boy friend or girl friend will make us happy and later still, getting married will make us happy. We reach a point where we think having a child will make us happy and then we decide we need a career or maybe just more income in order to be happy. Finally we suppose that if we just had our health we would be happy. Thinking that we need more or something else is exactly what we must repent of. No matter what the troubles of this world we have all that we need right today to be happy. Happiness is at hand. Believe in the good news that you are a beloved child of God just as you are. Believe in the good news that at our baptism God has named us and claimed us as his very own, blessed beyond belief. Believe in the good news that God is in charge and be assured that all will be well, all manner of things will be well.