Sunday, February 18, 2024

Embracing the Desert

"At once the Spirit drove him out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him. After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: 'This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.'" (Mark 1:12-15 NABRE)

The writer of the Gospel of Mark seems to have been in a hurry to tell the story. What is expanded upon in Matthew and Luke is given to us only in glimpses in Mark. At least, that's how it seems. Here we are only told that the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness, and that there he was tempted by Satan for 40 days. If this is all we had, our imaginations would be allowed to run a little freer than they do. What significance might we draw from this text?

One way of looking at it is to ask what the writer was trying to tell his readers, and what was their context. C. Clifton Black, in his "Mark’s Gospel: History, Theology, Interpretation," makes the case that it was likely written in Rome. Christians met in very small groups scattered in the city, and most at the time likely tended to be from the lower classes. They were far enough from Semitic culture that the writer of Mark would give explanations for Aramaic words and other helps where there might be a cultural divide. 

While the writer didn't spend a lot of time on this period of Jesus' ministry, he packs a lot in. Jesus was baptized, tempted, and then began proclaiming his good news. Perhaps the first readers of Mark would have understood from this to expect temptations when they undertake the path of discipleship. That Jesus did not give into temptation could be seen as reassurance that it is possible, or else condemnation for those who backslide.

But for us in the 21st century, is there anything here for us? Certainly we know plenty of stories of religious leaders who fell short and were exposed as hypocrites. There is more here, as I see it, than just that.

There's some element of a hero's journey in here. Not the whole thing, but perhaps a taste. Someone commits to a grand mission of life, and immediately the darkness comes. That, I believe, is something people can relate to fairly well. In stories I've read of entrepreneurs, the ones that were successful were the ones that kept going despite setbacks. For artists as well, there are stories of throwing themselves into their work, only to be filled with self-doubt and anxiety. Certainly, not all should press on in a bad business environment, nor is everyone equally skilled and apt for creativity. And yet those who do succeed are the ones who found a way forward, even if it might not be the path they expected. 

Aside from self-doubt, other temptations come our way. Ease is likely one of the foremost. Why spend quiet hours striving in obscurity for next to nothing when success isn't guaranteed, when one can take an easier path that is well-trodden and marked? And, of course, for many what awaits with the first taste of success is what 1 John 2:16 describes as "the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches."

If we decide that something is worth doing, and truly believe it, then that should be fixed firmly in our minds, especially in the early hours of our commitment. Not only that, but we should expect and welcome that desert experience. It takes time before new ways of doing and being become habitual. If we have a goal to reach, it is at the very beginning of our efforts we are most likely to turn away. And if, by chance, we have gotten off the path already, we can always try again. The only way to make it, in any case, lies going through the wilderness of weakness.