Wilderness, Angels, Beasts and Temptation

FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT

Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25:1-10
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15

Prayer of the Day: Holy God, heavenly Father, in the waters of the flood you saved the chosen, and in the wilderness of temptation you protected your Son from sin. Renew us in the gift of baptism. May your holy angels be with us, that the wicked foe may have no power over us, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” Mark 1:12-13.

There isn’t as much wilderness as there used to be and there is getting to be less each day.  The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the annual rate of deforestation is about 1.3 million square km per decade. While the greatest threat today is posed to the world’s rain forests, temperate forests are at risk as well. It was only through the farsighted creation of the National Park system that some vast regions of wilderness remain in our own country today. How long they will remain depends on how firmly our elected leaders are prepared to stand against corporate interests chomping at the bit to move in and exploit them for oil, timber and private development. For the sake of my grandchildren, I hope they stand firm. It breaks my heart to think of them having no forests in which to take their children hiking, no wild animals outside of those bread in captivity and living in cages and only videoclips to show their children what the wilderness once looked like.

I am privileged to live next to a relatively large stretch of forest constituting the National Seashore. The forests of the Outer Cape, as well as the ocean beaches that line it, were saved from commercial development by the efforts of former President John F. Kennedy. On my regular forays into these woods, I have never encountered the devil. Nor have I been much in the company of wild beasts. Our forest residents include all of the usual suspects found as often in suburbia as in these parts-foxes, coyotes, racoons, deer and wild turkeys. There is only one creature in our woods that strikes terror into my heart, and that is the deer tick-blood sucking bearer of lime disease.

I have, however, encountered angels on my walks-if we use that term in its broadest biblical sense to include wind, rain, lightning, sunshine, frost, snow and other energetic forces pulsing through the arteries of the wilderness. Psalm 104:4.[1] In a way, they do minister to me. The sun bakes the back of my neck red; the wind from the ocean sand blasts my face and the rain soaks me to the skin notwithstanding the best rain gear to be had. All of this reminds me of my own fragility. These “angels” convince me, if I need convincing, that I would not fare well on my own for forty days in the forests of the National Seashore-to say nothing of the Rockies or the Amazon Rainforest. These angels of the wilderness remind me that I am, after all, a human creature. I am dependent on a network of family, social and commercial relationships for my wellbeing. As much as being in the wilderness invigorates me, I know I am out of my element. I need human community to thrive and a spell in the wilderness sharpens my gratitude for such community.

The wilderness has a way of putting you in your place. It is hard to take yourself seriously among trees that tower over you. It is nearly impossible to entertain delusions of grandeur standing in front of the ocean. The land, sea and sky have been around long before any human foot made an impression on the soil and they will be here when the last human artifact is worn down to dust. They take little notice of wars, acts of congress or any of the other historic events that excite us. After all, human history is but a second in terms of geological time. Moreover, geological time is but a nanosecond in light of eternity.

“Long ago you laid the foundation of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you endure;
they will all wear out like a garment.
You change them like clothing, and they pass away.” Psalm 102:25-26.

Mark’s gospel does not tell us what temptations the devil placed before Jesus while he was in the wilderness. It is tempting simply to import into the gospel lesson what we read in Matthew and Luke. But the first Sunday in Lent is hardly the time to be giving in to temptations-not even literary ones! I believe Mark would have us ponder Jesus’ lengthy sojourn in the wilderness and employ our imaginations here. I think that perhaps Jesus’ greatest temptation was simply to cut short the forty days. After all, Mark’s gospel has Jesus moving throughout his ministry at a breakneck pace. The word “immediately” appears in nearly every other sentence. We read that Jesus and his disciples were so feverously busy with their ministry that they had no time even to eat.

That is not unlike more than a few days of my own life in the parish. Always in the background of my morning prayers were nagging concerns over the phone calls I needed to return before eleven o’clock so that I could make it to the hospital for my visits before lunch was served. In much the same way, I knew I needed time for prayer and meditation during the years I practiced law. But what time alone I had was too often spent working and reworking in my head the argument I would need to make in an upcoming motion hearing. As one dear old colleague, a priest in one of the neighboring Roman Catholic churches put it, “I find myself so consumed dealing with the urgent that I never get around to doing the significant.” The wilderness has a way of helping you separate the two and prioritize them-if you have the patience to remain there long enough. Maybe Jesus was longing to be done with his forty days in the wilderness and to get on with his work. I can very well imagine the devil whispering in his ear, “You don’t have time for this! There’s important work to be done and you are already behind.”

Or perhaps the temptation consisted of precisely the opposite. Not everybody is as inept at survival as I am. There are plenty of folks who are quite at home in the wilderness. Such people have learned the skills of outdoor living. They find the solitude of life in the wilderness comforting. To whatever extent Jesus was aware of the challenges awaiting him in a world hostile to the reign of God he was called to proclaim, I suspect he might have considered the prospect of remaining in the wilderness an attractive alternative. The wild beasts might not be particularly good conversation partners, but they seem to have treated Jesus with greater kindness than his human opponents and, at times, even his disciples. Perhaps Jesus looked toward the end of his wilderness wandering with dread rather than relief.

Whatever shape temptation takes, it always lures one into the path of least resistance. Sometimes it comes in the form of pandemic fatigue, the desperate desire to “get back to normal.” We are all tired of masks, social distancing, putting off traveling and delaying our visits to loved ones. That desire can lead us to lapses in judgment, to letting our guard down and becoming reckless. Temptation comes in the form of denial. The events of this last year have brought into sharp focus the realities of systemic racism in law enforcement, education and the workplace. They have also taught us that there is an ugly, hostile, selfish and hateful side of America. We always knew it was there, but we took comfort in the belief that it represented only a small minority. When the Klan or the Aryan Nations committed acts of terror, we pretended to be shocked and declared, “This is not what America is about. This is not who we are.” Now we know that, yes, it is very much a part of who we are and what we are about.

It is tempting to deny the realities of the pandemic; to forget what we now know; to throw caution to the wind and listen again to comforting lies that make us deaf to the calls for justice that have been echoing throughout our land for the last four centuries. It is tempting to reassure ourselves that the way things are really isn’t so bad; that we are not really in such a bad place; that we should consider just staying put with the status quo. We would prefer to get out of the wilderness as soon as possible or, failing that, hunker down and make a patch of it as much like home as possible. A long, slow journey through the thick of it, a journey that requires a searching moral inventory, a journey that challenges our priorities, a journey that takes us where we need to go instead of where we want to go-none of that is very appealing. But as we of all people should know, there is no reaching the promised land without going through the wilderness.

The season of Lent, which begins Wednesday, is a call to the wilderness. It is a call to engage the demonic voices that would discourage us from discerning and doing the hard work of repentance. It is a sojourn among wild beasts as well as ministering angels. It is a time to remember that we are indeed dust and destined to return to dust. Yet it is also a time to recall that the God who speaks to us this terrible word is the same One who at the dawn of time breathed the Spirit of life into dust and promises to do so again.

Here is a poem by Reg Saner about the transformative voice of the wilderness.

What the Wilderness Tells You

No one goes back to before. By skies
fresh and ancient as the next raindrop

you were assembled, then from fog
frozen to pines, taught yourself wonder,

and from a single stalk of meadow rue
the vegetable kingdom. Off high rock

the rivers crashed and came running.
A raven matched its wingspan and glide

To the curve of a canyon. By reflection
Slow as your life gathering bits of the past

Your eyes gave birth to nature-
Whose stone, in a few tricky chemicals

Transacting your mind, now thinks you;
Without intent or consequences, so it says,

Having taken your skin for excitement,
Your bloodstream for love, your skull

For its sorrows and lightest of worlds,
Where wind among the forested mountains

Disowning all voice in the matter
Has taken your lips for its wisdom.

Source: Poetry (August 1992). Reg Saner (b.1931) is an American poet. He graduated from St. Norbert College and served as an infantry platoon leader in the Korean War. Following his discharge, he studied at the University of Illinois and received a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the University of Florence. From 1962 to 1998, he taught at the University of Colorado. He currently lives in Boulder, Colorado.

[1] The Hebrew word is “Melek,” meaning literally “messenger” or “emissary.”

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