Rev Ron Ham
Matthew and Luke in their Gospels introduce the coming of Jesus with Nativity narratives which give us so much material for our celebration of Advent. The Gospel of John begins the story of Jesus before the dawn of time with his theological introduction: “In the beginning was the Word.” But the Gospel of Mark makes no reference to the birth of Jesus or to the eternity of the Word; Mark writes like a student whose teacher tells him to write an essay and he will give him a lower grade if he writes more than a certain number of words.
This becomes clear in the first fifteen verses of the Gospel in which Mark introduces Jesus. His opening words in verse 1 state his purpose – “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Mark then simply writes that one of their prophets, Isaiah, had said a messenger would “prepare the way of the Lord”. John the Baptist is that messenger whom Mark describes briefly, and John himself announces that the one who will come after him will baptise them with the Holy Spirit. All that in verses 1-8. Suddenly, Jesus is here! Our interest is aroused immediately.
With this brief opening about a man who was prophesied and who is ahead of the pack, Mark again very briefly tells us of three important facts about Jesus. The first important fact is in verse 9: “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee…” – so at least we know we have a man here with a home address, just like one of us – and he was baptised by John in the Jordan, which is exactly what a number of his fellow citizens were doing. And the second important fact is in verses 10 and 11: “And when he came up out of the water he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
Mark has brought us to the edge of mystery in only eleven verses: God calls this man, who is from Nazareth and is one of us, “My beloved Son”? Mark doesn’t enter into a discussion of this, like the discussion which has gone on in the Church from its earliest days. The greatest theological minds have wrestled with who this Jesus is. This discussion continues and is important. Its general conclusion is that in some way beyond our capacity to fully explain, Jesus was and is both God and man.
But leaving the mystery unexplained, Mark continues in his simple, direct way to record the third important fact about Jesus in verses 13 and 14: immediately after his baptism “the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan.” In telling us this, Mark does not give us details of three temptations offered to Jesus, as Matthew and Luke do. This is further evidence of the more brief and direct intention of Mark who wants his readers, all of us included, who know what temptation is, to know that this man from Nazareth whom God calls his beloved Son also knows what temptation is.
What was the reason for this period of temptation? Put aside the record of three temptations described for us by Mathew and Luke. Imagine we have only Mark, as many in the early Church did for probably at least a decade before the Gospels of Matthew or Luke appeared. I think the temptations have something to do with the baptism of Jesus because Mark writes that following the baptism, “The Spiritimmediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness.”
That baptism was for Jesus a ‘Moses’ moment – that moment when Moses saw a burning bush which was not consumed, and he was told by God to take off his shoes because he was standing on holy ground. And it was there that Moses heard the call to lead the people of Israel out of captivity.
The baptism of Jesus, when God affirmed him to be God’s beloved Son, was a ‘Moses’ moment. Remember that we have already heard that John had said that the one who was coming would baptise with the Holy Spirit. And when we read the remainder of Mark’s Gospel we will see that Jesus really did come to set captives free. Very soon Jesus would challenge the religious leaders and their strict application of the law which burdened people. Jesus would be a kind of second Moses called to set the captives free. Suddenly, Jesus is here!
So we can assume that the temptations will be an attempt to persuade Jesus to be the kind of Messiah who does not upset the way things are; to leave the forces of religious orthodoxy alone and to be a harmless figurehead who is popular but who has no power; a bit like the Queen who is subject to Parliament but cannot make laws.
Mark says in verse 13 that Jesus was tempted by Satan. The way many Christians read this is to think of Satan as a powerful evil person over against God. There is no doubt that it is easy to think of all temptation as coming from such a figure, but if we confine our understanding of sin to that one source, we may make it easy for ourselves because we can always say that Satan, or the devil made me do it, just as Adam when challenged about eating the forbidden fruit, said that “the woman made me do it.” In what forms may a Satan figure come to tempt us?
I refer you to chapter 8 where Mark records the meeting of Jesus and his disciples at Caesarea when Jesus first told them that he “must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed…” That was to Peter absurd; it upset him dreadfully and he felt so strongly about it that he took Jesus “and began to rebuke him.” What kind of Messiah would be foolish enough to let himself be killed? How did Jesus respond to the rebuke of Peter? Turning to Peter he said, “Get behind me Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men.”
With his rebuke of Jesus, Peter must have brought back to Jesus the temptation in the wilderness. Was that temptation only from an easily identified super-figure Satan, or was it from traditional people like Peter now called Satan, who wanted a popular Messiah – and was some of it from groups with authority in Israel, like the chief priests and scribes who would soon stand in the way of Jesus for challenging their authority. Jesus must have known already as a citizen in Nazareth that such people would oppose him. Peter gives us a disturbing insight into the way good people like Peter, and good groups like the guardians and interpreters of the law in Israel, may become corrupted. They rightly feared the commitment and justice of Jesus.
On this reading of the texts in Mark, there is a sense in which I may be a kind of Satan to someone else, just as I may be grace to someone else; there is a sense in which you may be a kind of Satan to another person, just as you may be grace to another person; a company or a corporation which is not evil in itself may be a Satan to a community of people by convincing them that material gain is all; a government, democratically elected, can be a Satan to a nation by lying to it, and by making unjust practices seem honourable.
In the wilderness, Jesus wrestled with what must have been the most attractive temptations from Satan-like forces which would try, for example, to convince him to value popularity and materialism and forget the needs of the poor and vulnerable. It went on forty days, a biblical phrase indicating a long, long time. Jesus in the wilderness was assailed again and again, night and day – woken from his exhausted sleep,taunted when he was hungry and thirsty, enticed when fear of breaking tore him apart, and flatteredwith praise and offers of reward. But to each and all of them he said, “Get behind me Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men.”
Mark shows us in these opening verses that the gospel of Jesus Christ is about God coming into the midst of our human glory and of our human shame to wrestle the power of all that diminishes human life. Mark does not tell this casually, simply for our information. Mark, in direct, simple language invites us to prove this Jesus Christ by following him, not by getting bogged down in endless debate about him.
Elie Wiesel in his book, Souls on Fire, tells of “a noted philosopher who enjoyed provoking rabbis and theologians by demonstrating the non-existence of God. One day he came upon a famous Rabbi (Levi-Yitzhak of Berdichev) in deepest meditation. Suddenly, without preamble, the Rabbi looked up straight into the philosopher’s eyes and said gently: “And what if it were true after all? Tell me, and what if God does exist?” The philosopher later confessed that this question had moved him and troubled him more than all the affirmations and arguments he had ever heard before or since.”
Mark does just that. He tells us about Jesus in this simple, direct, no-nonsense Gospel. Suddenly Jesus is here! Mark is saying to us, “What if this Jesus does exist?” You will find out if you are willing to follow him!