This is one of my favorite Gospel readings. It has meant many different things to me over my life and continues to evolve. As I read this passage from Mark I now reflect more as a father than anything else. As a parent it is our jobs to keep our children free from harm, you’ll notice I didn’t say “safe” and as you get to know me you understand why. It is our obligation to teach them morals, right from wrong, to love them, to escort them down their own personal paths without imposing our own paths. It is to prepare them for the trials and tribulations that Life has hidden for them at every corner and crevice so that when the times come they may be victorious, or when knocked down be able to get back onto their own feet again and again and hold their chins high because they grew up in the power of the understanding of who they are.
And so, as Jesus is baptized by his cousin, John, in the River Jordan an incredible miracle occurs. The heavens are torn apart and the Spirit descends upon Jesus in the form of a dove and a voice is heard declaring, “You are my son the beloved; with you I am well please.”
One of the most important parts of my role as father to my two sons is my claim. Here God claims His Son. Here God declares from the heavens that this man, this man drenched in the dirty waters of the Jordan River is not only His Son, but that Jesus is His Beloved. Listen to that word, Beloved. Did Jesus’ heart burst forth his chest when he heard that acclamation? I still remember as a child my father standing by my door as he turned off my bedroom light calling me “Tiger”. That ownership over me, that declaration of his belief in the power that I had, the acknowledgment of my own special relationship with my dad always made me feel happy, secure, and mighty.
And then God says, “with you I am well pleased.” Why was God pleased with His Son? We know nothing of Jesus in the Book of Mark up to this point. So what did he do? He was thirty years old by this time. What did he do that was so impressive that God would open the Heavens, descend his Holy Spirit poetically in the symbol of a dove, and then openly claim Jesus as His Son, His Beloved? What did Jesus do up to this point in time that would deserve such recognition?
As a father I know the answer to this is simply, nothing. Jesus didn’t need to. He was God’s son and that was enough. And even though the skies have never opened for me, and God’s voice has never called out to me for all the world to hear there is a wonderful pain in my heart whenever I claim my sons and declare my love for them, and I know that the words I speak to them is an echoing of God’s words within me for myself.
“And the spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan.”
I was watching a movie this week called Rocky Balboa. Actually I watched it four times. There is a scene where Rocky, in his late fifties, has agreed to come out of retirement to fight once again. His son, who has long blamed his father for making his life miserable because the son can’t live up to a self imposed expectation of being a champion’s son (which by the way was never imposed by his loving father- watch the movie and you will see Sylvester Stallone play a remarkable and loving father). When the son finally erupts and demands that Rocky stop listening to the dreams, demons and questions that we all discover as we get older Rocky says to his son:
“Let me tell you something you probably already know, the world ain’t always sunshine and rainbows, it’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it….. you, me, or nobody’s gonna hit as hard as Life…it ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, how much you can take and keep moving forward …..that’s how winning is done. Now if you know what you’re worth then go out and get what you’re worth…..but you’ve got to be willing to take the hits and not pointing fingers saying you’re ain’t where you want to be because of him or her or anybody…..cowards do that and that ain’t you…you’re better than that!”
This is what Lent is all about…this is the desert of our lives in which we have to abandon ourselves. And in these forty days we are instructed by the living Christ to keep moving forward and not to give into the temptation of pointing our fingers at God and saying that “He has abandoned us” that “God has not been there for us the way a father should have been.” That’s what Satan did to Jesus in the desert. That’s how the devil tried to defeat his enemy. If Satan were able to prove to Jesus that he did not need to depend upon God; that Jesus was the ultimate power in this world unto him, and if the devil could play upon Jesus’ vanity, then the Satan would have been successful. Remember, even as the Devil is a liar, he always knows just which lies sound best for each individual.
And so why, why would a loving God who declared his son “beloved” drive him away from the safety of his home of thirty years and force him into the wilderness where the Enemy was waiting? The world is hard enough under Roman occupation without sending an unarmed man into battle against Lucifer, the Angel of Light and Lord of the Fallen. What kind of a loving father does this to his child? A father who knows his child’s worth and potential better than His own child does.
I have been a police officer since I was nineteen years old. I have more than enough firsthand experience that this is not a safe world. It is full of misery, loathing, starvation, disease and sadness. Therefore, in order to see past the drudgery of life’s existence and understand the good, not pleasantness, not unproblematic, but the Good that this world truly is, Jesus must be tested. This is not a test that Jesus must pass in order to prove to God that he is ready to take on the role of Messianic hope. We have already heard God’s claim and acclamation of His pride and love towards his son earlier. No, it is a test for Jesus to pass in order that he may finally come to a full recognition of self and understand his identity which will be tested again and again by demons, men of influence and power, nay sayers and a loved one who ultimately betrays him, for the next three years. And while starving in the desert for forty days that is exactly what the Enemy did to Jesus, he tested his identity, his self worth, to see where he, Satan, stood before the Son of Man.
And why did the Spirit lead Jesus into the wilderness? Surely it is not only because that is where Satan lay hiding and waiting. No, because the wilderness is not safe, and neither is God. My wife knows that one of my favorite parts of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is when Lucy, the youngest of the four children who stumble into Narnia, upon seeing a massive Lion named Aslan, who is the representative of Christ is Lewis’ novels asks,
“But is he safe?”
To which the beaver replies, “Of course he’s not safe, but he’s Good.”
This is the wilderness of which the soul apart from the safety of the home finally opens up and can properly be tested.
Before I decided to join the Air Force in my junior year of high school I read about the Yamabushi, or the Mountain Warriors of Japan. I read that the Yamabushi declared that “a boy cannot become a man while living in his parents’ home. He must leave the safety of his home and test himself by himself, on his own.” Sounds a lot like what the Holy Spirit was demanding of Christ.
What happened to Jesus in that desert? What suffering did he experience at the sun’s heat by day and the cold temperatures at night? Did his stomach hurt from the extreme fasting? How much weight did he lose? Was his mouth parched? His lips dried and cracked by the whipping winds and driving sands? Did he know who Satan was right away and if so, did that terrify him knowing that here stood an angel capable of overthrowing one third of God’s realm?
Did the power of the Holy Spirit that drove Christ out into the desolate lands remain with him or did it drop him off and leave him behind? There have been scarce few times in my life when I actually felt the Holy Spirit, or perhaps my soul opening itself for the Holy Spirit. More times than not I have felt empty, or void, of that precious power, intensity and passion that the Spirit commanded within my body. But the longing never leaves me, even though many times I feel as though I had been dropped off in the middle of a desert alone. But it is when we are alone, tired, and scared that the eternal spark within us has the greatest opportunity to combust into searing flames.
In the Book of Luke it says that upon Jesus’ completion of the forty days worth of temptation and tests by Satan he returned, “filled with the Holy Spirit” and began teaching in the synagogues where he was said to have “taught with authority”. This is the transformation that this man had coming out of the pain and suffering he had to endure in order to find himself, to actually understand who he was meant to be. The words that he read from the Torah were no longer words, they were experiences that left an indelible mark upon his psyche and soul.
I have heard that “at the end of pain comes success”. Isn’t that what Lent is about? It is the journey of our souls, the emptying of ourselves, and the battle to live an unsafe life for forty days so that when the triumph of Christ’s return from Hell on Easter is complete that we may also rejoice with an identity where we understand ourselves sons and daughters of the Creator, and sisters and brothers of our Lord Most High, Jesus Christ.
How will you spend your time in the desert? How will you provoke the Enemy into knowing your name so that the fear and intimidation of that Liar’s tests may show you the way to greater understanding of how mighty and powerful you truly are as a Christian? God, your Heavenly Father, has dared you to live an unsafe life. He has put us in a wilderness of uncertainty, pain, and regret. He has placed us on this battleground that we call Earth with this understanding in mind:
These are my sons and my daughters, my Beloveds, in whom I am well pleased and I know who have it in them to be the Lions and Lionesses of Judah who may come away scarred but gloriously victorious; and when their final day comes and they have conquered the Life that this World has to offer, that they will know who they are as my children and inherit the eternal greatness that they were created to receive.
So ask yourselves, “What’s my worth?” and when you figure that out, go out into the Wilderness and get your worth.