Feast Day: The First Sunday in Lent
Readings: Mark 1:9-15
“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”
In our gospel reading this morning we are confronted with that most unscrupulous figure Satan and the temptation of our Lord in the wilderness. The devil and temptation. Both of which are worth attention for different reasons. It is worth paying attention to the devil because he is the one who seeks to undermine, disrupt, and distort the good work and good plans of God. As such he is the enemy of human creatures. However, it is worth paying attention to him only to the extent that we understand that we shouldn’t pay him too much attention. As my Professor of Systematic Theology would say, we should remember that the devil is a character in God’s story and not the other way around. And it is worth paying attention to temptation because we all face it and yet it tends to function in a much more subtle and cunning manner than we might expect.
This morning then, I want us to consider both the devil and temptation as Christ himself encounters them in the wilderness. And my hope is that we find there in Christ’s weakness—in our weakness—God’s power to save.
As we read Mark’s account of this event surely one of the most striking aspects is its brevity. Matthew and Luke’s accounts are significantly longer. It is there that the we hear of the content of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness and his discourse with the devil. By contrast, Mark’s account is two short verses and he tells us nothing of the content of the temptation just that it happened.
In Mark the temptation of Christ in the wilderness comes immediately on the heels of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan and precedes the beginning of his ministry in Galilee. When he steps into the waters of the Jordan the Spirit descends upon him and we hear those words of affirmation from the Father in heaven. Here Christ is disclosed to us as the Son of God, the promised Messiah.
“Immediately,” Mark tells us, “the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness.” The same Spirit who descended upon Christ at his baptism immediately expelled him further into the wilderness. Mark wants us to know that these two events are connected. That is to say, Christ’s temptation in the wilderness is the necessary consequence of his baptism.
Indeed, for Mark, the temptation of Christ in the wilderness is not just restricted to this moment but is rather definitive of Christ’s entire life and ministry from this point onwards. In both Matthew and Luke the temptation of Christ ends and he is victorious over the devil who departs. But that is not the case in Mark. Here there is no end to the temptation that Christ faces. Rather, these forty days of testing in the wilderness following his baptism anticipate the struggle that Christ will endure every step of the way to the cross.
There is something really important for us here and it is the sober reminder that our life in Christ necessarily includes testing and temptation. Christ himself, who is revealed as God’s Son in baptism, enters into a journey that is going to end with the outpouring of God’s love on the cross. Yet every step of the way he is faced with the subtle but demonic temptation to take a slightly different direction that will not need to have the cross as its end goal.
That’s part of the cunning nature of the devil and the subtly of temptation. We might expect a devil who is obviously godless or dangerous and who tempts people to do spectacularly wicked things. However, in the temptation of Christ as Matthew and Luke tell it the devil is a figure who even quotes Scripture all in an effort to divert Christ from the will of the Father.
The very same thing is true of your life in Christ. When Jesus took you and made you a child of God in baptism and set you on the narrow road with him, demonic forces took note. And every single step that you take with Christ in accordance with the will of God is accompanied by the demonic temptation to go in a slightly different direction. What is that next step that you sense Christ is calling you to take with him but that you have been resisting or ignoring?
Let me give you an example. The Screwtape Letters is a novel by C.S. Lewis that is a series of letters from a senior demon named Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, a less experienced tempter. And so his uncle Screwtape is mentoring him, teaching him how to more successfully tempt a character that we know only as “the Patient,” thus securing his damnation.
In one letter Screwtape counsels Wormwood not to discount more cunning efforts: “You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all junior tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
“It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing.” Temptation is the devil’s way of trying to drive even the slightest wedge in-between God and man. Most of the time that is as simple as convincing us that our way is better than God’s way and that to live in a world of our own fashioning is infinitely more interesting than life with God in the world that he has fashioned.
It is into this reality that Christ entered upon his baptism and temptation in the wilderness. He enters into solidarity with us and becomes like us in every respect, even facing temptations and trials at every step. Yet where we so often yield to temptation he obeys in order to lift us up with him. He enters into our weakness in order to show forth God’s power to save. He steps into the space that the devil attempts to create between God and man and he closes it up and seals it in his own flesh.
As the Scriptures say elsewhere, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin,” (Heb 4:15). Whatever temptation you might face Jesus Christ knows it fully and, “he is able to help those who are being tested,” (Heb 2:18). Therefore, you are never alone.
Lent is a season when the Church is invited to enter more profoundly into the way of Jesus Christ, a way that ends with the cross where we encounter most fully the mystery of God’s love. And we are invited, as we journey with him and with one another, to feel more deeply the agony of his temptation wherein Christ learned to submit himself entirely to the will of the Father, because that is the way of love.
And as we journey with Christ towards the cross we are invited likewise to empty ourselves and give ourselves over entirely to the will of God as we prepare to celebrate the joy of Christ’s resurrection. Therefore Lent begins with that great exhortation that we heard on Ash Wednesday part of which I recall for us again on this The First Sunday in Lent: “I invite you therefore, in the name of the Lord, to observe a holy Lent by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God.”
In all of these practices we learn the virtues of self-denial and obedience. We learn of our own weakness, that we are prone to wander. We learn of the power and love of God in Christ and the beauty of life with him. And we also learn that it is possible to grow-up in our life with Christ if we are willing to stick with him and obey him.
This is a difficult way. It is almost always easier to give into temptation than it is to resist it. In another one of his letters Screwtape tells his nephew about a previous patient of his who, upon arriving in hell came to a sudden realization: “I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.”
Sin is not actually all that it is cracked up to be, in fact, we do not truly like it at all. Perhaps you have had moments in your life when you were overwhelmed with the beauty and goodness of Christ. No one, in those moments, ever thinks to themselves, “I really wish I chose to go my own way more often.” You were made for God and the life of freedom and beauty that you long for can only be found in obedience to his will, in going in the way that he has set for you with Jesus Christ.
This Lenten season, may you find strength in Christ who by obedience, fasting, and prayer withstood temptation. May he give you grace to discipline yourself in submission to the leading of the Holy Spirit. And may you find that your closeness with God deepens and matures as his will works itself out in you. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Joseph Mangina, homily for the First Sunday in Lent 2017, The Church of St. Mary and St. Martha.
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Index, 348.