“Bookends of Jesus’ Ministry” – Mark 1:12-13
Introduction: Bookends – the cosmic battle
If we call Jesus’ ministry – the bulk of Mark’s Gospel writings – the “book” of Jesus, or maybe the “book of the Kingdom of God” (cf. Mark 1:15) then we seem to find the bookends, the first and last chapter if you will, to be and to land squarely on the cosmic battle between good and evil, between God and the devil for the hearts of people, for the Kingdom of God.
The first chapter / the first bookend is the great and cosmic temptation battle between Satan and Jesus in the wilderness. That’s where we start this Lenten season. We’ll come back to that in a minute. The last chapter / the closing bookend is the cosmic battle for our salvation that took place on the cross. That’s where we end the Lenten season… with Good Friday, and Jesus’ death on the cross. We don’t usually consider that a temptation, but it was – there was the trial before the religious leaders, complete with false witnesses; there was the discussion about truth and kingship with Roman governor Pilate; there was the mockery from soldiers, the challenges from passersby to come down from the cross, and the insults from one thief on the cross. You can be certain that it would have been tempting for Jesus to assert His true identity and His full authority by disrupting any of Good Friday’s proceedings and therefore by not accomplishing His God-intended mission of dying for us.
In between that first account of the wilderness temptation and the last account of the temptations associated with the cross… in between those two comes the full account of Jesus’ ministry – the healings, the nature miracles, the exorcisms – casting demons out of people was at the heart of the Kingdom of God, and at the heart of the cosmic battle for people’s souls. In the accounts of His ministry, we find Jesus teaching, and we hear personal interest stories. Those are especially written about in John’s Gospel, with stories about people like Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman at the well, the man born blind, and Lazarus. Speaking of Lazarus… raising people like Lazarus from the dead was a foreshadowing of the great and final resurrection of the dead for all who put their trust in Jesus.
So in-between these two bookends, in between the first and last chapters of temptation, on these Lenten Sundays, we will look at what Jesus’ ministry was about, and we will apply that to what it means to be a follower of Jesus, to consider the Kingdom of God, and to live out the Kingdom of God in our daily lives.
1. The wilderness
Today, let’s consider more deeply the brief account of Jesus’ temptation in Mark 1 – just two verses.
One of the unique features of Mark’s Gospel account of Jesus’ life is how quickly things move from one episode to another. Mark’s Gospel is the shortest – at 16 chapters. John has 21 chapters, Luke has 24, and Matthew has 28. But Mark covers much of the same material as Matthew and Luke. He just reports it in concise fashion, and that is highlighted by the use of the Greek word “euthus” which is translated in English as “at once” or “immediately.” In the seven verses of our Gospel reading, we find the word “immediately” used twice. But in Mark chapter 1, it is used 9 times in 45 verses. Things just seem to happen one right after another. The “immediately” used to describe Jesus’ temptation indicates that that temptation follows hard on the heels of Jesus’ Baptism by John in the Jordan River.
The same Holy Spirit who descended on Jesus at His Baptism led Him / drove Him / sent Him into the Judean wilderness, probably not so far southwest of where Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River. Whereas Jesus’ Baptism could be considered His ordination or consecration into His public ministry, this time in the wilderness was like boot camp for Jesus. If He was going to inaugurate the Kingdom of God with the people of Israel, He would need to be fully prepared for the spiritual battle for their souls.
More than once in the Bible, the wilderness or desert was a place of formation and testing. In the Old Testament, the people of Israel spent 40 years – not just 40 days – but 40 YEARS in the Sinai desert after they were led out of slavery in Egypt. That’s where God recreated their identity as a nation. He gave them the Ten Commandments. He provided food and water in the wilderness. He brought healing from poisonous snakes, and conquered enemy nations on their behalf. Their Sinai boot camp made them a cohesive, God-molded kingdom of priests to the world. David spent time in the wilderness, in the Dead Sea caves, on the run from King Saul, before he, himself, became King of Israel. John the Baptist grew up in the wilderness, eating locusts and wild honey, and wearing a garment of camel’s hair.
2. Your wilderness times
Maybe you have experienced your own wilderness times – long days in a hospital bed after surgery, maybe a stretch when temptations and sins get the better of you far too often, weeks and weeks looking for employment, lonely seasons waiting to find the right person to spend your life with, maybe even a dry spiritual time when God doesn’t seem real to you, when God doesn’t seem to answer your prayers, when God seems distant and unconcerned about you. The year 2020 could be considered a prolonged wilderness experience – a year that none of us has ever lived through before, a year that has left our spirits parched and dry. We need to understand here, that despite our belief that God is in control, the pandemic was not sent by God as a punishment, nor was it meant only to teach us something… although that may be a side-effect of this wilderness experience. Rather, the pandemic is another example of the aftershocks of the presence of sin in our world. Even during these days, it is important to notice the redemptive presence of God showing up in our world, in our lives, and in the lives of others. Those days can reveal who God is, and they can shape who you become – sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. When those wilderness times are of your own sinful making, God calls us to a posture of repentance and faith, as His heart’s desire is to create a clean heart and a new and right spirit with us. Since these COVID days are stretching out into 2021, we do well to consider the question: “Are we paying attention to God?’
3. Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness
a. Long battle
In Mark 1, Jesus endured His own wilderness experience, in the power of the Holy Spirit of God. We hear the fuller accounts of the temptation in Matthew and Luke, but even with Mark’s 6-word description – “forty days, being tempted by Satan” – suffice it to say two things.
First, it was a long battle! 40 days!! That’s almost 6 full weeks of isolation, temptation, and starvation. Matthew and Luke add the detail that, during His wilderness boot camp, Jesus fasted.
Are you familiar with the concept of putting two words together to create a new word? Have you heard of Spanglish? It’s a 2004 romantic comedy-drama movie, but it’s also the intermingling of Spanish and English cultures and language. I have recently made up my own new words. One of them is Greaders – those who, like Michele, served as both the Greeter and the Reader for today’s service… so, the Greader! I have also coined the word Zwinkel. A Winkel is the name for a fairly local pastors’ meeting, and since we can only meet on Zoom video conferences these days, I put the two together and came up with Zwinkel. It sounds very German, doesn’t it?
One that you are probably familiar with is hangry! That’s a combination of hungry and angry. And the two are interrelated, aren’t they? When a person is hungry, they become irritable. Apparently there is a biological explanation for this. When hunger hits us, hormones are introduced into our bodies to trigger appetite. This tells us to move energy from our brains to our stomachs, and that creates brain malfunction, which leads to… hangry!! Babies seem to be experts at hangry!!
Jesus must have been hangry!! 40 days with no food, out in the hot wilderness, all alone, and then an enemy comes to challenge and tempt and annoy Him!
b. Significant foe
The second thing about Mark’s account is that the enemy was a significant foe – none other than Satan who had defeated Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden with a simple but doubt-creating question. Again it is Matthew and Luke that demonstrate that Satan’s temptations hurled at Jesus were no less probing or powerful as they challenged the very identity and mission of Jesus: “If you are the Son of God, turn stones to bread, jump down from the temple for an adrenaline rush, take a short-cut to getting all these kingdoms.” Jesus’ ‘h-anger’ would have made Him susceptible to each of those temptations, but would also have made Him dig in His heels to do battle face-to-face with this cunning and crafty opponent.
4. The Church in the wilderness
Again, let’s apply this to our own lives and situations today. But now, I want to talk about the church as a whole, not just us as individuals. A recent quote from the magazine Christianity Today pointed to how we see God at work: “Sometimes the church needs time in the wilderness to remember who she is.” Isn’t that a great quote? And relevant, too!
This past year has been a year of wilderness wandering, and the church has become pandemic hangry!! We have lost the ability to meet in person for public worship for a time. I have not been able to physically and personally visit those in hospitals and care homes. We have had to delay, postpone, even cancel weddings, funerals and baptisms. We have temporarily given up shaking hands, sharing the peace and hugging, and eating potluck meals together is still a future hope. We have seen church members on opposite sides of the mask, worship restrictions, and distancing debates. With each one of these concessions, something inside of us has died. This is not who we are as a church, and we need to acknowledge that. We are pandemic hangry, and nothing in the lost lives, the lost livelihoods, and the lost relationships can be considered good or normal for us as a church. The old evil foe has twisted things with his temptations and lies, and has turned people against one another. And so we find that, just like Jesus’ entire ministry story, we experience temptations from the beginning to the end of our lives – and they are significant, and they are threatening. Those temptations usually start in our hearts, our minds, before they are expressed in words or deeds. Anger in our hearts can lead to harming our neighbour… in the extreme to murder. Lust in our hearts can lead to pornography, adultery and divorce. Greed in our hearts can lead to stealing what belongs to another. Rivalry in our hearts can lead to lying about a neighbour and ruining his/her reputation. Discontent in our hearts can lead to sinfully wanting and planning to get what belongs to someone else. We should never underestimate the craftiness of the enemy when it comes to leading us into temptation and sin.
5. The Church in the wilderness
Let’s get back to Jesus… In that first temptation, Mark doesn’t even tell us point-blank who won the battle in the wilderness. He just writes “angels were ministering to Jesus” – like a boxer who had just gone 15 rounds with a worthy opponent, and was being ministered to in his corner by his medical staff and trainers. We do know – again from the accounts in Matthew and Luke – that Jesus used Scripture to counter attack Satan, and we do know that it was Satan who left the battle early, only to come back again later and often.
If we consider the ministry of Jesus to be a book about the Kingdom of God and the battle between good and evil, between God and Satan, and if we look at the Mark 1 temptation of Jesus as the first chapter or bookend and the Mark 15 crucifixion of Jesus as the last chapter or bookend, then we need to also see that there is a preamble / introduction and an epilogue / conclusion. The preamble is the first three verses of our Gospel reading – the story of Jesus’ baptism and the fact that Jesus was the Holy Spirit-anointed, beloved, and pleasing Son of God. The temptation at the hands of Satan may have been boot camp, but Jesus’ identity and authority and mission had already been established in the waters of the Jordan River. The epilogue or conclusion to the story is the last chapter of Mark’s Gospel – Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. In that stunning, but also brief finale, there is no doubt who finally and conclusively won. “He has risen; He is not here… just as He told you.” No “immediately” in that conclusion, for the ramifications of Jesus’ resurrection are not brief, temporary or erased… but eternal!
At the beginning of your story – if you were baptized – God called you His Son, daughter. Or maybe that happened sometime in the middle of your life’s story. And at the end, when you breathe your last, your status will not change – thanks to Jesus, and the Holy Spirit – keeping you in the one true faith.
6. Someday my prince will come
Last Sunday, I talked about fairy tales. Let’s finish off today with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. You know the story, thanks to Disney. There are some dark parts of the story – the wicked stepmother Queen, the fateful bite of the apple, and the coming of the curse. But there’s also the wonderful song, “Someday my prince will come.” The dwarfs are selfless as they give their home and risk their lives for this girl who eats the forbidden fruit and falls asleep, never to wake again. But then the prince comes, wakens her with a kiss and brings her back to life.
We, too, have eaten of the forbidden fruit. We have fallen under the curse. But the story of Jesus assures us that the Prince has come, to bring freedom from the curse, and life from death. He comes to kiss His bride, and every once in a while, somebody, somewhere wakes up. And when that happens – that’s life, eternal life!!
Or we could use the imagery that we are going to sing about in our next hymn, “A Mighty Fortress.” Martin Luther writes: “The old satanic foe has sworn to work us woe… But now a champion comes to fight… Christ Jesus Mighty Lord… One little word (from our champion) subdues the foe… (with the result being) The Kingdom’s ours forever.” Whether we think Prince or Champion, Jesus brings us life… eternal life! Amen.