Listening to Mark’s gospel is like watching cricket live. When you are at the cricket it is easy to miss the big moment when the batsman is brilliantly caught because you were too busy talking with your mates. Lucky the big screen will show the dismissal about 40 times!!
Mark’s telling of Jesus happens fast. If you don’t stop and watch and listen well, you can miss it.
Take this opening salvo for instance. In just a few strokes of his quill Mark has sounded the foundational beginning of all the Jesus will go on to do and achieve for the world.
In just these few sentences, here’s what he says happened.
“At that time”…
• Jesus was born in or ‘came from’ Nazareth
• He was baptised by John.
• Everyone heard God directly speaking to Jesus: “You are my Son whom I love, with whom I well pleased”.
• Jesus heads out into the wilderness with the bears, snakes and the wolves, but also with angels in attendance.
• John the baptiser is imprisoned.
• Jesus takes over from John, as he must. He is immediately engaged in his public travelling mission.
Mark sums it up: “At the time” was the ‘Now time’. “The time has come. The kingdom of God has arrived in me, and this is good news”.
Did you get all! that? Maybe time for that replay! Time to slow it down and listen more fully to all the details of what God began to do in Jesus.
Time for Lent. That is what Lent is for. Time to slow it down and listen more fully to what God has begun to do in me and you in Jesus.
• Jesus ‘came from’ Nazareth
▪ God entered our space, our struggle and our sin as one of us. He chose to do this in the Son, knowing what it would cost for our disease to be fully healed. It would take the death of the Son.
• He was baptised by John.
▪ This is the beginning of baptism – the means by which God chooses to adopt sinners into his holy community. Jesus is the first one in. He leads us into our Jordan and raises us up from the water and we are clean and free.
• Everyone heard God directly speaking to Jesus: “You are my Son whom I love with whom I well pleased”.
▪ Big words from a Father to a Son in a big moment. A public affirmation of who this man is, said to the man, not the crowd. A Father supporting his Son for the task ahead in the hearing of other people – the best affirmation a parent can give.
• Straight away, with that affirmation and clear identity, Jesus moves out into the lonely isolated desert – with the bears and the snakes and the wolves, but also with angels in attendance.
▪ This was a long time of ‘tempting’.
▪ This is testing his identity, his Father’s words of affirmation, just spoken. This is temptation to give up those words, that relationship, that identity and his mission for an easier life.
• John the baptiser is imprisoned.
▪ Sheer Injustice. John is unjustly removed from public view on the whim of a madman, Herod. But what human beings mean for evil God makes good. Jesus the Son takes up the mission where John leaves off. It is how it has to be.
• Immediately Jesus is now in his public travelling mission. It was all to get him here.
• “At the time” was the ‘Now time’. “The time has come. The kingdom of God has arrived in me, and this is good news”.
▪ That God has come close to us is not bad news as many believe. Jesus makes it good news. God coming close to you is not the bad news of shame, guilt, judgement, condemning. God coming close is freedom, light, hope, new life, new future daily.
Just like you eventually figure out that being at the cricket is about actually watching the play to see and hear what you have come to see and hear, so the good news of God close and the Kingdom on the move needs a slow hearing. It needs space. It needs time. It needs focus. It need forty days. It needs Lent.
But we have this temptation. Our temptation is always the same – to keep talking when we need to stop and listen; listen to Jesus: To keep carrying on as usual and overestimating our own ability or the ability of all the things and people we seek for purpose, meaning and hope: to underestimate our ability in the face of evil – as if there is no evil, no Evil One, no enemy on the prowl relentlessly attempting to lead us away from this man and his promises.
There is an Enemy. He is active as Jesus discovered in the wilderness. With him on the prowl and our own flawed character. The two conspire against us.
There is only one temptation really. It just comes in a myriad of forms. Any form of temptation drives at only one thing – not loving the Lord with all your heart, mind, body and all aspects of your life. It is the decision of the will to go it alone, abandon the Father’s love and promise, and fix the problem, find immediate relief, glory in the temporary triumph.
Our constant temptation is to abandon God; abandon his words, his promises, his past actions, his past gifts, his community, his story among his people, his acceptance and love that treats you like you do not deserve – like a much loved son and daughter.
Interesting that John Calvin suggests that there are two categories of temptations – from the “right” and the “left”. The right is power, riches and honour which tempt us to trust in ourselves as if we do not need God’s care and provision. From the left comes “poverty, disgrace, contempt and adversity, which tempt us to give up on God’s care and love losing all hope and falling into despair.
We are tempted to either leave or despair. Which one is upon you these days? Are you getting led into the wilderness of leaving God, leaving his people, leaving his promises because you are doing OK anyway, and you might even do better as you go life alone?
Or are you being led into the wilderness of despair: despair for the world, the church, your place in the world, your lack of clarity on your calling, your many problems, your struggle with addictions, your experience of suffering?
And what of God in this wilderness temptation? What does Mark say about this temptation? Not much! He says way less than Luke or Matthew. But it is clear that this time of testing and temptation was what Jesus needed to get his priorities in order, his reliance on his Father, his singular focus on his mission, his identity of the Father’s loved son at the centre of his life and work.
No need for despair or dismissal. You may be with some wild and dangerous people or circumstances at the moment, or the opposite, such easy and enjoyable circumstances that you can’t recognize the temptation to go it alone. But in any wilderness you are also in the company of angels. The Father is still present, as he was for his Son.
In Jesus’ wilderness testing, those words of affirmation by his Father must have grown in power not diminished. His baptism must have grown in meaning, not diminished. Any sense of despairing or dismissal of the Father must have been overtaken by a zeal to live and tell of his Father’s love for the world, because that is what Jesus immediately engages in and will do all the way to the victory of resurrection that frees the world.
I don’t know how you ‘do’ Lent. Let Lent take you to Jesus. That is what it is for. The practices of Lent are to help you get the time, the space, the alone time to stop talking, stop being busy, and listen more – listen more to Jesus speaking so he return to the centre. Go ahead and give, pray and fast in whatever way you can.
Maybe, like Jesus, we will be again overtaken by a new zeal to live and tell of the Father’s love for the world. I pray so.
It can be because Jesus would go through the shame and the darkness of being abandoned by his Father as the evil One assembled his crowd of mockers at the foot of the cross where ‘sorrow and love flowed mingled down” for them all and all of you.
The time is still now because Jesus is always now. Lent is now.
“The time has come”. The kingdom of God has arrived in this man and he is good news.