Jesus himself points to God’s ultimate purposes that are about to be fulfilled: God’s coming reign, which is coming near. Such coming near eventuates in repentance and belief— again it is God’s action of bringing the reign close that sets human response in motion. — Jacobsen, David Schnasa, Mark (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries) (Fortress Press. Kindle Edition, Loc.562–864
Let’s look at the Gospel Reading for today, which is of course from Mark 1. It begins this way:
Not long afterwards Jesus came from Nazareth in the province of Galilee, and was baptised by John in the Jordan. As soon as Jesus came up out of the water, he saw heaven opening and the Spirit coming down on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my own dear Son. I am pleased with you.’
Mark’s story is pretty quick fire. No sooner does one thing happen than we’re onto another event. Jesus comes to Judea from Galilee—and without delay, he is baptised by John.
John was the prophet of a new age, in which people repented for their sins and the sins of all Israel by being baptised. It wasn’t a mainstream thing to be baptised as John practised it; this was for those who were looking for the Messiah that God would send.
What happened after Jesus’ baptism was life-changing. He saw ‘heaven opening’.
We usually say ‘the heavens opened’ when it rains really hard and we get drenched. But that’s not what this means. Here, ‘the heavens opened’ means something like a direct line of sight between Jesus and God. It certainly seems so, because he sees ‘the Spirit coming down on him like a dove’.
Every English bible is a translation, with some well-done bits and others not so good. I have to say here that the Good News Bible could be better. ‘The heavens opened’: it’s better to say they were ‘torn apart’. That’s what Mark wrote.
When Matthew and Luke came to write their gospels, it seems each of them had a copy of Mark with them. They toned down Mark’s rough language in a few places, and both of them said at this point that the heavens ‘opened’.
But in Mark, they are ‘torn apart’. What difference does it make? You can close something that is opened. It’s a lot harder to put it back the way it was when it’s torn apart.
When God rips the heavens apart they stay ripped apart. Now, Jesus always has that clear line of sight to God his Father. And through the Spirit of Jesus, by God’s grace and by that grace alone, we can also come to know something of that line of sight.
Then Jesus hears a voice from heaven, which means it is God’s voice: ‘You are my own dear Son. I am pleased with you’.
Perhaps Mark is telling us that in his baptism, Jesus discovers that he is the one who God is sending to Israel, that he is the promised Messiah.
So what happens next?
At once [remember Mark’s story is really quick fire?] the Spirit made him go into the desert, where he stayed forty days, being tempted by Satan. Wild animals were there also, but angels came and helped him.
Being God’s Son doesn’t guarantee an easy time for Jesus. The Spirit makes him go into the wilderness. I’ve seen the Judean wilderness; it’s pretty wild and pretty desolate. I wouldn’t want to spend one day alone there, let alone forty.
Here, Jesus was tempted. Let’s talk about temptation. Let me share some thoughts with you from Pope Gregory the Great, who was Pope from 590–604. (I hope you’re not worried that I’m citing a Pope. If you are, be of good cheer. In the 1500s, John Calvin said that Pope Gregory was the last good pope—although I think Calvin would like Pope Francis too.)
So Pope Gregory said that temptation has three stages: suggestion, delight, and consent.
Suppose I buy something at the supermarket and I get $50 too much in change.
The suggestion is simple: I should keep the $50 for myself.
The delight is in thinking what else I could do with the money. I could afford that book I want to buy. After all, the supermarket is a big business. $50 is nothing to them, while it’s a significant amount to me. Hmmm… (You can see I have some experience with this…)
The third stage is consent. I turn away, pocket the money, and walk out of the supermarket.
Suggestion, delight, consent. All that takes just a few seconds, so we must be on our toes when temptation comes our way.
Pope Gregory says that when Jesus was tempted, the evil one suggested things to him. But he did not take any delight in these suggestions, so he did not consent.
It’s important here to understand that the suggestion is not a sin. If you get too much change, there’s no need to feel bad if part of you says keep it.
If you start delighting in what you could do with the extra money, then you are in danger. It’s just a hop, skip and a jump to consent.
That’s the line we don’t want to cross.
How did Jesus say ‘no’ to temptation? It wasn’t magic. According to Mark, it happens after he is declared God’s Son. It happens once the Spirit is upon him.
Jesus is able to reject temptation because he knows who he is. It’s the same for us. When we grasp that God our Father has adopted us as God’s children, we can draw on the strength of God’s Holy Spirit to withstand temptation.
Do you see what has happened? Jesus is declared to be God’s Son, but as God’s Son he must endure a time of testing. The Book of Hebrews says
we have a High Priest who was tempted in every way that we are, but did not sin. Let us have confidence, then, and approach God’s throne, where there is grace. There we will receive mercy and find grace to help us just when we need it.
Jesus resisted temptation; he could say I resisted, why don’t you? Instead, he comes to us with his compassionate heart: I know how hard it is; let me help you.
The forty days Jesus spends in the wilderness are the biblical source of the Season of Lent. He fasted for that time, and the experience of Christians through the centuries that it’s good for us to fast too. Most often, people fast from chocolate or alcohol. That’s a good thing if those are problems for them. And it’s a good thing if they give the money they would have spent to the poor.
In the fourth century, John Chrysostom said
No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sigh continually, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great.
Someone I know gave up complaining for Lent. It changed her life, because by the time Easter came she liked being a person who didn’t complain. So she dropped being a whinger. For life. And that was very good for the other people in her life!
Pope Francis says we should give up indifference to others for Lent. But that’s not enough; we also need to feast on love as well as fast from indifference. We need to become people who make a difference, people who have compassion for those who suffer.
One way I do this is to limit the time I watch the news. If I don’t watch it at all, I don’t know what’s going on; if I watch it too much, I stop feeling for other people. Maybe that could work for you too.
Like my friend who gave up complaining, this is a fast that can change your heart. And Lent is meant to remind us of just that: to change our hearts, to let God soften them so that we may become more loving people.
Finally, Jesus has a message to proclaim.
After John had been put in prison, Jesus went to Galilee and preached the Good News from God. ‘The right time has come,’ he said, ‘and the Kingdom of God is near! Turn away from your sins and believe the Good News!’
John has been thrown into prison. Jesus’ mission requires courage as well as love.
In the end, we always come to the same point. God has come near to us; and we are required to respond in faith, hope, and love.
I went to an Ash Wednesday service at my local Uniting Church last Wednesday. As the minister marked my forehead with the sign of the cross, he said,
Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.
That is exactly what we need to do.