Wild Beasts and Waiting Angels: A Homily for Lent 1, 2021

Last Epiphany

February 14, 2021

What a difference a week can make! Last week we heard the story of the Transfiguration; we commemorated Christ’s glory on the mountaintop. This week we are in a very different place, not on top of a mountain, but in the wilderness, with Jesus, not celebrating, but wandering, not affirmed but being tested. But we are also with that recurring theme of the voice from heaven saying “You are my son, my beloved.” It’s the third time we’ve heard that voice and that statement over the last few weeks. Yet each time, because of the way the lectionary is divided and because of the way Mark tells the story, it seems to mean very different things. 

When we first heard it on the first Sunday after the Epiphany, the feast of the Baptism of our Lord, the reading ended with the voice:  “You are my son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.” Last week, the voice said, “This is my son, the Beloved, listen to him.” And immediately after that, all was back to normal. Jesus looked like an ordinary person, the figures of Moses and Elijah had vanished, and the cloud was gone.

In today’s reading, we hear the voice at Jesus’ baptism. Then Mark follows it with:

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 these few words Mark conveys the urgency, immediacy, and violence of the story he wants to tell. There was no time for Jesus to reflect on what the voice might have meant, or to celebrate and reflect on his baptism. Although he was filled with the Holy Spirit, it was that same spirit that drove him into the wilderness. Here, Mark uses the same verb he will use repeatedly to describe Jesus driving out demons or unclean spirits, and also driving the moneychangers out of the temple. Jesus didn’t go into the wilderness by choice; he was driven there. 

The reference to 40 days in the wilderness calls to mind the forty years that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land. It was a time of struggle and hardship but it was also the period when God gave them the Torah, the law, at Mt. Sinai, and a time during which God provisioned them with food, giving them manna. It is also why we talk about Lent lasting forty days, analogizing this season of the church year to Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness; why, of course, that we read this particular gospel story on the first Sunday in Lent. 

In this instance, “tempting” might not be the best translation. The Greek word also means testing and in that sense, at least for Mark, it may be that this time was not about the sorts of temptations with which we are familiar and which are recorded in Matthew and Luke, but rather that it was a time when Jesus identity was tested—was he truly the Son of God, the beloved as the voice from heaven declared? 

I was reading a commentary on this passage a couple of days ago that referred to Jesus’ fasting and it suddenly struck me that Mark makes no reference to that in these few verses. What we are told instead is that he was tested or tempted by Satan, that he was “with the wild beasts and the angels waited on him.”

It’s that image that intrigues and fascinates me. I wonder if it fascinates you as well. What sort of scene does this conjure up for you? Jesus, surrounded by wild animals. Is it the image of the peaceable kingdom, describerd in Isaiah 11:

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
   the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,

Or is a different image, perhaps the one Mark is alluding to, of Daniel in the lion’s den, the prophet endangered by wild beasts and predators?

And the angels waiting on him—another rich, intriguing image of heavenly beings supporting, caring for Jesus as the prophet Elijah experienced during his own 40 days in the wilderness when he was near death from starvation. Surely Mark is alluding to that story because Elijah plays such an important role in the gospel, as we saw last week. 

But there’s something else Mark has in mind because the verb translated as “waiting” is another verb we’ve seen before in our reading of the gospel. It’s the word for serving or ministering, as Peter’s mother-in-law will do in just a few verses after Jesus raises her from her sickbed, she serves them, and as Mark describes the women watching the crucifixion from afar, they ministered to him on the journey from Galilee.

Mark is telling us important things about Jesus in these few verses and telling us important things about the larger story he has in mind. As we read through Mark this year, I am more and more drawn to that larger story, to the cosmic significance of Jesus’ coming, the cosmic battle between the powers and principalities of this world, of evil, and the work God is doing in Jesus. We see echoes of that cosmic battle here in the presence of wild beasts, symbols of chaos, and the angels waiting on and serving Jesus. We saw evidence of that cosmic struggle in Mark’s description of Jesus’ baptism, when the heavens were torn open, the voice from heaven speaking, suggesting that the barriers between heaven and earth had been torn apart, that something new was breaking in. 

That’s Mark’s story. Is it our story as well? Where do we fit in it? We may find such language of wild beasts, Satan, and angels a bit strange or off-putting, fanciful, relics of an earlier age. But isn’t it true that in our world today, we see unexplained, powerful evil wreaking havoc? The evil we experience may seem to have very human causes—the failure of a power grid in Texas the result of greed and malfeasance, the ravages of a pandemic, an insurrection stoked by social media, by lies and conspiracy theories. What wild beasts do you see? What wild beasts threaten and make you afraid?

 After Jesus’ encounter with Satan and the wild beasts, after his forty days in the wilderness, after the arrest of the one who had baptized him, Jesus began his public ministry. He came to Galilee and proclaimed the good news of God’s reign: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news.”

 Can we, even as we are surrounded by wild beasts, hear that good news? Can we repent, or change our mind to focus not on the threats that face us, but on the good news of God’s coming among us? Can God’s grace, the angels who wait upon us, give us the perspective to see the good, and the strength to persevere. 

In this Lent of fear, anger, and despair, the spiritual disciplines we need to cultivate may not be those of self-denial and fasting. Rather, might we called to different spiritual disciplines, of faith, hope, and courage, of discernment of the evil that surrounds us, and the risk of truth-telling? May this Lent be a holy one, in which we grow more deeply in faith, and when we recognize and acknowledge the angels that wait upon us.  s

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