First Sunday of Lent: and the Gospel of Mark, for today, invites us to think of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.
Mark has no nativity story, no build-up to the Jesus career. He’s just right into it.
And so Jesus comes to be baptized by John — and again, no explanations offered. Unlike Matthew, especially, who seems to think it necessary to explain why Jesus needs to be baptised, Mark just says it happened, and that Jesus was here given a deep sense of affirmation, with the voice from heaven.
But then comes one of Mark’s greatest and bluntest insights. Immediately following baptism and this great affirmation of his calling, ‘the Spirit drove him into the desert, there to be tempted.’
This merits more than a little reflection: the Spirit drove him: it’s a word that has an almost violent sense. It’s not like Luke, where he is led by the Spirit. But each of them, in their distinct way, suggests that Jesus’ temptation is something in which God is the active agent. God brings Jesus to temptation. Not what we might usually think about temptation!
Temptation has a bad press.
Christian piety regards temptation as something to be feared and avoided.
Many of us grew up knowing a common Christian song, ‘Yield not to temptation, for yielding is sin.’
But the implication was clear, even to be anywhere near temptation has a whiff of sin about it.
Of course, there is something to this: If a person is constantly placing themselves near to danger, choosing to take unnecessary risks, they do in fact increase the probability of falling into that danger.
Yet here we have the gospel suggesting that God leads, no, drives Jesus into the desert to be tempted.
There is I think a profound spiritual insight here. When we come closer to God, or when we have some heightened awareness of God, or when we are given some deeper insight into God’s presence or purpose, it is precisely then that we are also closer to the way of sin, the possibility of opposing God.
It is noticeable in the Gospels that the only people towards whom Jesus is especially critical are those who are appointed and recognised as ‘teachers of the Law’ or teachers about God. It is they who should know better. They should know that their learning makes them especially vulnerable to the lust for power over people, the power of knowledge, of religious pressure, and it is they who should have learned to be on guard against these temptations.
This says a lot to preachers and teachers (such as me!).
Throughout the Bible, people find that it is an awesome thing, indeed a fear-ful thing, to come close to God. Isaiah is rocked by a sense of his own unworthiness, precisely as he is overwhlemed by the beauty of God’s holiness.
Coming close to God —whether we mean by this a mystical or religious experience, or even some profound understanding, derived from our study, our bible reading, our prayer: all these things also bring us to temptations. We may be tempted to centre these experiences on ourselves, as if they are given to us as possessions. We may be tempted to see these insights as trophies, as if they are some achievement, making us better than others. Or we may use these things, to pressure and oppress others, sometimes by means of ‘caring’ for them.
Temptation lurks close to the experience of God. And God does not ask us to come away from this. No, God does not ask us to come into some place where we no longer have choices—where we are just good, unavoidably good. God does not lead us away from our freedom. God calls us into the places where our freedom is heightened, and therefore we are even more acutely aware of choices, —that is, where we are tempted.
The Spirit, as John Taylor taught in his book The GoBetween God, always evokes awareness of God and thus also of ourselves and our situation. And as a result, the Spirit always presents us with choices. The Spirit leads us to the situation where we will be tempted.
But the Spirit also accompanies us, so that we are not alone. Jesus, in his desert time, was accompanied by wild animals and angels.
Lent is a time to recognize how much we are with God, and just how deeply and how often this brings us to temptations.
But it is also a time for considering how the Spirit is with us, even if in the form of wild beasts and (sometimes) angels.
I’d be keen to know if others read this text in this way and have similar experiences of the Spirit bringing you both to awareness and temptation.