Mark is a minimalist. He can tell a powerful story in very few words. In today’s three verses he will show us what Jesus will do and how we should respond. He will also hint as to why we should do it.
The wilderness is a place of revelation. God not only reveals himself to his people but they – we – reveal ourselves in return to Him. It is thus is a place of testing. The faith of the Israelites was tested for 40 days when Moses was on Mt Sinai and indeed for 40 years after their failure. The generation that left the captivity of Egypt were given the opportunity for freedom, but they rejected it and entered a long period of training in the school of the desert.
Jesus is now also tested. Mark is very clear that it is by Satan. Originally, Satan was seen as an official in the heavenly court. He tested creatures to see if they were loyal to the LORD. For Mark, however, he is the prince of daemons, invisible spirits who oppose God’s plan. Mark, of all the gospel writers, most clearly presents Jesus as confronting Satan and destroying his hold on humanity. We have already seen Jesus’ exorcisms and in several key moments in the Gospel and he will tell us very clearly how Satan was defeated. We see today the first defeat. Mark is not interested in Satan’s strategies or deceptions, only that Jesus was stronger and prevailed over him. We know that he succeeded because he escaped alive. Mark emphasizes that Jesus was with the wild beasts. They are often associated with Satan, yet Jesus is unharmed. We remember that Satan appeared to Adam and Eve in the garden as a serpent. They did not pass the test and the animals with whom they lived in peace in the garden became wild and turned against them. But always there was the promise that the LORD would bring all things back to harmony again. That Jesus lived in peace with the wild animals is the first sign of this harmony would come with what Jesus calls the Kingdom. Jesus’ ministry would be a re-creation of the world. Jesus is in the desert because the Spirit literally drove him there. This is the same spirit who appeared as a great wind at the beginning of creation. It is in the power of the spirit that re-creation begins. When Adam and Eve are cast out of the garden angels are stationed outside to keep the gates locked. Now angels are dispatched to help Jesus open them again.
How should we respond?
Mark’s gospel opened with “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” The Jews would have heard other gospels, “proclamations of Good News,” but they were by the emperor telling them about his latest triumph. This is the good news of God and it is not of a mortal king, but the rule of God among us..
Jesus is the Christ – the anointed one – in Hebrew, “Messiah”. He was to bring to fulfillment all the hopes and dreams of the People. Yet, there were many dreams represented by Priest and Prophet to General and King, and none of them fully reflected who Jesus was and what he intended to do. We have heard the about the Kingdom of God for so long that we can forget that it would have been unfamiliar to the original audience, and indeed somewhat confusing. That was intentional. Jesus wanted a term he could fill in himself. His Kingdom is harmony between God and humanity: all humans together and humanity and the natural world. With the testing in the desert, he has shown that kingdom peace with nature and as the gospel continues, he will show most particularly through the parables how God’s reign over us will be expressed towards God and our neighbors.
The reign of God has come near. It is already here, but not fully. We are offered the Kingdom, offered this harmony and peace but not merely by assenting to a series of principals and ideas but by how we behave. As the meaning of kingdom unfolds it will become obvious to his readers that obeying every letter of the Mosaic law, however noble, is not what Jesus means by repentance. Repentance is changing one’s whole life, making a personal commitment to Jesus. This connection with Jesus is true belief. It is more than our minds that must change it is our hearts.
One of the difficulties in understanding the Kingdom is to equate it with heaven. It is true that we shall be fully ourselves only in heaven, but the kingdom is a this-worldly event. It is the vindication of the LORD’s justice. In the scriptures he promised that the just would be rewarded and the unjust punished in the sight of all. This would require an afterlife as we can easily see that in our lives the just are punished and the unjust rewarded. Books like the “left behind” series have serious flaws, but they realize that the fullness of the kingdom may not be now, but it will be here.
This completion will be by God’s action and initiative not ours. Yet we are called to work for it by seeking greater harmony in the world. This is not only harmony within our own families and communities and indeed among nations and groups but as Pope Francis continually reminds us with nature. The tremendous suffering of people in the south of our own country this week should remind us of what happens when we do not treat our environment with respect and justice. It is perhaps no accident that Jesus’ first act of kingdom building was with nature.
We are not only in Lent, but in the COVID wilderness. It has been a time of testing and an opportunity for re-creation and renewal. It can be neither if we do not heed the message of today’s Gospel. Whatever the Kingdom will be in the end, it must begin with Justice.