Today is the first Sunday of Lent and as we start the countdown towards the annual celebration of the Paschal mysteries in five weeks, our gospel reading is Mark’s take on the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
During this Lent we will be studying together a book by J. Denny Weaver entitled the “Non-Violent Atonement”. We won’t have a weekly meeting but in the sermons and in the Benediction Weekly we’ll be following some of the discussion presented by Weaver about why Jesus died and what it means to us – how Jesus’ death and resurrection reconcile us to God. So as I look at today’s gospel I am doing so through that lens.
Mark is known for his brevity – he doesn’t tell us much about Jesus’ baptism, and he doesn’t go into the details of Jesus’ temptations in the way that Luke and Matthew do. He just gives us a quick sketch. We can assume that these aspects of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry are the ones which he believed were most important. I am going to focus on two of the things he chose to tell us.
“He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan”. Mark’s gospel sets out to show that Jesus is able to conquer Satan. More than any other gospel we see Jesus casting out demons. So here at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry we have the curtain opener – forced into the desert by the Spirit of God Jesus is confronted by his arch-enemy.
Most of us are unsure about this Satan character – it doesn’t make sense to us to personalize the forces of evil, to imagine a cosmic Dr. No who is plotting the overthrow of God in order to have complete power over humanity. Evil seems far less personal and more ingrained in the way things are. For others, our encounters with forces of evil leave us convinced that there is a nasty power at work in the world and unclean spirits are not just an archaic way of describing epilepsy and mental illness.
Wherever you stand on that question, there is no doubt that there is evil in the universe. It seems to be a necessary part of our freedom that in order to choose to be in relationship with God, we have to be able to choose not to be. In the early chapters of Genesis we read how quickly violence escalated among the first families of the earth, and we know from our own experience that violence often breaks out between humans and that every human institution seems to have a dark side.
Imagining our world as a battleground between the forces of dark and light is not just for comic books. As any of us who have battled with addiction, or even tried to lose weight and keep it off, can attest, there is even a battle within ourselves. Mark’s thesis is that Jesus’ ministry is to show that God has power over evil in all its forms, personal or not. So his ministry starts with a confrontation with Satan and ends with the ultimate triumph over evil, resurrection.
The Christian church of the first few centuries saw this as the basis of atonement – that Jesus has conquered Satan, and as our second reading said, “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.” Through our baptism we are able to participate with Jesus in this new reality.
Now to the second thing I want to mention. Most of our gospel readings this Lent will cover what Jesus said about himself, his ministry and his impending death. In today’s reading we hear “Jesus came to
Jesus had not yet been crucified so the good news he was preaching could not have included his death or resurrection. The gospel writers seem to differ about whether Jesus knew from the beginning of his ministry that he would end up on the cross or whether it gradually dawned on him. But there is no mention, not even a hint, here in Mark’s account, that the good news Jesus was preaching was about his own death and resurrection. So what was the good news?
When we think about spreading the good news I suspect that most of us think that we need to talk about Jesus dying for us. As an evangelical teenager I certainly thought that spreading the gospel meant explaining to other people exactly how and why Jesus had died for their sins. I thought I knew how it all worked, but by the time I was in seminary I was much more confused about the whole thing! Still I think that most contemporary Christians and their observers assume that the good news must involve the cross.
So if Jesus was proclaiming a good news which didn’t include the cross because that hadn’t happened yet, what was it that he proclaimed? ‘The time is fulfilled, and the
If the good news is that we are invited to participate in the
By the end of his earthly life many people expected Jesus to lead a rebellion against the Roman occupiers. But that is not what Jesus was about – we can get a much better idea of the
It is the underlying state of sin which encourages us to attack one another rather than work for each other’s flourishing. Whenever we criticize, whenever we roll our eyes, whenever we make snide comments, even in our own heads, we are attacking. Attack thoughts are as much part of the sin-system of violence as murder or war. Even when we attack ourselves we are participating not in the
The message of Mark’s gospel is that Jesus has power over Satan, over unclean spirits, over the whole sin-system in which we are caught and in which we are complicit. Repentance is to acknowledge that we are caught up in it and that we often give energy to that underlying stratum of violence rather than claiming the power of Jesus to step away and to live it the new kingdom, the kingdom of love and peace for everyone.
That is the good news – that there is deliverance, that there is an end to the sin-system – and that we are called and invited to enroll in God’s kingdom and work to bring a complete end to the domination of evil.