We are in the year of the Church that has us listening to the earliest, shortest, no frills Gospel written by Mark, reported to have served as secretary for the disciple Peter. To read Mark’s Gospel is to join the company of first-century Greek-speaking people living in the Roman Empire. Along with them we hear the very first line: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” “Good news,” “gospel,” – from the Greek: euangelion. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, takes the word back to its origin in the ancient world where euangelion –literally, “a pleasing message,” was a political term for something like a press release the public would be “pleased” to hear: a royal family member had gotten engaged, or had a baby, or the army had captured an enemy city, or won a decisive victory. “Pleasing” news of an event that changed the political scene or the landscape of public life. Mark reports God’s euangelion is Jesus, a proclamation which is followed by an inaugural ceremony staged in Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, where God is the officiant making the announcement: “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to Him.”
Mark skips over Luke’s report of a heavenly choir of angels singing their startling announcement of God’s euangelion proclaimed to bottom-of-the-religious list occupied by shepherds; nor does Mark begin with Matthew’s description of a brilliant star pulling gift-bearing foreigners across the desert to bow down to a Child in His mother’s arms.
Mark’s “Good News” doesn’t mention Jesus’ Birth and His appearance in the Temple twelve years later. Instead, he has his readers gazing on an adult Jesus’ Baptismal inauguration into His God-bestowed office of Messiah, and then reports His forty-day retreat into the beast infested wastelands called “the wilderness.”
There, the fire-like heat of the day and the bone-chilling cold of the night, concealing the treat of wild animals attacking to tear flesh and crush bones, and pangs of hunger that make stones look like bread, is where Jesus was driven by the Spirit, an urging He accepted as a prerequisite for taking up His ministry as God’s “Chosen One,” chosen to be Messiah.
He felt He had to be tempted by Satan;…It was His rehearsal for facing up to all the wild beasts with which He would have to contend throughout His life; He had to practice wrestling with all the hard realities that would test His obedience to God, even to Gethsemane and Calvary.
Matthew and Luke dramatize the scene as taking place in three acts, each played out in great detail, but not Mark; his is sparse; no specifics. Mark lets it up to the reader to work out all the dimensions of “being tempted,” all the beasts that need to be brought down.
At the same time Mark, to avoid having his readers feel threatened with an emotional and physical breakdown, balances the anxiety of being tempted by Satan, with the ecstasy of angels waited on him. Luke leaves them out, no mention of angels in his account, and Matthew writes them in almost as an afterthought, making their appearance in the last line of the story.
Not Mark, the ecstasy of angels is with Jesus from the beginning to the end in the agony of the temptation drama, but, it is also their only onstage moment.
For Mark their appearance at that time is a que for us as we begin the Lenten discipline of wrestling with whatever it is that is tempting us, calling us to confess and repent, to pray and live sacrificially…and to do: “an accounting of the angels we have known and loved and who have loved us, in the wilderness times of our own lives. To remember, as Mark remembered, those angels that show up when we're tired, thirsty and surrounded by wild beasts--just as they did for Jesus.” (Quoted from Day1, “Angels in the Wilderness,” sermon for 1st Sunday in Lent – Year B, February 22, 2012, Rev. Talitha Arnold, Minister of the United Church of Santa Fe)
A young woman, returning home from studying abroad, is delayed by a storm which makes her even more anxious to return to a home that has become her personal wilderness. Her parents have separated and her father has entered treatment for alcoholism; her home no longer exists. Beasts are tearing her apart. She goes to the lounge to smoke and a stranger the age of her father, sits down and they begin to talk. He tells her he is a recovering alcoholic. Drinking was destroying his marriage until his wife became pregnant. The thought of a child snapped him into treatment and being sober. “I thought I was going to die," he said, "but it was the beginning of a resurrection, a whole new life." Then the stranger leaves. Her flight is announced, she boards the plane. As it rises through the clouds, she finds herself momentarily sandwiched between clouds above and below, and the space between is filled with rainbow light, a world whose grandeur and grace exceed all reasons for despair. She is strangely calm in the face of what lies ahead. A sense of peace descends. It is as though the man has slipped into her wilderness as a gift. She has been with the wild beasts. An angel has ministered to her. Agony and ecstasy. (Quoted from Day1 for Feb. 18, 2018 – “He Was with Wild Beasts” by Rev. Gordon Stewart)
When Bill was a teen his father was committed to a mental hospital and he tried to hide the stigma. The whole family said he was away in business. Only Bill’s 4-H leader, Mr. Moore, knew the story. The week before Bill’s dad’s birthday his mother insisted the family visit on that day. Bill refused, but his mother asked if he’d like to have someone come with him. “Yes, Mr. Moore.” What a difference that made. Mr. Moore hugged Bill’s dad, they shared stories. Bill said, “Mr. Moore was a friend who was willing to walk through those hospital gates with us and sit and eat birthday cake and talk with my dad.” He was a ministering angel in disguise. (Op. Cit. Arnold)
Lent: a time to wrestle with our beasts of temptation stalking the wilderness in our life – the agony, and let the angels minister to us – the ecstasy…and cherish the stories we tell. The “Good News” according to Mark. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Martha B. Kriebel is the pastor of Trinity Reformed United Church of Christ in Collegeville, PA