In the Wilderness
First Sunday of Lent
Mark 1: 9-15
"And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” (Mark 1:11-12)
In the haunting oil painting of “Christ in the Wilderness” by Russian artist, Ivan Kramskoy, Jesus sits alone looking weighed down and exhausted. His hands are clasped tightly together and his eyes look down at the stony ground in front of him, unfocussed and troubled. His feet are bare, his hair matted and uncared for. His shoulders slump, his expression is grim and somehow the painting suggests he’s been sitting like that for a long time and will continue to do so for . who can tell how long?
What a contrast this painting offers to the word picture Mark gives us of the baptism of Jesus. It’s perhaps hard to equate the man of sorrows alone in the wilderness with the man upon whom the Spirit of God descends like a dove, the man whom God calls “my Son, the Beloved”, the man in whom God delights and whose calling and ministry is affirmed and blessed.
Yet Jesus does indeed experience these stark contrasts, with one following immediately after the other. He is driven from the light and love of baptism to the darkness and aloneness of the wilderness and a time of struggle and testing.
Each year on the first Sunday of Lent the Gospel reading focusses on the baptism of Christ and the revelation of his true identity as God’s beloved Son. Each year we focus on the wilderness experience of Jesus each year on this the first Sunday of Lent as we begin our journey towards Jerusalem and Christ’s passion and death on the cross.
These two experiences in the life of Jesus, baptism and affirmation followed by wilderness and struggle, are inextricably linked. They are two sides of the same coin and it’s only after he has lived through both these experiences that Jesus is prepared and ready to begin the work and ministry to which he is called: to proclaim the good news that “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near”.
It’s from Matthew and Luke that we hear about the nature of the temptations that Jesus faced. They’re all linked to the way in which Jesus could choose to use his unique relationship with God (revealed at his baptism) in order to achieve his own ends. And it’s from Matthew and Luke that we hear how Jesus responds to those temptations, each time insisting that being true to God’s kingdom must come first in his life.
But Mark is characteristically economical with words when he writes about Jesus in 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.” It’s almost as if he can’t wait to tell us about Jesus’s public life and ministry of healing and teaching. And perhaps this gives us some time and space to reflect more deeply on our own experiences of struggle and testing.
We may recognise in our own life-experiences some stark contrasts between times of joy and times of sorrow; times of hope and times of fear; times of health and times of pain or illness. Sometimes we can live through times when contrasting events and emotions are running side by side and it feels like we’re on an emotional rollercoaster.
The season of Lent offers an opportunity for us to reflect on our spiritual journey and how life-events are affecting our faith and our relationship with God. Here too we may know contrasts: the “mountain top experiences” when we feel close to God, warmed by his love and excited about where he’s leading us, and then the wilderness experiences when we feel alone, abandoned and afraid because God doesn’t seem to be there and our prayers seem to go unheard.
We may feel surrounded by wild beasts of uncertainty, redundancy, serious illness or bereavement and we may be tempted to give in to despair or to give up on God as he seems to have given up on us.
Our Gospel reading offers us the knowledge that Jesus, even after being affirmed as God’s Son, had to face a tough personal struggle. He remained faithful to God and he remains faithful to us in our struggle. Sometimes knowing someone is alongside us in the hard times is like receiving the ministry of an angel. When that someone is Jesus himself we may perhaps have faith again in our identity as God’s beloved son or daughter.