Mark’s Desert

“The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.”

This short passage from Mark’s Gospel is all we get from him on the temptation in the desert that Matthew, Mark and Luke all put between Jesus’ baptism and the beginning of his ministry. If you’re willing to strip off the parts of the story that we hear in the other two synoptic Gospels and just take this one as it’s written, it hits differently, and I think in a way that’s both more personally relevant and more theologically valuable. Here’s what I mean:

There is a kind of a primal narrative that we all know that plays out in Matthew’s and Luke’s versions, a sort of a quest/challenge story that sounds like it could have come from Greek mythology. It has a distinct flow to it: hero goes on journey (into the desert), journey ends with ultimate challenge (showdown with Satan), hero conquers challenge and wins reward (ministered to by angels) and is certified as a hero (on to ministry). This journey-challenge-reward order is something we see throughout literature, and it informs what we think about the world and, by extension, about God: we set our minds on something, we expect a challenge, and we place reward on the far side of the challenge.

Mark’s desert isn’t like that. Go check it again. The temptations from Satan, the ministering angels, and the wild beasts (which don’t make the cut in the other two tellings) are all thrown together throughout the 40 days. If you’re wondering, what prompts Jesus to leave the desert in Mark isn’t completion of any challenge; it’s that John the Baptist gets arrested, leaving a need for a new voice calling for repentance in John’s place.

I find this telling of the Jesus desert story a lot more applicable to my life. For one thing, life seldom feels so cleanly organized as the quest model. Every day, there are wild beasts that distract from the important parts of life. Every day, the evil spirit peppers me with temptations to choose despair. Every day, messengers remind me that hope and love win, even when it doesn’t feel like it in the moment. Heck, sometimes the wild beasts, tempter and angels all show up between when the alarm goes off and when I get out of bed in the morning. That jumbled-ness just resonates as more real than the quest narrative.

For another thing, when I look back on my life, a lot of times the 40-days-in-the-desert experience isn’t so much a matter of tackling a challenge as it is a time of letting things simmer, like a good sauce or stew. I can identify a period of a couple of decades where, spiritually, it didn’t seem like there was much going on with me that anyone could tell. The ingredients were mostly there, but they just needed to mix and heat and settle before I could do much with them, I guess. (That process continues, of course, even now that I find myself doing stuff like writing these things.) Those fallow periods may seem like gaps, but maybe they were really these kinds of desert experiences, where stuff was happening, but out of anyone’s sight.

I also think this picture of the desert experience is truer to the Gospel. I’ve said before and will probably say again that we put God’s love in the wrong place a lot of times – on the other side of accomplishment. We think in terms of the Matthew/Luke versions of the desert as we approach life (and especially as we approach Lent): IF WE venture boldly out into the wilderness and IF WE overcome our tempters, THEN God will take care of us.

That’s all wrong, both because of the “if/then” conditional nature of how it defines God’s love and because it keeps us in the role of the protagonist, the ones controlling the outcome. The Good News that Jesus comes out of the desert to preach is the opposite of this. God loves us all – those who beat the tempters and those who get beaten by them. And, thankfully, there is nothing we can do to change that. The Good News is to accept that this is the deal and try to live like we believe it.

Maybe this Lent, rather than girding ourselves for a 40-day quest, we could be reflecting on the wild beasts and tempters and ministering angels in our lives and wondering what God has simmering in our souls, out here in the desert.

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