Where the Wild Beasts Are

Good morning on our first Sunday in Lent. We’ve just begun the 40-day journey that will take us all the way to Easter--forty, after Jesus’ forty-day fast in the wilderness, and also because it had long since been a Biblical number, denoting struggle, and purification. Like with Noah in the ark for forty days (our Old Testament reading for today). Or Moses, on Mt Sinai where he received the law. Elijah in the desert, forty days. 

Speaking broadly for a moment as we shift into this new season: Lent, and then Holy Week especially, confront us with the challenging, even outrageous, claim that suffering is part of a good life. A life without it, or with little of it, is more impoverished. This goes against so much of what we’re taught to think, and to value. In fact, probably most of us would say, OK, then give me an impoverished life and spare me the suffering. I get that. I really get that.

But that’s usually not our choice, and in any case shouldn’t even be our desire.

Our story shifts now. The man whom we hold in highest regard, above all others, Jesus himself struggled and saw it as part of his calling from God. Our suffering, too, helps give life meaning. It strengthens our connections to each other. It opens our hearts to God in a way that life without it simply doesn’t. And we have forty days to ponder this mystery of our faith. 

So, welcome to Lent.

On this first Sunday in Lent, we hear about Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. If you’ll indulge me yet another reference to our trip to the Holy Land last summer, our group had the privilege of seeing this place, called the Mount of Temptation, outside of Jerusalem in the Judean desert. Of course today it’s a tourist site, with cable cars to whisk you up the mountain and fresh pomegranate juice awaiting you at the top (I don’t think I can ever preach this again without mentioning that pomegranate juice!). It’s just too rich, having all those snack stands at the very place our Lord fasted. Such are the surprises and absurdities of the Holy Land.

Every three years when Mark’s version of this story comes up (the Gospel writer Mark), we preachers are called up short. He gives it just two verses, compared to Mathew’s 11 and Luke’s 14 verses. In both of those, Satan and Jesus converse with each other as 3 temptations are offered: to turn stones into bread, interpreted as the temptation to use Jesus’ powers to end his discomfort and fasting. To throw himself off the peak of a cliff and trust God to save him, the temptation to test God (and just do something stupid). The temptation to claim dominion over all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for service to Satan, to acquire power at the cost of his integrity. 

All the art you see of this story, and there’s a lot, is inspired by those more ornate versions. Most of the sermons, too. Our Bible study group compared the different versions last Wednesday when we met. One of the amazing aspects of the longer forms is that Jesus and Satan spar, back and forth, both quoting Scripture in support of their opposing claims. As people still do. 

It’s lots of fun, and also instructive, playing with all that detail in those accounts. 

Mark’s version is spare, and maybe a little less interesting, but what it does do is make this not so much a detailed story about something that happened only to Jesus a long time ago, but a more universal one about these periods of trial and purification that we all must undergo, and do undergo, especially in Lent.

Mark mentions one detail the others do not, the wild beasts that accompanied Jesus in the desert. It’s been said that Mark is evoking Isaiah’s prophecy that one day when the Messiah comes and the world is made whole, the lion will lie down with the lamb and old enmities cease. Others have seen in these “wild beasts” a reference to Eden, with Jesus as the new Adam, living peaceably among God’s creatures and reversing the curse of the fall. 

But more simply, we all know what wild beasts are in this context: the thoughts that haunt us. The temptations and fears that rear their ugly heads when we’re alone, or weak and tired, or at night, away from the distractions and company of the day. 

In Lent, we are asked to do what Jesus did, to let those beasts be with us, and get to know them. Anything you get to know is less scary, less powerful. And if you’re not sure what the beasts are for you, here’s a good way to find out: pay attention to everything that rears its ugly head in the night: every fear, insecurity, every grudge, regret, your darkest most shameful thoughts. Those are your wild beasts. Joseph Campbell calls these night time visitors your “gargoyles” and “ageless perils.” There’s something about night that lets in the truth of who we are and what we’re most afraid of. 

Lent isn’t cruel. It’s a gift, spiritually and psychologically, to have the church tell us: Deal with these things. It’s good for us. It’s good for those around us. Get to know your wild beasts. And how to live with (and ultimately overcome) them.

Forty days. And whenever else you have courage but especially now. We’re all together in this. That makes it easier. That’s the beauty of church -- the meaning of which is “the assembly,” or “community.” We’re in this together, we have nothing to hide, and nothing to fear. 

A blessed Lent to all.