Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Mark 1:9-13 - With the Wild Beasts...

I think most people have an idea of how they think God should treat the people He loves.

Some think that God should treat the people he loves by making their lives completely comfortable and pain-free.

Others refine that attitude a little bit. They know that life can’t be completely comfortable, but they think it should at least be mostly comfortable. They’re not expecting God to make them the next Bill Gates, but they do in the back of their minds, think that God, if he really loves them, should make their lives relatively comfortable and fairly pain-free.

Many Christians know enough and have studied their Bibles enough to have somewhat of a different perspective. In fact, many have come to the place where they don’t even think about God's love for them in terms of physical comfort at all.

But, they do in terms of spiritual success.

I mean, whether they would say it or not, they envision the person God loves as being a tremendous spiritual success, he hits all the spiritual green lights, he’s a Christian superstar; he opens his mouth and talks and thousands fall at his feet and say, ‘Oh please, sir, would you teach me more?’

You might not put it quite like that, but the truth is most of us live our lives with certain expectations - we have ideas about the way God should treat the people He loves.

The thing is, these expectations often cause a great amount of spiritual turmoil; because in real life, things often don’t go the way we would think they should.

We find ourselves in circumstances that are uncomfortable, far from what we would want: we don’t have the money to pay the rent and then our car breaks down; we reach out to a member of our family and they reject and ridicule us; we keep trying, trying to do what’s right and we keep getting nowhere.

And as a result, we start to wonder. We wonder about God’s attitude towards us when situations in our life get difficult. God, are you there? God, this isn’t how I’d expect you to treat someone you love!

I wouldn’t be surprised if the early Christians sometimes wondered that. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Christians to whom Mark wrote this gospel had those kinds of questions in their mind.

You see, it’s most likely, he’s writing to Christians living in Rome. As one scholar puts it, “There can be little doubt that Mark wrote for Gentile Christians, and Roman Gentiles in particular. 1.) He quotes relatively infrequently from the Old Testament. 2.) He explains Jewish customs unfamiliar to his readers. 3.) He translates Hebrew phrases by their Greek equivalents. 4.) He uses Latinisms and 5.) He presents Romans in a neutral and sometimes favorable light.”

More pointedly, the earliest tradition is that Mark writes this gospel in the late 60’s, early 70’s; to help you understand the significance, that means he’s writing to Gentile Christians living in Rome shortly after Nero burned it down and blamed the fire on the Christians.

To be a Christian living in Rome, was never easy. Because they kept to themselves and were serious about purity, they were the subject of all sorts of ridiculous ridicule; accused of hating men because they wouldn’t participate in pagan feasts, accused of cannibalism because of a misunderstanding of what they were doing when they celebrated the Lord’s supper.

But, to be a Christian living in Rome after the disastrous fire that swept through Rome during summer of a.d. 64, was much, much worse. You see, the Roman citizens were blaming Nero for the fire and Nero, he needed a scape-goat, so he chose the Christians – and then things got really, really ugly.

One Roman historian writing a generation after the events, explained what happened next:

To suppress the rumor that he had started the fire, “Nero fabricated scapegoats, and punished
with very refinement the notoriously depravedChristians…First Nero, had self-acknowledged
Christians arrested. Then,…large numbers of their Christians were condemned…Their
deaths were made a [joke]. Dressed in wild animals’ skins, they were torn to pieces by
dogs, or crucified, or made into torches to be ignited after dark as substitutes for daylight.
Nero provided his Gardens for the spectacle, and exhibited displays in the Circus, at which
he mingled in the crowd – or stood in a chariot, dressed as a charioteer.”

I’m not sure I can understand what it would be like to be strapped to a pole, watching a
crowd laugh, point and cheer as someone came to light you on fire; I don’t know that we could
ever possibly hope to understand everything that would go through a person’s mind as he
was dressed in animal skins, forced to crawl on all fours and flee as wild beasts were let loose to attack him; but I imagine, I imagine, that one question that had to be on those early Christian’s minds would have been – does God allow this kind of stuff to happen to people he loves. Isn’t this kind of humiliation, this kind of treatment – proof that we don’t have God’s approval?

I have to admit, I bring all this up, because I got stuck this week on one phrase in Mark’s account of Jesus’ temptation.

“The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild beasts, and the angels were ministering to him.”

If you compare Mark’s account with the ones found in Matthew or Luke, the one thing that is going to strike you about Mark’s, is that it is awfully short.

Matthew, if you look at Matthew 4, takes about eleven verses and really dives into great detail about how the devil tempted Jesus and then describes for us Jesus’ response.

Luke, if you look at Luke 4, tells us even more. He takes about thirteen verses and adds certain details that we don’t find anywhere else.

But Mark, I mean two verses.

There’s nothing here in Mark that you can’t find in the other accounts, except for one single, solitary phrase.

“…And he was with the wild beasts…”

I don’t want to read too much into that phrase or over-exaggerate its significance, you certainly don’t want to make too much out of too little, but to me, the fact that Mark alone adds this detail, the fact that Mark who gives us such a short description of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, stops and points this out, is at the very least fascinating, and more likely, important.

Some scholars have come up with what I think is a strange interpretation. They say what’s happening out here in the wilderness is meant to remind us of Adam’s confrontation with Satan in the Garden of Eden. Before Adam fell he was at peace with the wild animals, but when Adam gave in to temptation and was thrown out of the Garden, that relationship was changed. Here in Mark, as Jesus defeats Satan as the new Adam, the fact that he is here with the wild beasts in the wilderness symbolizes, that the former peace that Adam enjoyed in the Garden of Eden will be restored – and is a sign to us that the promises of the Old Testament will be fulfilled, we too will live at peace with the wild animals and enjoy the comforts and joys of paradise.

I don’t know about you, but to me that seems a bit much. For one thing, it’s reading a lot into the phrase itself. For another, Mark doesn’t record Jesus’ victory over Satan – that’s not the point. The main point here is that he’s out in the wilderness, the main point is the difficulties he’s experiencing.

What Mark’s doing here instead is offering us a vivid reminder of the horror and danger of the wilderness. He mentions the wild beasts to remind us that the wilderness was a frightening place, a place where Jesus suffered.

“Jesus was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild beasts…”

As the Roman Christians saw their fellow believers being led away to be burnt alive on a lamppost, as they watched the crowds cheer while they were dressed in animal skins to be chased down and torn apart by wild beasts, do you think that phrase might have brought them any comfort?

It wouldn’t be surprising to any of us if they wondered if God had forgotten them, if they wondered about God’s approval. Perhaps, and I think it’s likely, Mark includes this as a subtle reminder – a comfort and encouragement in the midst of suffering, to remember Jesus.

There’s, as we saw last week, never been a person who was more certainly approved by God. There’s never been a louder, more clear statement of God’s approval of a person than the one He made at Jesus’ baptism:

“You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

Yet here, by God’s providence, we find him thrust out into the wilderness, with the wild beasts.
His suffering didn’t mean He had lost God’s approval on his life.

I was trying to wrap my mind this week around all the different things that would have made this wilderness experience so difficult for Jesus, what exactly made his suffering so intense.

I began just by thinking about the wilderness.

I looked up wilderness in my handy dandy Bible encyclopedia and you know the first three words?

A barren wasteland.

The Judean wilderness where Jesus most likely was tempted basically consists of rocks and dirt.

It’s a lonely, desolate, dangerous, uninhabited, barren wasteland.

If you can just picture being blindfolded, taken way out in the middle of the desert and being dropped there, left by yourself; you might get a sense of the aloneness Jesus might have felt.

And it wasn’t like he was just there for a day -
Mark says he was in the wilderness forty days.

I don’t know that I’ve ever been alone, apart from any contact with any other person more than a day. Forty days is a long time to not see any other human being.

In prison, one way they punish people is by doing something like that, putting the prisoner in solitary confinement. The effects of being alone in that kind of situation are so serious, in fact, there have been those who have argued that solitary confinement constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

Not only was Jesus alone for forty days, Matthew and Luke both add, that he fasted the whole time.

Now think about that, if being out in the wilderness by himself wasn’t enough, he had to go forty days without food.

The fact is, and I’m kind of an expert on this because I did a google search, a normal person can’t last much more than forty days without food. Some say straight fasting becomes dangerous after three to five days, some of you are saying it becomes dangerous after three to five hours.

After about three to five days of fasting, the body starts breaking down fat in order to produce energy.

“When that happens, the liver is reduced to breaking down fat instead of the usual glucose, and it produces ketone bodies, a toxic byproduct. This ketone can be expelled from the body in a number of different ways, but if the ketone bodies become too numerous in the bloodstream, they cause and I’m sure I’m saying this wrong, ketoacidosis, which is a potentially lethal condition for diabetics.”

After three weeks, or whenever you lose eighteen percent of your starting weight, everything gets worse, far worse. The body tries to compensate for the lack of food, by slowing down its metabolism, entering starvation mode. Once fat stores are depleted, the body has no choice but to as one writer puts it, “mine the muscles and vital organs for energy.” The person fasting, wastes away as his body consumes itself. [1]

On top of the loneliness and pain, Mark tells us, he was with the wild beasts.

I guess I never really thought about Israel as being a place with many wild animals, but then I started thinking about some of the animals the Bible described and I realized the wilderness of Israel must have been a fairly frightening place.

We’re talking bears, lions, hippos, venomous snakes, some think rhino’s, wild boars, and crocodiles. It may be a bit of an over-exaggeration to say going into the wilderness was like going to the zoo, but on the other hand, at the zoo the animals are behind cages.

We met a number of people in South Africa who would go on vacation to game parks. You can sign up for these trips, where a ranger will take a whole group of people into, I guess you might say, the wilderness and they’ll look for wild animals.

One of guys I met was telling me, that the Ranger would wake them up early in the morning, and then the group would go on a hike.

I was trying to imagine what that would be like. You are out there, walking around, and you don’t know, when you might just turn a corner and be face to face with a powerful, man-eating animal.

I’ll tell you one thing, as you were walking along, you never would feel very safe, you always would be on your guard, wondering what was going to happen next - and that’s with an armed Park Ranger in your group.

Can you imagine being by yourself?

We got to drive in a truck into a little fenced off game reserve where they had about 6 or 7 lions, I was thinking this week, what I would have felt like if they had just dropped me off.
We’re talking intense all out fear.

Alone, hungry, with the wild animals; I keep thinking where did Jesus sleep? Did Jesus sleep?

It wasn’t like Jesus was just out in the wilderness on a hike; he was under attack – by Satan himself; the prince of darkness, the evil one, the ruler of the kingdom of the air.

We sometimes think of the temptation in the wilderness as solely the three temptations mentioned in Matthew and Luke, but the way Mark puts it here, seems to indicate those temptations may just have been a part.

The phrase, “being tempted” is in what is called the present tense, which means this is something that was happening the whole time. Probably the three temptations that are recorded, came at the end of forty days of being tempted as a kind of climax.

I want you just to stop and think about being driven out in the middle of nowhere, with all the physical difficulties that we just talked about, and then having to go mano-a-mano, toe to toe with Satan for forty days.

Can you just stop and try to come to grips with what it would be like if Satan suddenly decided to focus all of his energies on destroying you?

This is a being who is called the father of lies; he is the master manipulator.

He is full of hate and malice, there’s a not single ounce of compassion or mercy or pity in him. Just think of all the awful things that have happened in the world, little old ladies being murdered, children being abused, people being tortured; these are the kinds of things that bring a smile to Satan’s face.

The apostle John tells us he’s been a murderer from the beginning. He loves death, violence, brutality, anything and everything awful.

He lives to blaspheme God, he devotes all his energies to opposing everything God is and everything God does.

You can be sure he came to this temptation in the wilderness with his game face-on; this was his moment, his golden opportunity to try to accomplish his greatest desire, to destroy the Son of God and thwart God’s great purpose, His plan for our good.

What may have made all this even more difficult for Jesus was the fact that this assault from Satan, this low, low, low time in the wilderness came immediately after a real spiritual high.

I would guess Jesus didn’t wonder this, but I think I would – man God, you said you loved me? Why aren’t you doing with me, what you did with John the Baptist? He’s got hundreds of thousands of people coming to him, and I’m stuck out here in the wilderness battling Satan?

If we ever wonder whether about God’s approval of us simply because we are undergoing some trials, because our life isn’t going quite the way we think it should; we need to look to Jesus.

You couldn’t get more loved by God than Jesus, you couldn’t have a more God-blessed ministry than Jesus, you couldn’t be more in tune with God’s plan than Jesus – and yet, the beloved Son of God’s ministry all begins in what from a human perspective would have to hands down be considered the worst way possible.

If I was going to sketch out a plan for the way God would treat the one He loves, Jesus – the Messiah- the way God would begin His ministry: I’d have Him baptized and then have the Spirit drive Him into some stadium filled with hundreds of thousands of adoring fans with their Jesus shirts on, their Jesus hats on, cheering, going crazy with excitement as he enters onto the field.

But instead God sends Him out into the wilderness.

One way we could look at the baptism and temptation is to understand what it tells us about Jesus. But I want you to look at it from another angle, to see what it comfort it has to give us.

And really, what we see is that it tells us, we can’t evaluate God’s attitude towards a person on the basis of the circumstances they are forced to experience.

We certainly can’t evaluate God’s attitude towards Jesus on the basis of the difficulties of his wilderness experience, to know what God thought about Jesus, we have to do what? Go back to the baptism and listen to His voice – He reveals His attitude through what He says.

Instead of evaluating God’s attitude towards us on the basis of our circumstances, we need to do the same thing ourselves. We have to base our understanding of what God thinks about us on what God has said in His Word.

And He makes it clear in His Word that if you have put your faith in Jesus, He has united you to Christ, and because you are in Christ, He looks upon you with the same kind of love and affection that He does His own Son, not because of something you did but because of something He did.

If you are a Christian, God declares in Romans 8:15, “you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom you can look to God and cry, ‘Abba! Father!’”

If you are a Christian, Paul tells us in Romans 8:38ff, you are God’s beloved children, and it is impossible for anything, “not rulers, not things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

If you are a Christian, Paul tells us in Romans 8:1, “There is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus…” God, because of the work of Christ, because He has through His death provided forgiveness and through His resurrection provided justification, looks on you as Christians who are clothed in Christ’s righteousness, and can say, “With you I am well pleased.”

Just because God loves us doesn’t mean our lives are always going to be easy. Just because God loves us doesn’t even mean our ministry and work will always look very successful.

In fact, looking at church history, we find oftentimes the opposite seems to be true.

I was reading this week about John Bunyan. I’m sure you know Bunyan’s story; how he was forced to spend twelve years in prison.

Twelve years, for preaching the gospel.

Can you imagine that?

How did he survive?

In Bunyan’s words, he survived, even thrived because he learned to “to live upon God that is invisible…”

Not on what he could see, but on what God had said.

That I think is the lesson of the wilderness. That is why Mark reminds us Jesus too was with the wild beasts.

Don’t judge what God thinks about you by what’s happening to you, judge what God thinks about you b y what He says to you in His Word. Look to Jesus. Trust in God’s Word. And press on.

[1] Information from Slate.com

1 comment:

Allon said...

Makes me think of the saint who, being hung up by the thumbs, said to the Lord;
"Lord now I understand why you have so few friends!"