Anyone remember the days of radio? Do you remember the show Dragnet? It started out as a radio program and then moved to TV and the movies. The main character Joe Friday was a police detective and was famous for his catch phrase. Anyone remember it? “Just the Facts Ma’am.” That’s right, No embellishments. No opinions. Just the facts. I think that Mark, our gospel writer this morning, would have appreciated Joe Friday. Mark writes this gospel in a Dragnet sort of way. Just the facts. Quick clean.
It starts with a Baptism. A humble quiet Jesus comes to his cousin, wild man John, and asks to be baptized. He then goes immediately into the wilderness for 40 days. He is tempted by Satan and waited on by angels. And at the end of the story he emerges and is ready to proclaim the good news, ready to bring about the kingdom of God. Quick simple. Just the facts. But if you are like me, it makes you wonder, what really happened in that wilderness?
The wilderness story is the one that begins our Lenten season. And like Lent, we could look at this story in many different ways. We could see it as a solemn time of reflection. We could see it as a time of deprivation and suffering. But I like to think of it as adventure. And when I think of adventure, I start getting the John Williams music in my head. (cue music). For those of you who do not know, John Williams who turned 80 this year, is a composer who has written just about every adventure movie score in the modern era. Superman, Harry Potter, Jaws, E.T., Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones and or course Star Wars. Basically, if you were going to have an adventure, you would want John Williams to write the music for it. When I hear it, I think of all of the great heroes that have had adventures before me. Heroes like Odysseus, Joan of Arc, and of course, Indiana Jones.
If you have ever read Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, you will know that many heroes follow the same path, what they call the hero’s journey. See if you think this matches Jesus’ adventures in the wilderness. The hero leaves home, goes into a place that he or she has never been, encounters many trials, gets help from unexpected places, and returns changed. I think, using this formula, we might delve deeper into Mark’s story and find the adventure of Lent.
The first stage of the hero’s journey is leaving home. Now home can be a literal home or it can be a figurative one. Most of the time it is both. Odysseus begins his journey on an island far away from the love of his family. Joan of Arc leaves her meager farm life to join the ranks of the French Army. And Indiana Jones is supposed to be a teacher, but you how often do you see him in a classroom. At the beginning of our scripture today it says that Jesus came from Nazareth which was his home. He leaves his place of upbringing to come and be baptized. But not by a rabbi. He goes to this wild man John who has been living out in the middle of nowhere eating honey and locusts. It was at the very least unconventional. So Jesus leaves his literal home, and the home of convention. But he goes a step further. He leaves civilization entirely and goes out into the wilderness. Mark writes that the Spirit drove him there. Well, the Spirit could not have picked a place more un-homey place.
This is the second phase of our hero’s journey, strange lands. The wilderness. Now some scholars think that the wilderness Jesus went to was a rocky region, but when I think of the wilderness I think of desert. Barren expansive desert like the one on the front of the bulletin. Now don’t get me wrong, I love the image of the wilderness. It is powerful and spiritual. The wilderness is a paradox. It is everything that is nothing. It is a place where people cannot be, and yet Jesus is there. It is a place that does not support life, and yet it fosters growth. It is special. That is why it is such a great image for the start of Lent. That is why it is such a good place to begin transformation. Think about it. In the wilderness there is no distraction. No development. There is silence. And there is also no judgment. No preconceived notion. No opinions. It is untouched. It simply is. On a spiritual level, this wilderness is a reflection of our inner selves. There is a place in us that seeks to do away with what has been built up. There is a place that seeks to put an end to judgment. An end to opinions, noise and clutter that fill up our souls. To get back to what is simple, what is purely ourselves. To simply be.
The wilderness is a tough place, no doubt. But on some level it has to be. If it were fertile, if it were habitable, if it were easy, then it would cease to be special. It would become like every other place and it would lose its purpose. It must remain tough in order to be true.
Lent is similar. It may be challenging, but that is what makes it special, set apart from the rest of the year. Lent affords us the opportunity to take a reflective journey, to evaluate from where we have come, where we are, and where we hope to go. Perhaps today you are dealing with great stress. This time is an opportunity to sit with it and transform it. Perhaps you are holding onto great anger. This is a time to reflect on where that anger comes from, acknowledge it and let it go. Perhaps there are struggles and fears that perplex you and keep you up at night. Lent is a time to face those fears, and overcome them. That is what we mean by transformation.
As you may have noticed, time in the wilderness is not all quiet and easy. At no point in the story does it say that Jesus was on vacation. Quite the contrary. It says that he was tempted by Satan. As if the wilderness itself wasn’t enough.
This takes us to the third part of the hero’s journey, trials. Without tests the hero cannot prove his worth. Odysseus had to resist temptation from the Sirens and take down the mighty Cyclops. Joan of Arc had to face the skepticism of her commanders not to mention the armies of the British. And Indiana Jones? Well, aside from a giant boulder chasing him, he has those pesky Nazis to deal with.
Jesus’s trial is the temptation by Satan. Now Luke and Matthew expand on the story with a bunch of details, but Mark keeps it simple. Just the facts ma’am. He simply says Jesus was tempted, which leaves us to wonder, what was so tempting? Was it the gift of cool satisfying water? Was it delectable morsels of delicious food? Certainly these would have been tempting after days living with nothing. But I think that something more crossed the exchange of Jesus and Satan.
I picture Jesus sitting alone in the rocky barren wilderness thinking about all that he was to accomplish. As his ministry unfolds before him, he starts to see the grandness of its scope and difficulty. All that he is to do and all that he is to be begins to appear insurmountable. Perhaps a bead of fearful sweat emits from his brow. And at the moment Satan appears with a great offer. Satan says to him, “Just forget about it. Give up. Nobody is making you do this. You really do not have to.”
Have you ever faced this? I call it the give up voice. When something gets a bit uncomfortable or difficult it pipes up. “Hello? Yes, it is me, the voice of ease. What you are doing is too hard. Stop now, okay.” For some of us, Lent represents more than a time of reflection. It represents difficulty. It is hard to look at ourselves. It is hard to make the changes that we need to make in order to become the people we are meant to be. The give up voice says, “Ugh, forget this. Just wait until Easter when everything is cheery and white.” The journey through the wilderness and the journey through Lent is a time of talking back to that voice, telling it that we are going to go ahead and persevere. To create transformation, we have to begin with perseverance. That is the reaction Jesus has to Satan. He does not give up. He does not give in. That is what makes him the hero of the adventure.
Though we often associate the time in the wilderness as alone time, the text does mention that there is some company. It says that angels waited upon him. The fourth stage in our hero’s journey is one marked by spiritual helpers. Odysseus gets a boost from some of the gods like Athena who is his biggest fan, and Hermes who comes to get him off of the island. Joan of Arc famously had visions of Saints guiding her in France’s conquest. And Indiana Jones is aided by the magical and mysterious artifacts that he finds. Jesus has angels waiting on him. Again Mark is sparse in his description, but I think that this was more than just some heavenly room service.
Whatever the purpose of the angels, we can assume that they were caretakers. This is an encouraging detail because it reminds us that we are not completely alone on our spiritual journey. Though we must face our temptations and our trials ourselves, there is assistance to provide care and help if we need it. Angels are everywhere. This is obvious to anyone who has been through serious illness or grief in this church. It never ceases to warm my heart at the outpouring of support that people offer one another. Like angels in the desert they come, providing food, support, companionship, and even just a hug. There are angles in the face of adversity. Mark knew it, and I know it too.
Another detail worth mentioning is that the angels come after the temptation with Satan. Like in the hero’s journey, there are trials before there are helpers. The angels are not there to make everything easy. They are there to assist when things get too difficult. It says that they provide care, not answers. That is something only the hero can discover when they overcome the trials set before them.
The last stage of the hero’s journey is the return. The hero does not stay on this journey forever. The tests and temptations result in a breakthrough that creates the person that they always knew that they could be. Like the butterfly that emerges from the cocoon, they return home to show their true self to the people that they left. Odysseus returns to his wife a changed man, Joan of Arc returns to stand trial as an empowered and invigorated woman, and Indiana Jones? Well, he begins his journey as an atheist, but does not end it that way. At the end of the Mark passage today, Jesus returns from the wilderness with a definitive proclamation, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ Now, does this sound like someone who is trying to discover himself? No, of course not. This is not the same man that was quietly seeking Baptism from his cousin 40 days earlier. He has persevered through hardship. He has resisted the temptation to give up. He has been transformed. Before the people stands a fully realized person ready to begin his ministry and be an example to all.
For those of us take this journey into the wilderness there is great potential for transformation. How will you emerge from the end of Lent this year? Will you risk transformation? Will you venture into the wilderness and dare to look into yourself? Will you face your fears and your dreams with the potential to be what God truly wants you to be? If you do, I warn you it will not be easy. You will face demons and trials. You will face temptation. You will face the give up voice. But if you persevere, if you dare to adventure, then you will tap into great potential. You will see yourself as God sees you. You will be a person that you were born to be. You can be the hero. If you believe you can, say amen.