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In the Wilderness

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In the Wilderness 

Jesus was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan;
and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
(St Mark 1: 13)

Read : Genesis 9: 8-17, 1 Peter 3: 18-22, Mark 1: 9-15 (NIV) 

In the last but one of his weekly columns in The Times newspaper, an old friend described his recent visit to Israel. He tells how much he enjoyed "a night in the Negev desert in simple cabins under the stars, where a man called Ilan kept llamas, alpacas, camels, and horses; and a great, dry ravine called the Ramon crater; and the mountains of Jordan lit palely across the Dead Sea after sunset; and a charcoal fire in the evening. Surely the Gospel writers misunderstood. Those forty days and forty nights in the desert will have been the best days in Jesus' life."(The Times Wednesday 1 February 2015) 

Ah, my dear friend - how could you be so wrong? Unlike you, Jesus was entirely alone in the wilderness, with no cabin under the stars, no man called Ilan to look after him, and with forty days and forty nights, not one night, of disenabling solitude to endure. No, Jesus' experience in the wilderness was like the wilderness itself, stark and bare, for, as St Mark says, he was "tempted by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him." Satan, the wild beasts, and angels. What can they mean? 

Take Satan first. The word means adversary, and in the New Testament it came to stand for the ruler of an organised empire of evil, the prince of this world, the devil, whose aim is to destroy the relationship between God and humankind. 

If you tell me that you don't believe in a personal devil because you've never met him, fine. But let me ask you this question: If you've never met the devil could it be that you are not good enough?  

Think about it! The devil troubles only those who are good: why the devil should he be bothered about those who are bad? He's perfectly content to leave them to their own devices.  


There was no way he could leave Jesus alone. Jesus was not only good, but also, as St John tells us and as Satan surely knew, "The Son of God appeared for the very purpose of destroying the works of the devil." (1 John 3: 8)  

So here, in the wilderness, at the beginning of Christ's ministry, the devil attempts a pre-emptive strike, and tries to win a decisive victory by diverting Jesus from the path of God's will. The wilderness was not just the place where Jesus was tempted: it was a battlefield where he joined battle with the devil. And that battle raged throughout his ministry. All his healing the sick, his casting out demons, his raising the dead, and all the other marvels of the Gospel story, are instances of the onslaught of the Son of God against the power of Satan.  

Jesus' whole life was a waging of a resolute warfare, as indeed is the life of every one of his followers. We are all engaged in Jesus' campaign against the devil, and never more so, perhaps, than during this holy season of Lent, when in a measure at least, we too are in the wilderness, treading the tempter down, battling the forces of evil, repelling the powers of darkness. 

But what about the wild beasts? St Mark is the only one of the evangelists to mention them. What part do they play in the story? Robert Graves, in a wonderful poem, inspires us with a lovely insight of the ministry of the wild beasts to Jesus and of his ministry to them. It begins, 

Christ of his gentleness
thirsting and hungering,
walked in the wilderness;
soft words of grace he spoke
unto lost desert-folk
that listened wondering.

The "desert-folk" are animals like the bittern, the pelican, the scorpion (cockatrice), and great rats on leather wings. But one animal in particular kept close company with Jesus: 

And ever with him went,
of all his wanderings
comrade, with ragged coat,
gaunt ribs - poor innocent
- bleeding foot, burning throat,
the guileless old scapegoat;
for forty nights and days
followed in Jesus' ways,
sure guard behind him kept,
tears like a lover wept.
(In the Wilderness, by Robert Graves)

Here is why Jesus was in the wilderness - indeed, why he was in the world at all - not only to do battle with the devil, but also to take upon himself, as the scape-goat of the Old Testament did, all the sins of the people. Lent is a time for thinking that through, and for thanking God for all that Jesus did for us by dying for our sins and raising us to a new life. 

Perhaps there is no better thing we could do during Lent than to sing to ourselves every day "There is a green hill far away". That hymn expresses, simply and sublimely, the great truth of our atonement which we are set to ponder during Lent.  

But now, finally, for the angels. Angels turn up in the strangest of places, if only we were prepared to see them. William Blake saw a treefull of angels at Peckham Rye (see the poem, Mad Blake, by William Rose Benet), and here in our story, Jesus sees them in the wilderness. The angels attend Jesus to witness his encounter with Satan, and they come to refresh him with the assurance of God's presence and power. 

What more need I say? Just this: the wilderness is a place, and Lent is a time, for seeing angels, for letting them come to our help, especially when we are tempted, especially when we are struggling, especially when we need to know God's power. 

Keep your eyes open, and your hearts. You never know the moment when an angel may shine. 

Rev Charles Robertson, February 2015


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