February 22, 2015 Lent 1B
Hal Roach, Sr. made a name for himself in the early years of the silent film industry, producing Laurel and Hardy movies, and the series now known as “The Little Rascals” with Spanky and Alfalfa and the rest of Our Gang. Back in that early era of film-making, most movies were comedies, and most comedies followed a formula. The climax of the film would be a chase scene. When inexperienced directors and screen writers tried to pad a film’s script with extra dialogue, Hal Roach would tell them, “just cut to the chase.”
Film historians credit Roach with coining this phrase, and using it often. “Cut to the chase,” Roach insisted. In other words, don’t keep the audience in suspense for too long, and whatever you do, don’t let them get bored.
Get to the point. Cut to the chase.
Hal Roach and the author of Mark’s Gospel would have understood each other perfectly. Today’s gospel reading brings us back to the first chapter, near the beginning of the story. Mark doesn’t waste any time; he gets right to the point. In six short verses, he lays out three important scenes that cut to the chase.
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:9-15)
A few weeks ago, we heard about John baptizing Jesus in the Jordan River, and during Epiphany we also heard the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, as he prepared to call his first disciples. The first Sunday in Lent always brings us to the story of Christ’s temptation in the desert, so let’s focus on the wilderness for a moment.
Not far beyond the city of Jerusalem, the wilderness stretches out to the east. You can see it in the distance from the top of Herodion, the fortress Herod the Great built for himself just outside Jerusalem.
The way to Jericho lies in what is commonly called “The Valley of the Shadow of Death.”
The road through this valley is treacherous, and in Jesus’ time the dangers would have included robbers as well as wild beasts and thirst.
As you get nearer to Jericho, which you can barely see off on the horizon, the Mount of Temptation rises above the city. It’s the peak you see off to the far right in this last photo.
If you want a better view of the Mount of Temptation, you can find another photo of it on our church website, or here. Tradition holds that Jesus spent his forty days in the wilderness on this mountain, probably sleeping in one of its many caves. Jesus would have been able to see the oasis of Jericho just below him, less than an hour’s walk away.
He would have seen fresh water springs, palm trees, and cultivated fields, only minutes away from the barren wasteland where he was being tested. Fresh fruit and cool water were within his view throughout that forty days, yet these were not what Satan used to tempt Jesus. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s ‘pan out’ again to see the framework Mark uses, as he builds his narrative.
Hal Roach would have appreciated Mark’s brevity, but he also would have enjoyed the way Mark’s story follows the pattern for a great hero tale. First the hero is initiated, or anointed, and sent on a quest. That quest includes many tests, and as the hero successfully completes each trial, he discovers more about himself and his mission. The climax of the quest, after the hero proves himself worthy, happens when the hero returns to conquer whatever forces of evil created the need for a hero in the first place, and this is where the supernatural beings come in, to help the hero win the battle. Finally, he claims the prize – usually a beautiful princess or a kingdom, or maybe both.
Mark’s hero story is laid out in three distinct scenes, and each scene gets only two verses. The initiation scene is Christ’s baptism, the quest sends Jesus into the wilderness for forty days, complete with wild beasts and angels, and the final scene brings Jesus into the world proclaiming the kingdom of God.
There’s only one problem with this script. As brief as it is, it still doesn’t fit neatly into 110 minutes, because the story isn’t over yet. Certainly, Christ already reigns over the kingdom of God in resurrection power, but that kingdom is not yet complete.
It’s what theologians call the “already but not yet” aspect of the kingdom of God.
There is still evil in the world. We are still broken people. God is still at work among us to bring all creation to its fulfillment. And the part we play is written into that script. To understand how we fit into this great story, let’s take a look back at the Old Testament reading we heard earlier, the story of God’s covenant with Noah, and compare it to this passage from Mark’s gospel.
Jesus may be heading into a wilderness filled with wild beasts, but Noah has just spent more than a year cooped up with his own floating zoo. Mark doesn’t explain why the wild beasts are important to his story, and he is the only gospel writer who mentions them. We are left to decide if the wild beasts pose a threat, or if they are symbolic of the coming Kingdom, where all is at peace and wild animals no longer present any danger. Certainly in Noah’s story, the animals represent God’s desire to start over, to give creation a second chance.
There are more significant parallels between these two stories, though. For example, there’s the water, and the voice of God. Just as Jesus comes up out of the Jordan River’s baptismal waters, Noah comes out of the flood. Both Jesus and Noah immediately hear the voice of God make an announcement. For Jesus, it is the assurance that he is God’s beloved Son, and God is pleased with him. We heard that same voice say similar words to the disciples gathered on the Mount of Transfiguration last week.
But the words God speaks to Noah form the very first covenant we find in the Bible. That word ‘covenant’ is so important, God mentions it seven (or eight, if you are reading the NIV) times in these nine verses. Unlike the covenants that will follow, this first agreement is completely one-sided. There is no requirement for the “party of the second part” to do anything in this covenant.
God simply says, “I promise I won’t ever again destroy the earth by flood.” And to seal the agreement, God posts a very visible “note to self” as a reminder. He hangs his bow in the sky, with the business end pointing away from the earth as a sign that God intends only good for his creation, not destruction. Noah doesn’t even have to agree for this covenant to go into effect. God makes a promise, and that’s that.
As Noah climbed out of the ark, he did accept God’s promise, heading off into his own version of the wilderness. Though the flood had destroyed everything, new growth had already begun by the time God called Noah out of the ark. Noah walked into a world that no one had ever seen before, a world that was being re-created right before his eyes. But he didn’t go alone. When God placed his bow in the heavens as a reminder to himself, he was also reminding Noah that God would always be with him.
As Jesus walked out of the wilderness and headed up the road toward Galilee, he was also walking into a world being re-created before his very eyes, but the change was not yet visible to anyone else. When the voice from heaven had spoken at his baptism, Mark tells us the heavens were ripped open. It’s the same word he uses later to describe the rending of the curtain in the temple at the time of Christ’s crucifixion (16:38). God was breaking into the world to establish his kingdom once and for all.
Both Jesus and Noah experienced God’s presence, God’s provision, and God’s promise as they made their way through the wilderness. God’s very first covenant was a promise to Noah that he would never again destroy the world with a flood. God’s final covenant is the promise, sealed with Jesus’ own blood, that he will restore all of creation to its intended perfection and right relationship to God.
And this is where we come into the picture. This is where we are called to cut to the chase. Just as Jesus received the Holy Spirit at his baptism, so we receive the Holy Spirit when we claim Jesus as Lord. The NRSV says that the Spirit descended like a dove on him, but that little preposition in Greek really means “into.” The Spirit descended into Jesus, filling and strengthening him, even as it anointed him.
We also can be filled with the Holy Spirit. It is only through the power of the Holy Spirit that we can accomplish anything for the kingdom of God. It is only through the power of the Holy Spirit that we can withstand the tests and temptations that bombard us every day. God is present with us in his Spirit. By the Spirit, God stays with us.
Beware, though. That same Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, to be tested, to live among wild beasts, and to depend on God’s angels to care for him. Know that when we ask God to fill us with his Holy Spirit, we are asking God to send us into the wilderness.
In a classic hero’s story, this quest is the trial that defines the hero’s mission and gives the hero the necessary skills and tools to complete it. The quest transforms an average human being into someone who knows a hero’s purpose and has a burning desire to fulfill it.
When we seek God’s Spirit to live in us, we must be prepared to set out on a spiritual quest that will transform us. What we learn in the wilderness, and our faithfulness to the mission we are given, will determine how successfully we complete that mission.
It does no good to stay out in the wilderness, though. There is nothing to be gained by continuing to wander through the barren mountains, once we’ve learned what our mission is. I’ve known times when I got stuck in my own wilderness. Maybe you’ve been there, too. Instead of moving forward into the unknown, I kept hiding in my own cave of uncertainty. I felt unprepared. I didn’t know what I was doing, so I did nothing. I kept adding unnecessary dialogue to the script, when all the time God was saying, “Cut to the chase. Stop wasting time.
I’m right here.”
Cutting to the chase doesn’t mean going faster. It means cutting out the unnecessary noise in our lives, the clamor of things that pull our attention away from God as we wander in the wilderness. Cutting to the chase means giving God our full attention.
When we cut to the chase, we can hear God say, “you are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased.” We can hear God promise, “I’m not going to destroy you. I am with you. I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.”
God did not leave Jesus in the desert, any more than he left Noah in the ark. Just as the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, the Spirit also led him into his ministry in Galilee. That same Spirit pushes us into the wilderness where we can learn to depend on God’s provision and we can learn to face our trials by depending on God’s strength, not our own.
The season of Lent is a perfect opportunity to do just that. These forty days give us time to seek God, to develop our trust in him, to walk in his way. Then we can be ready when the Holy Spirit calls us out of the wilderness and into our purpose as Christians and as a church. Our purpose is the same one Jesus carried with him from the wilderness into Galilee. Christ calls us to repent of following our own way, to turn, and to follow him. He calls us to join him in proclaiming the good news that the kingdom of God is here.