Sunday, February 21, 2020
"Between Angels and Wild Beasts"
Pastor Scott Landis
Throughout my years in ministry, I’ve discovered that folks feel quite differently about the season of Lent. Some have fond memories of family devotions or of saving pennies to help those in need. While others recall horror stories of promising to “give up” certain things like sugar, or chocolate, or even meat, but failing miserably and feeling quite guilty for doing so. The “giving up,” I suppose, helped one to identify with the sacrifice of Jesus who endured the temptations dangled in front of him by Satan. The problem comes when we fail and feel like we don’t measure up to God’s expectations. This may have been an effective strategy to effect “good behavior,” but I doubt this is very good for our soul – and doesn’t seem like a helpful Lenten practice to me.
For still others, Lent has no memory at all. Having been raised in non-liturgical churches, they were spared of Lenten disciplines and sacrifices. Lent was something they remember others observing but was not part of their life whatsoever. Maybe they were the lucky ones.
In my previous church there was a woman, whom I loved dearly. She would remind me each year as we began the season of just how much she “hated Lent.” Her reaction, I believe, was a combination of childhood memory and the fact that she didn’t like the dreariness of the season – the hymns “were boring” she said, the paraments - dull, even the bare altar reminded her of a sadness for which she harbored deep disdain. “Can’t we just skip over Lent and go directly to Easter?” she would quip. [Pause]
Don’t bother looking for Lent in your Bible – there is no such thing recorded there. In fact, we really have no idea when or how it began. Many scholars believe it was instituted sometime around the Council of Nicea in 325 of the Common Era. Episcopal Priest, and one of my favorite preachers, the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor believes it came into being sometime “after the initial rush of Christian adrenaline was over and believers had gotten very ho-hum about their faith.
She continues, “When the world did not end as Jesus had said it would, his followers stopped expecting so much from God or from themselves … little by little, Christians became devoted to their comforts instead: a soft couch, the flannel sheets, the leg of lamb roasted with rosemary. These things made them feel safe and cared for – if not by God, then by themselves. They decided there was no contradiction between being comfortable and being Christian, and before long it was hard to pick them out from the population at large. They no longer distinguished themselves by their bold love for one another. They did not get arrested for championing the poor. They blended in. They avoided extremes. They decided to be nice instead of holy and God moaned out loud. [Pause]
I don’t know what your experience of Lent has been in the past, but I ask you, today, to consider what it might mean – this year – as we begin to see some light at the end of the tunnel of very long year of wilderness that we know all too well as – the pandemic.
This passage from the book of Mark – the incident of which is read each year on the First Sunday in Lent – is very different from the other gospels. Mark gets straight to the point. No details and no biblical repartee between Jesus and Satan. Mark simply states that Jesus was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness for forty days where he was tempted by Satan; “AND he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited upon him.”
I find this a fascinating description between two distinctly contrasting moods or elements as Jesus lives “in-between” Spirit and Satan --- Angels and Wild Beasts. What could Mark be trying to communicate beneath these words as Jesus experienced this time of “wilderness?”
Furthermore, why is it that this same Spirit that alighted on Jesus as God proclaims love for him, now seems to peck at his head demanding he go where no one WANTS to go – into the wilderness? A place where he will remain for 40 days undergoing a time of personal struggle and reflection. [Pause]
Professor of Homiletics Brian Blount explained it this way, “Want to know what happens when you get too close to God, when you get touched by the power of God’s Spirit? You don’t sit still and enjoy the view, you don’t lay down and take a nap, you don’t bask in the glory of what great thing has just happened. You go immediately to ‘wild work.’” He went on to say, “To work for God is to be thrown directly into the path of those who would oppose God.”
In other words, as both Barbara Brown Taylor and Brian Blount suggest – this journey we call Lent – a journey that goes way beyond 40 days – is hard work. It expects things of us that we may have never thought possible or ever imagined.
But, as you may have noticed – even Jesus needed help fulfilling his “wild work.” He was not alone. He was “being tended.” To “be tended” connotes the same love and care offered by a shepherd looking after a flock – or a parent who stays up all night with a child who is enduring some kind of illness. What interests me about Mark’s rendering is that Jesus is tended or seems to live BETWEEN Angels and Wild Beasts. [Pause]
I think it’s probably pretty easy for us to understand the need for Angels. Angels, after all, come from God – they bring messages of “good news” and encouraging words like, “fear not – the Lord is with you.” But, Wild Beasts – of what good are they? I wonder?
It doesn’t say they were hurting Jesus in any way. It just says they were “with them.” Perhaps we NEED the wild beasts at times – just as much as we need the angels. I wonder?
Writer MaryAnn McKibben Dana in a recent article on this passage, speaks of her “go-to friend,” the one she calls for a reassuring word when things get really tough. Do you have one of those friends? The ones who have your back no matter what? She says, they often close their conversation by saying, “May the wild beasts minister to you.” I love that! But it is a strange way of saying good-bye, don’t you think?
She agrees, this may be a rather loose interpretation of the text. But think about it. She says, “Sometimes a gentle, well-coiffed angel just doesn’t cut it. There are occasions when we need heavy artillery, spiritually speaking. When we are in the fight of our lives, we need courage and strength. We need a sidewinder sent from God. Maybe that dove-like Spirit,” she imagines, “who was present at Jesus baptism transformed, into a turkey vulture for the time of testing.
She suggests, “Perhaps the wild beasts with Jesus were sheer inspiration to him. Their lack of tameness gave him the strength he needed to go head-to-head with the Adversary, who was reckless in his struggle to divert, distract, or seduce Jesus away from his mission. [Pause]
I think we may forget from time to time that the work of following Jesus may not be an easy road in which “we all live happily ever after.” It’s not all about standing in a circle, holding hands, and singing Kumbaya. To call ourselves Christian is to be set apart and quite often not to blend in. Maybe that is Lent’s invitation to us this year. To invite the question, “How am I making a difference in my church, my family, my community because of my faith?” How are the angels and wild beasts tending to me as I live in ways that matter? How might my life be different this year at the end of Lent so that I may truly understand and celebrate - resurrection?
1 Barbara Brown Taylor, Home by Another Way, p. 69
2 Ibid., p. 70.
3 Brian Blount, The Christian Century, Living the Word, Lent 1B – February 21, 2021.
4 MaryAnn McKibben Dana, ibid.