SJF • Lent 1b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan.+
When the phrase desert war is mentioned, Iraq or Afghanistan likely to come to mind: the memory of past conflicts or the continued battles we see on the newscasts. Before the current conflicts, we saw war in Kuwait with Stormin’ Norman leading a high-tech war fought largely, and swiftly, from the air — not like the current conflict on the ground, in the streets, and in the hearts and minds of the people of Iraq.
For those of us with a few more years on us, however, desert war might conjure up instead names like Montgomery and Rommel. We might envision not high-tech missiles but the tawny tanks of the Afrika Korps, decorated with palm trees and Balkankreuzen — Greek crosses outlined in white. Fascinating that the instruments of the Nazi war machine in North Africa should be emblazoned not with the swastika but with the sign of the cross — adding blasphemy to their infamy.
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For if we go back much, much further, we find the one whose cross is model for all other crosses — the one who by his cross won the greatest war of all, the war for our souls; the war to save the world. That was a real “world war.” If we go back to the times of our Gospel reading, we will find a desert war of far greater antiquity, and of far greater consequence, than either the campaign in North Africa, the lightning-strike war in Kuwait or the long-drawn-out wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. For in the Gospel we come upon the primeval battle of Good against Evil which is the model and prototype all other struggles. We come upon the opening battle of a war which would not end until it came to the Cross.
Here the protagonist is not a Montgomery or a Schwarzkopf, but God’s beloved Son. And although it is tempting, for the antagonist, to dress up Adolph Hitler or Osama bin Laden in red tights, with horns and a pointed tail, in our Gospel reading today we encounter no counterfeit second-rate would-be devil, no mere villain, but the source of all villainy: the fallen angel Satan, the Adversary of all humanity, the enemy of the Old Adam and the New.
We can read histories and see films of the Second World War, we can watch the video coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan on CNN. But Mark, evangelist-reporter for this gospel battle, gives us few details; it’s a bit like the scrolling headlines at the bottom of the screen. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark doesn’t tell us how Satan tempted Jesus, or what the temptations were; only that he tempted him.
But Mark does put his own spin on the account. While Luke and Matthew tell us that the Spirit “led” Jesus into the wilderness, Mark uses stronger language. He tells us the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness; and that doesn’t mean the Spirt was chauffeur! This is not the language of transportation, but the language of compulsion and command, surprising language that tells us surprising things about God, God’s Holy Spirit, and God’s beloved Son. This is no-nonsense language about why God’s Son was born, what he came to do, and how he would go about doing it, as Peter says, “once for all.”
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In today’s epistle Peter gets right to the point, doesn’t he? And it’s the same point Mark is making in his Gospel. Jesus came to save us, to suffer for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God. He was put to death in the flesh but made alive in the Spirit. What Mark recounts is the first sortie, the first battle in a war that would end only with a death upon a green hill far away, outside a city wall, a death that signified not a loss, but the final victory over death. This scene of temptation is the beginning of the greatest war of all, the war in which all of humankind is at stake, and Mark is setting the stage to tell that greatest story ever told.
The Spirit of God, having descended upon Jesus in the River Jordan and equipped him with power and grace, clothing him in righteousness, sends him forth into battle like a general commanding his army. The Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness to face his enemy and ours, the old serpent, Satan.
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Think a bit about this Satan character for a moment — he appears so rarely in the story of salvation, and Mark just barely mentions him in this passage. And yet his role is pivotal — for he is the saboteur who tries to win by stealth — the spy or the terrorist who works on the sly. But don’t let his techniques fool you into thinking he is just a minor character. Satan is the Adversary, the Obstacle, the stumbling-block. Satan has no life in himself; he can’t create anything or accomplish anything; he is powerless to do so since he has cut himself off from the source of all light and life. He cannot create. But he can get in the way.
While the Spirit of God is the source of light and life, the one who gets things going, Satan is the one who tries to bring them to a halt. If the Spirit is the engine, then Satan is the roadblock. Satan is the one who gets in the way, the stumbling-block, the dead weight that opposes and drags down.
Satan is the blocked-up spiritual sink that overflows and makes a mess of your life. Satan is the inner voice that says to a hopeful young person planning for college, “You’ll never make it.” Satan whispers to the woman who’s raised a family and now wants to realize her dreams for a career, “Who do you think you are?” Satan says, “You can’t do it!”
But thanks be to God, the Spirit answers, “With God all things are possible!” Satan may get in the way. But Jesus, driven by the Spirit, compelled by the Spirit of God, can and will plow through Satan’s obstacles, conquer that ancient adversary, and remove the stumbling block on our behalf.
But it isn’t easy. This is a Desert War, not a Desert Picnic. And this first battle in the desert is just the start of a war that will last three years, a war that in fact is still played out in human hearts and souls when we forget that the war was won; the war is over — it ended almost two thousand years ago — Christ was victorious and all we need to do when Satan gets in our way is to remind ourselves of Christ’s victory on our behalf.
Satan has been defeated. He is still alive, if you can call it living But though he may fume and spit and try to spread his poison, his weapons of mass destruction have been destroyed by the one who had the power to conquer him. Satan can have no ultimate power over us, for his greatest weapon, death, has been disarmed: death no longer has its sting, grave has no victory, since we have been assured in Christ of life eternal. Death may hold us for a while, but only for a while, and then we will be set free by the one who conquered sin and death for ever.
And it isn’t just bodily death I’m talking of here — but all those little deaths: those little denials and negativities; the things that put you down and make you feel like less than you are; the powers that diminish and diss you. I recall something C S Lewis said back during the cold war, when everyone was afraid of nuclear war. An interviewer asked him what he thought of the atomic bomb. He said, “If I should happen to meet an atom bomb, I would say, ‘I’m not afraid of you. I am an immortal soul. You are only a bomb!” So too, we are empowered to say to Satan, and all his kin — all his little devils of diminishment and negativity — “Don’t you realize that you were defeated by Christ? That’s what you are, Losers!”
God’s Holy Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan, and Jesus overcame that obstacle in the power of that Holy Spirit. He overcame the opposition of small-minded folk who thought he was claiming too much for himself. He overcame the religious leaders who thought they had God in their pocket. He overcame the Roman Empire that thought it ruled the world but couldn’t even govern itself.
But there is more. Jesus did not simply defeat those who strove with him on earth; he defeated the ancient enemy who rebelled against God in heaven, who fell from heaven — and great was his fall — to squirm and hiss his poison and falsehood into the ears of our first parents — to do harm, yes, but ultimately to see all his harm undone, all his obstacles removed, including his greatest weapon, death.
Jesus overcame Satan in the wilderness and on the cross. He overcame death and the grave, and he gave us the power to overcome sin and death in him and through him. Christ fought for us victoriously on earth, and he rules for us in majesty in heaven, where he sits at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him, having put all things under his feet, including the last enemy, death. Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory in Christ Jesus our Lord.+