With Wild Beasts and Angels

by the Rev. Paul Nancarrow

This sermon is based on Mark 1:9-15. Click here to listen to an audio version of this sermon. 

“And the Spirit immediately drove Jesus 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.”

That, in its entirety, is Mark’s account of Jesus’ sojourn and temptation in the wilderness, after the Holy Spirit came upon him at his Baptism. That’s it. Two sentences. Five clauses that describe the forty-day experience of Jesus that is the symbolic and devotional foundation of our forty-day experience of Lent. Five clauses that tell us what our Lent ought to be about if we are going to be doing what Jesus is doing.

It’s not much to go on.

Matthew and Luke, in their accounts of Jesus’ temptation, give us a whole lot more: an appearance by Satan, three very specific and very seductive temptations the devil sets before Jesus, and three very firm and very scripturally based refusals that Jesus sets before the devil. Matthew and Luke give us some sort of inkling, some sort of hint, about what sorts of temptations we are to be wrestling with, and what sorts of faithfulness we are to be reaching for, in our Lenten time. Mark doesn’t help us out so much. So today, when we have Mark’s account given to us in the lectionary, we have to dig a little deeper to see how this story speaks to us.

Mark doesn’t give us three discrete temptations; but he does give us two little details that I find really fascinating. They come at the end of the sentence: that Jesus is with the wild beasts, and that angels are serving him.

Jesus is with the wild beasts — and I think that preposition, with, is a key word here. Mark does not say that Jesus is against the wild beasts, not opposing them, not resisting them, not frightened of them — but Mark says that Jesus is with them. It’s as if Jesus and the wild beasts are creating a new sort of relationship, in which the roles of predator and prey, hunter and hunted, victim and victor, will no longer define how they are to get along. In fact, it’s as if Jesus is harking back to the kind of relationship with wild nature that God originally intended, as described in the Creation story. The second chapter of Genesis tells us that God made all the animals to be companions to the human being — not predators or beasts of burden or frightening presences — but companions. In God’s original intention for Creation, what God really wanted was for human nature and wild nature to live together in patterns of relationship based on giving and receiving in generosity and love. Sin marred and disrupted that giving and receiving, and made the wild beasts something frightening and scary to human beings. But Jesus in the wilderness is restoring that relationship, recreating again a way of living in nature with giving and receiving, generosity and love. Jesus is restoring the relationship God wants all human beings, and the whole natural world, to have — because Jesus is with the wild beasts.

And it’s not just the natural world that Jesus is restoring to relationship. Mark says that angels waited on Jesus — and that suggests that there is a supernatural relationship here as well. For Jesus in the wilderness, the angels are no longer transcendent, awesome, so-intense-they’re-kind-of-dangerous presences; but angels wait on him, angels serve his needs, angels look out for him, angels share with him in giving and receiving in generosity and love. And that relationship between humans and the spiritual world is also part of God’s original intention in Creation. The third chapter of Genesis says that God would go walking in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day, at the time of the evening breeze — before the disruption of sin, God wasn’t just way up there in a transcendent heaven, but God came walking along, part of everyday life. Genesis doesn’t say anything about angels visiting Adam and Eve in Eden; but there were stories in the Jewish tradition about how God’s angels watched over the original humans in God’s plan. Ezekiel mentions the “guardian cherub” that accompanied Adam in Eden. There are lots of hints in the Jewish tradition that God originally intended the human creation and the spiritual creation to be in closer contact, closer connection — before the darkness of sin came between them.

Taken all together, I think what these stories are saying in their mythic and symbolic way is that God’s intention for human beings is that we should live in relationships of giving and receiving in generosity and love with the spiritual world, and the human world, and the natural world. That’s what God wants for us. That is what we allow to become disrupted and damaged by the power of sin.

But when Jesus goes out into the wilderness, when Jesus lives with wild beasts and angels, Jesus is restoring those relationships, Jesus is recreating the way God really wants human beings to be, Jesus is beginning again the great mission of being human — and according to Mark, this time, unlike the Genesis time, this time Jesus is doing it right.

And it is that kind of restored relationship into which Jesus invites us now. As we begin our forty days of Lent, in faithful imitation of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, we are invited to be with wild beasts and angels, we are invited to think again about how we relate to nature, and how we relate to each other, and how we relate to the realm of the spirit. We are invited to let the Holy Spirit drive us out of ways of violence and predation and manipulation and greed — we are invited to let the Spirit empower us for ways of serving, giving and receiving, sharing and supporting, letting heaven and earth come together in us, and through us, and around us, to create new possibilities for living God’s love.

So: in your Lenten discipline this year, I invite you to ask how you can join with Jesus in recreating relationships closer to the way God intends them. How can you be with wild beasts and angels, with nature and spirit and humanity, to open up new possibilities for giving and receiving in freedom and grace? Can you use fasting and abstinence and self-denial as an occasion to think about your relationship to the animals and plants we use for food, the whole system of production and consumption that we are all wrapped up in – and how you might make some changes in your consuming habits to bring greater right-relationship and well-being in the world? Can you use prayer and Bible-reading and meditation to think about your relationship to spirits and angels and the Holy Spirit – however you understand them – and how you might make some changes in the way you perceive and respond to the spiritual dimensions of things? Can you use almsgiving and works of mercy and service projects like our Wednesday Lenten program to think about your relationships with the people of our community, and the people closest to you, and to reach out in whatever ways you can do to build up right-relationships of mutual well-being? Can you have that kind of Lent?

In our Gospel today we hear how Jesus was with the wild beasts and angels, to restore the patterns of right relationships God wants for us all. Let it be our prayer today that we may live those right relationships, in this holy season of Lent, and in all our seasons of mission and service and prayer. Amen.