For me, one of the few really positive experiences of last year’s lockdown, was being part of a little group that met fortnightly on Zoom, from the summer onwards, to read our way through, and reflect on, the whole of St Mark’s Gospel.
Most of us are accustomed to hearing Biblical stories, or passages of scripture, read in separate sections – as Bible readings in church, or as individual passages for Bible study. And so it can be a revelation to encounter an entire Gospel in one sweep, rather than as a series of disconnected episodes, which are often presented in a fairly random order. Because you experience the books of the Bible, particularly the Gospels, very differently when you read them as complete entities.
Indeed, even though I was already very familiar with Mark’s Gospel – after all, I have been studying it, and preaching on it for over thirty years now – working through it systematically last year enabled me to discover all kinds of new dimensions to that fascinating New Testament text.
In our Eucharist this morning we heard a story from the very beginning of St Mark’s Gospel, which describes how, immediately after his Baptism, Jesus was driven by the Spirit out into the wilderness, where he was tempted by Satan for 40 days. There, we are told, he was with the wild beasts and the angels ministered to him.
Now, that is of course, a classic Biblical text with which to mark the start of this season of Lent, when, inspired by the example of Christ, we are invited to undertake our own equivalent of his 40 day sojourn in the wilderness. But my reason for mentioning that story from Mark at this service, is because there is a connection that we might easily overlook that links that episode in St Mark’s Gospel with our Old Testament lesson from Genesis this evening, in which we heard how in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, the first man and first woman created by God, disobeyed him, having been tempted by the serpent to eat the fruit that was forbidden them.
Indeed, I have heard it suggested that the very opening words of St Mark’s Gospel: ‘The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’ – are intended to remind its hearers of the first words of the Book of Genesis: ‘In the beginning …’
You will remember how the Adam and Eve story ends with the unfortunate couple being driven out of the Garden of Eden by God; so I can’t help noticing, by contrast, that in Mark’s Gospel Jesus is driven in to the wilderness. He, like Adam and Eve, also experiences temptation, but unlike them, he does not succumb to it.
But what I find particularly interesting in St Mark’s account is his almost incidental reference to the fact that Jesus was ‘with the wild beasts’ – just as, in the Garden of Eden before the Fall, Adam was ‘at one’ with every living creature. And also that the angels ministered to Jesus in St Mark’s story – his life was wholly supported by God, just as Adam’s had been during his time in Eden.
In other words, St Mark’s account of the temptation of Jesus, does seem to have been deliberately intended to call to mind the story of Adam and Eve – but, absolutely typical of Mark’s Gospel – this is not spelt out in black and white – rather, it is for us to notice and make the connection, and to reflect on what that might imply.
So, what might it mean? The story in Genesis is a classic example of the kind of tale that is characteristic of pre-literate societies, which gives an explanation, in story form, of why the world is as it is. It gives an account of why it is that our beautiful world, created by a good and loving God, is so marred by hardship – and why human beings are such weak and fallible creatures, for whom life can be such a struggle, who somehow manage to make a mess of things even when their intentions are good.
In the Genesis story, there seems no way back into Eden and to the life that was lost, because that episode ends with an image of the cherubim and the flaming sword, placed there to guard the way to the tree of life.
By presenting the story of Jesus in the wilderness as he does, St Mark manages to introduce the extraordinary thought at the very beginning of his Gospel that, just possibly, the story told in Genesis, and the expulsion of the first man and first woman from that first Paradise – apparently leaving no way back for them or for their successors – is perhaps not the end of the story after all.
Which is of course precisely what our second reading this evening, from St Paul’s letter to the Romans, makes explicit. St Paul writes: ‘as by the offence of one, judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.
For Jesus, his sojourn in the wilderness was a time of preparation for the ministry that was yet to unfold for him, leading – bafflingly, perplexingly, and astoundingly – to his sacrificial death and glorious resurrection, through which that hope of restoration was not only made real, but was made accessible to all. But to return to our question – what does that mean for us?
I find it very helpful to be reminded that even though I know all too well that I am far from perfect, both as a human being, and in my Christian discipleship – actually, I do not have to be perfect to be acceptable to God. Because Christ has already walked that path before me, and opened the door of everlasting life for all of us. And with that comes the recognition that the purpose of Lent is not as a kind of competition ground to sort out the saints from the sinners – nor a test of our moral fibre – (let’s face it, the last 12 months have been tough enough as it is, without us having to undergo yet more self-imposed deprivation.) Rather, what Lent calls us to do is to do our very best each day to realign our lives with Christ’s, so that, with the help of God’s grace, we can strive to live a little more like him; to live a life with Christ at its centre. Because that is the path that not only leads us back to God, but also enables us to rediscover anew who we really are as the unique human beings that God calls us to be.
At this time of year, I always find it helpful to be reminded of a wonderful prayer written by the American Cistercian Thomas Merton – which is as disarming in its honesty as it is encouraging in its humanity:
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust you always; though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.