Every year on the first Sunday of Lent we hear about the time Jesus spends in the wilderness. But today’s Gospel moves at breakneck speed and if you blink you may miss those forty days in the wilderness entirely. In a few short sentences Jesus is brought on the scene, baptized, anointed by the Holy Spirit, and driven out into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. He then immediately reemerges 40 days later to proclaim the coming of God’s Kingdom.
Though quite a bit of time passes, 40 days to be exact, we are not given very much information about what actually happens in that time.
The Gospel according to Matthew and Luke spell out the sort of temptations that Satan places before Jesus, but Mark does not let us in on what was said or done by Satan and so we are left wondering just how Satan tormented Jesus.
But there are three things that Mark does tell us. We are told that Satan tempted Jesus, that Jesus was with the wild beasts and that Angels ministered to him. Jesus then comes out of the wilderness, presumably victorious over Satan because he immediately proclaims the kingdom of God.
With so little to go on we know that there is no detail given that isn’t important, and in this short account of Jesus’ time in the wilderness we are shown the nature of Jesus and his relationship both to this world and the next. Throughout the Gospel of Mark we will see these little details of Jesus played out more fully. When Mark places Jesus among the wild beasts of the wilderness he is placing him among all the qualities of wildness as well. Throughout the Gospel Jesus is the wild beast who refuses to be domesticated by conventional religious practices or social norms. Like the wild beasts in the wilderness, Jesus lived free. He would not be caged by Satan or by people. This description of Jesus being with the wild beasts reminds me of Aslan from the Narnia stories written by C.S. Lewis who is described as “Not a tame lion, but he is good.” Jesus too, was certainly good but not tame.
The season of lent is modeled on the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness and during this time we are asked to face temptation, to look in our selves and see how we are letting ourselves be caged, letting ourselves be domesticated by sin. The wilderness is about finding the strength to accept the awesome power of our own free will and not enslaving ourselves to temporary desires, to the riches of this world or to the small comforts that domestication brings.
What do I mean when I talk about Freedom? We generally think of freedom in a couple different ways. We think of freedom in terms of having nothing impinge on our ability to do something, like the freedom of speech. Or we imagine that freedom means not being forced to do anything we don’t want to do where no outside force can control us against our will. There is also freedom which refers to having the means to accomplish our desires, this is freedom given to us by having opportunity or currency by which we can pursue our goals.
But these usual definitions are too small to describe the kind of freedom that we are called to by God. The freedom that Christ lived and showed us in his life was freedom that did not rely on the cooperation of an outside power. The freedom of Christ is not limited by tyranny or economic hardship, but rather when we possess the freedom of Christ we are given the strength to stand up against tyranny, and to cope with economic difficulty. Jesus was still free even when he was taken captive before his death, even on the cross. The freedom that is offered to us in the life of Christ is a spiritual freedom, a freedom to see the world as it is, in all its sinfulness and beauty. The freedom of Christ is a liberated mind and spirit where we are not controlled by our physical wants or fears. It is a liberty exemplified by the life of Christ but is also a liberty that we must constantly strive for as Christians.
I think most people, when asked if they would rather be free or enslaved, they would say they desire freedom. But I also think that most people, myself included, don’t really take into account just how hard freedom really is. Like the Israelites travelling through the wilderness for forty years, when we see how difficult true freedom is, we start to long for the security that being a slave brings. It is amazing how much we are willing to sacrifice for simple comforts and illusions of security.
I point this out because Lent is as good a time as any to take a step back and ask ourselves if we are actually settling for something less than actual freedom. Thomas Merton said in an interview with Forbes magazine “The biggest human temptation is to settle for too little.” God’s love comes freely to us and cannot come apart from true freedom. How often do we settle for too little, how often do we settle for smaller love, love that doesn’t require us to be free? Too often we are bound by fear and like an animal in captivity we have let ourselves become comforted by our chains. We spend too much time being afraid and Fear creates a world of scarcity, not enough food, not enough faith, not enough will. But Jesus, the incarnate God made man, swings wide our cage doors because he is God’s abundance, abundant love, abundant Grace, abundant life.